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The race to save Africa's vultures

By Harriet Constable

Eight of Africa’s vulture species have declined by an average of 62 per cent in the past 30 years, for some species that number is as high as 80 per cent; the threats facing these creatures are extensive.

It’s just before 1pm and hungry guests are starting to emerge out onto the wooden decking at the back of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe. A few have already settled in for lunch, sipping beer and delving into their sandwiches and salads in the sunshine. At the waterhole below, a few warthogs can be seen trotting around, stopping every now and then to munch some grass. It’s a normal setting - until you look up. Overhead, the sky is filled with several hundred vultures, swooping in giant concentric circles.

Hundreds of vultures circle the sky an hour before feeding © Harriet Constable
Hundreds of vultures circle the sky an hour before feeding © Harriet Constable

They too have arrived for their midday snack. Every day the team at this hotel places last night’s leftover meat out for the vultures to eat. They call it the ‘Vulture Restaurant’ and it’s a vital part of protecting these birds, who have become some of the most endangered species in Africa.

A 2015 report by Darcy Ogada of The Peregrine Fund, a US-based conservation organisation focusing on endangered birds of prey, shows that eight of Africa’s vulture species have declined by an average of 62 per cent in the past 30 years, for some species that number is as high as 80 per cent. The threats facing these creatures are extensive, from habitat loss to being killed for spiritual reasons. In some cultures it is believed that sleeping with a vulture head under your pillow will allow you to see into the future.

In Zimbabwe, where poaching of elephants and rhinos is a major issue, poisoning posts a significant threat to the birds. “[In recent years] poachers have realised they can use poison to kill animals. It’s effective because it’s silent and therefore doesn’t attract much attention. When the vultures eat the carcasses they die too,” says Roger Parry, Wildlife Manager at Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, a not-for-profit organisation in Zimbabwe. Knowing that circling vultures can attract the attention of the park rangers, poachers will sometimes even poison an entire water source, to kill the vultures in advance.

Knowing that vultures can attract the attention of the park rangers, poachers will sometimes even poison an entire water source, to kill the vultures in advance © Harriet Constable
Knowing that vultures can attract the attention of the park rangers, poachers will sometimes even poison an entire water source, to kill the vultures in advance © Harriet Constable

Of all scavenger species, poisoned carcasses pose a particular threat to vultures because they are social creatures and eat in large groups (known as a wake) of up to 100. In 2013, 500 vultures were killed after feeding on the carcass of a poisoned elephant in Namibia, and in May 2017, 94 critically endangered African White Backed Vultures were found dead on the Zimbabwe/Mozambique border, killed the same way.

Vultures are social creatures and eat in large groups © Harriet Constable
Vultures are social creatures and eat in large groups © Harriet Constable

Human-wildlife conflict also plays a part in the plight of vultures in Zimbabwe and beyond. “We get massive losses [of vultures] through predators killing local’s livestock. The community then puts out poisoned bait to kill the predators, vultures eat the dead predator and die too,” says Parry.

The Vulture Restaurant initiative is part feeding programme, part education programme. By attracting the birds to the Vulture Restaurant every day the team can ensure they’re regularly getting a safe meal, and while the birds are there they can educate tourists from all over the world about these creatures, increasing awareness and support for the cause in the process.

By attracting the birds to the Vulture Restaurant the team can ensure they’re regularly getting a safe meal © Lindsay Constable
By attracting the birds to the Vulture Restaurant the team can ensure they’re regularly getting a safe meal © Lindsay Constable

Back at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge the vultures sense that their meal is about to be served and the huge birds begin to swoop down from the skies and settle in the trees. Their broad, strong wings are perfect for gliding through the sky with minimal effort, but coming in to land is less elegant. One by one they slam into the branches with some force, taking a moment or two to compose themselves and get their feathers back in place. There are no tablecloths or sunshades here, just an open patch of ground that marks Vulture Restaurant HQ, with tiered seating in front of it for guests to watch.

The vulture experience at Victoria Falls has grown in popularity and is now packed every day © Lindsay Constable
The vulture experience at Victoria Falls has grown in popularity and is now packed every day © Lindsay Constable

Although most tourists come to this part of the world to visit the astounding sight of 5 million cubic metres of water crashing down at Victoria Falls every minute, the vulture experience has grown in popularity and is now packed every day. “We have days where we have to limit the number of people going down [to the viewing area] because it gets so busy,” says Ross Kennedy, CEO of Africa Albida Tourism, which runs the lodge.

‘Lunch’ is served by Wildlife Supervisor Moses Garira who sees himself as something of a vulture daddy-figure. He has the unenviable task of wandering out into the middle of the clearing with a cool-box full of meat, dropping the contents onto the ground and running for his life as the 200-odd vultures swoop in for their feeding frenzy. It’s a remarkable scene as the mob of huge birds crash and pounce on top of one another, screeching and squaking as they clamber in and fight over the meat, ripping away at muscle with ease. No one, surely, would volunteer for this role, but Garira rather enjoys it. “It feels great to be so close to the birds, I feel like I am part of them – it’s not scary at all,” he says, earnestly. Back in the safety of the viewing seats, he spends the next 15 minutes or so telling the onlookers about the importance of vultures to human health, and why we need to protect them.

‘Lunch’ is served by Wildlife Supervisor Moses Garira who sees himself as something of a vulture daddy-figure © Harriet Constable
‘Lunch’ is served by Wildlife Supervisor Moses Garira who sees himself as something of a vulture daddy-figure © Harriet Constable

Often considered to be creepy, disgusting creatures mainly because of their scavenger tendencies, it turns out humans have got it all wrong when it comes to vultures. “Part of the educational challenge is to get people to realise these birds are not horrible - they are extremely important. They’re beautiful birds, and they are hugely important in terms of their role cleaning up the dead carcasses in the bush,” says Parry. Notably, they’re safely able to digest nasty bacteria like Anthrax, where other scavengers are not. Without vultures, there’d be a lot more disease in the world.

But will the vulture restaurant actually be able to make a significant difference to the plight of vultures in Zimbabwe? Kerri Wolter, CEO of Vulpro, a South African vulture conservation organisation, believes it can play an important part when teamed with other solutions like government funding for conservation and harsher penalties for killing vultures. Improving the general public’s awareness and support is a big part of the battle, and the vulture restaurant achieves this. “If we are going to win, we have to get people to like vultures,” she says.

By Harriet Constable
Featured image by IVANVIEITO/Getty

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