Magnificent but misunderstood

2014-08-06 00:00

WHILE vultures can hardly be described as birds that frequent our concrete jungles, those living in some of KwaZulu-Natal’s smaller centres, such as Underberg and Port Edward, may be fairly well-acquainted with them and regularly spot them flying overhead.

Although a number of species may be seen in KwaZulu-Natal, the most commonly sighted is the Cape Vulture — the largest bird of its kind in Africa. I want to devote this article to vultures as I consider these birds to be magnificent creatures that are all too often misunderstood and deserve our every conservation effort.

Although vultures are not commonly encountered, there are a number of places where local conservationists encourage them by providing “restaurants” that attract the birds in fairly large numbers. For example, there are local farmers in the Underberg area who dump animal carcasses regularly at specific sites, thus providing vultures and other scavenging animals with food. In this developed world of ours where domesticated animals, which are usually buried when they die, greatly outnumber wild ones, it is not surprising that vultures find it hard to make a living without the help of conservationists.

When visiting the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary near Camperdown (website, one not only gets a chance to see these birds up close, but you are informed of the many misconceptions surrounding them. While a few die as a result of flying into overhead power lines where they get electrocuted, many are inadvertently poisoned by farmers who place poisoned carcasses in the veld to attract and kill predators like leopards and jackals. Unfortunately, many vultures are also actively sought out and slaughtered by people interested in obtaining and selling indigenous medicine (muthi) for a variety of medical conditions, and indeed for acquiring special powers. The fact that a vulture has incredible eyesight and can home in on the carcass of a dead animal over incredible distances has somehow persuaded people to smoke dried vulture brains so that they can gain the insight necessary to win the Lotto. Clearly, there is an important message here for all of us — we need to educate people such that misconceptions are eliminated and creatures like our magnificent vultures gain the protection they deserve. Unfortunately, many people perceive vultures to be dirty, ugly birds and view them with some disdain. This is almost certainly a consequence of their feeding habits. The fact is that they are very well-designed for the important niche that they fill. If it wasn’t for creatures that have evolved to utilise dead bodies, we would be knee-deep in decaying matter and holding our noses.

Interestingly, there are some vultures with rather different feeding habits from that commonly associated with these birds. The Bearded Vulture (Lammergeier), found in the Drakensberg mountains, specialises in bone and marrow, which constitutes 70% of its diet. In this way, it reduces the competition it would otherwise have with flesh-eating species. When a carcass has been stripped of flesh and only the bones remain, this vulture steps in and completes the clean-up job. Then we have the more distantly related and rather attractive Palm Nut Vulture, which feeds mainly on the oily fruits of palm trees. The KwaZulu-Natal population of Palm Nut Vultures is confined to the Kozi Bay region, but is also to be found in the vicinity of Mtunzini where its host plant, the raphia palm, was introduced many years ago.

As South Africans, we should never underestimate the value of our incredible biodiversity. We should see that every child is properly informed on the value of our natural heritage. Fortunately we have wonderful museums in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, as well as resources provided by our many nature reserves. If you have not seen a vulture feeding, take a drive to the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary, where their caged birds are fed every day to the wonder of their many visitors.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jason Please do not send large attachments.

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