Requiem for the vultures

2013-08-07 00:00

RECENTLY, I became a victim of a senseless slaughter. Last week, my farmer husband and I heard that 48 vultures were found poisoned on a farm in Swartberg. Many more might have died. We were shocked and horrified. For as long as I can remember, vultures have been a silent backdrop to the landscape of my life.

I grew up on the farm Willowdale, outside Kok­stad in East Griqualand. From the hilltop behind our farmhouse, we looked out over the panorama of hills and vales that sweep towards Swartberg. The Drakensberg lies on the horizon.

My father farmed cattle and sheep, and they required constant vigilance to protect them from disease. Stockmen rode out every day on horseback to look out for signs of ailing animals. Infectious diseases can spread incredibly quickly if sick animals are not seen early and treated. Sometimes, the stockmen would miss the first subtle signs of illness, and an animal died.

So we came to rely on vultures as a second warning system that disease might be threatening the herds. Circling vultures were a sign that an animal may have died. Idlanga — the stockmen would point at the aerial vortex of dark spots in the sky — vultures. The race would be on to find the carcass and do an autopsy. There was little time. Once the call went out that there was food to be had, vultures would descend like a flash mob. The carcass would soon be devoured. If we were quick, we might find the carcass while there was still enough evidence to diagnose the cause of death. If it was an infectious disease, we could inoculate the herd.

We valued the vultures as undertakers. A dead cow has a hefty body to bury and can carry diseases. Vultures easily disposed of the carcass, and saved us much digging. When an animal died, we dragged the carcass onto the hillside behind the farmhouse. This became an occasional vulture restaurant.

Sometimes, we watched the vultures feasting. When they had finished gorging themselves, they sat around for a while, digesting their meal. Then they hobbled to the edge of the hillside, did a short clumsy run-up, wings flapping heavily, and launched themselves into the air. They seemed too heavy to fly. Then they found the hot-air thermals that rose from the valley and instantly transformed into majestic cloud riders, effortlessly soaring the thermals. As suddenly as they came, they vanished.

No one is sure exactly when vultures took to roosting on the power pylons behind Willowdale farmhouse. One day, we noticed there were a few, then more and more came until every pylon was a roost for a vulture or two. It became a family custom for us to go, on occasion, up the hillside at sunset to celebrate the view, contemplate the blessings of our lives, and look at the vultures.

The last time I visited the vultures’ restaurant hill was for a private requiem for my oldest sister, who died from cancer on Easter Sunday. After her burial, close family climbed the hill at sunset to drink a toast to her life. As we watched the sun set over the Berg, the vultures sat silently on their pylon perches a little distance behind us. Somehow their enduring, timeless presence was comforting in the sad twilight of that setting sun. “We know a lot about death,” they seemed to say, “but life is precious and goes on.”

When we heard about the poisoned vultures, my husband, who now runs Willowdale, went to see his farm manager there. The manager can’t be absolutely sure as vultures are free spirits that come and go, but he thinks the number of vultures roosting on the pylons seems much reduced. We are angry, upset and frustrated at this senseless slaughter.

I think about the laws designed to protect private property and personal reputations. These laws allow individuals to sue for loss and compensation from people who damage property or damage our reputations. But what laws compensate us for the loss of the natural commons? Those things that do not belong to anyone, but are a part of all our common human and natural heritage. Things like healthy environments, vultures and rhinos.

Perhaps this lack creates a world that is much more careless of the commons than it should be. Perhaps, because we lack laws that compensate for loss of the commons, we all become victims of those greedy, or stupid, or malicious, or ignorant, or careless people who can poison 48 endangered vultures, and so deprive humanity of the enjoyment and blessings of our natural heritage. Time is running out for vultures. Will the world care enough to take action before the last vulture dies?

Some vulture facts

• South Africa has nine species of vulture. Seven of these are at risk of extinction because of human activities.

• Vultures can fly 100 km or more each day searching for food.

• Vultures have extremely strong stomach acid. This allows them to digest carcasses that carry dangerous diseases that would be fatal to other animals.

• Some veterinary medicines, such as Diclofenac, are poisonous to vultures. The carcasses of animals dosed with these drugs should never be left in the open.

• Val Payn is a freelance writer and organic gardener. She has a philosophy degree in sustainable development planning and management.

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