The sign on the gate is a macabre prelude: “Please do NOT drop off any carcasses outside the gate. Any and all carcasses without a history of their death or treatment will NOT be accepted!” I envisage rejected bodies piling up as the gate swings open and a smiling young woman waves us in.
Vultures are not popular creatures – associated with death and carrion, they have a bad rap. But, like maggots on corpses, they play a vital role in preventing disease: “Their stomach acid is so strong that they can digest and destroy deadly diseases found in carrion, such as rabies, anthrax, botulism, and tuberculosis,” Charné Wilhelmi, in charge of stakeholder engagement at VulPro, beams back at me.
I’ve come to visit Vulpro – a vulture conservation, rehabilitation and research centre in the Magaliesberg near the Hartebeespoort Dam, to understand why these birds are so threatened and how people can help them.
Threatened by power line collisions and electrocutions, poisoning, ingestion of harmful drugs, climate change, the traditional medicine trade, loss of natural habitat and food sources, vultures are steadily vanishing from our skies. According to the latest assessment of birds carried out by BirdLife International for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, six of Africa’s 11 vulture species are now at a higher risk of extinction.
We walk around a host of fenced enclosures housing over 200 birds. Vultures have a tendency to look shabby and disgruntled with life, rather like grumpy old men, and the birds in the enclosures gather and gossip like villagers on the square.
Some are missing wings, but like war veterans, they get on with it. The disabled still have a vital function – they can’t fly but they can still breed and bring up young in captivity.
VulPro runs a conservation breeding programme with their captive non-releasable population, which allows these birds to contribute to the wild populations. The programme includes pairs of Cape vultures, African white-backed vultures, Lappet-faced vultures, and white-headed Vultures. VulPro is the only breeding facility on the continent committed to releasing offspring to the wild. “The young produced here are raised by their parents, then moved to a release site to acclimatise, and are ultimately released back into the wild,” says vulture expert and founder of Vulpro, Kerri Wolter.
“We currently house over 246 vultures, most of which are non-releasable. Non-releasable vultures that come in for rehabilitation form part of the off-site population and are bred to produce individuals which form part of our pilot release studies.”
The number of vulture breeding pairs in South Africa is alarmingly low and on the decrease. Currently, 11 of 16 vulture species in Africa, Asia and Europe are at risk of extinction in our lifetimes (eight are categorised as Critically Endangered; three are Endangered).
Kerri Wolter CEO and founder of Vulpro, cautions that many of the figures available are just rough estimates. “I don’t think anyone really knows what the breeding statistics are for most of the vulture species. The numbers are plummeting, but some species are very hard to study and this is the issue. What we do know is approximate breeding pair numbers for Cape Vultures, which stands at around 4200 pairs.”
VulPro, focuses on Cape Vultures, because they’re the only species endemic to Southern Africa, followed closely by White Backs. “Both populations have declined by 80% over the past 20 years. If we don’t do anything now, in the next 20 years there will be none,” says Wolter.
“Over the past 11 years, VulPro has rescued more than 734 birds and released 302 vultures.”
“On average we release about half. The others aren’t releasable due to the nature of their injuries. Many come in with severe injuries like broken wings or open wounds. We incorporate the vultures that can’t be released into our off-site breeding programme,” says Wolter.
It’s inspiring and heartbreaking work. For every vulture rehabilitated, several others are found electrocuted, poisoned or injured. Wolter soldiers on, continuously taking in birds, but the stress is immense.
In an effort to decrease the continual loss of birds, VulPro rehabilitates injured vultures with the goal always being to release every able-bodied individual to the wild. “We collect injured or grounded birds from every corner of southern Africa, and train other organisations and individuals in emergency vulture care,” she says.
GPS transmitters are placed on all released birds, and this data then forms part of VulPro research programmes. “We incorporate population monitoring through maintaining a re-sighting database using camera traps, photographs and recordings from the general public, and monitoring wild vulture breeding sites,” says Wolter.
VulPro also runs extensive research programmes covering veterinary, husbandry, breeding biology, spatial movements patterns, morphology, genetics, conservation threats and mitigation, with a host of peer-reviewed scientific articles having been published.
We pass vultures poking into the remains of pigs and other unidentifiable corpses. “We have quite a few farmers around us, especially piggeries, who supply carcasses,” says Wolter. “The medication used with pigs is vulture-safe. Instead of the farmers paying to have the carcases incinerated, they give them to us, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. We go through about 4500 kilograms of meat a month, with the 246 birds with us now. We have two feeding sites, one here and one at our release site, which can feed an additional 200 to 400 birds a day.”
I ask about the Asian practice of feeding human corpses to the birds. “It’s not really viable – besides the law indirectly prohibiting the practice in South Africa, humans inevitably have taken a multitude of drugs, many of which are highly toxic to vultures.”
So, definitely don’t dump your dearly departed at their gate, either.
|About Vulture Species: Vultures occur on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. There are two groups: “Old World” and “New World” vultures. The New World vultures are found in North and South America and the Old World vultures in Africa, Asia and Europe. A big difference between them is that Old World vultures depend on sight to find food, whereas many New World vultures have a very good sense of smell (which is unusual for birds) and can smell dead animals from a distance of up to two kilometers.|
Overview of vulture numbers in Southern Africa:
|Vulture Species||Estimated number of breeding pairs|
|African white-backed vultures
|Bearded vulture (Lammergeyer)
*Information sourced from IUCN and VulPro
The 5 biggest vulture killers:
- Power Lines
VulPro cites power line electrocutions and collisions as the greatest threat to vultures in South Africa. “The power line grid is expansive and often structures are out of date and unsafe for the large birds to perch on. On average, we lose a bird a week to power lines. It could be a mechanical injury where they fly into the lines themselves and they break a wing or leg, or they are electrocuted,” says Wolter.
“Most power lines don’t have flappers (markers) on them to make them more visible, they don’t have the right insulators to prevent electrocutions. We work closely with Eskom, submitting incident reports to them frequently, with suggestions as how to best make these structures bird-safe. We also we make use of GPS tracking data to identify areas of high risk based on proximity to power lines, and prioritise these areas for surveys. Our relationship with Eskom has grown over the years, and they’re making a more marked effort in addressing the issue. We also work with the municipal electricity providers, which has proven more difficult, but we hope that we are able to formulate the same type of relationship with them for the well-being of the species.”
- Livestock drugs
The veterinary drug Diclofenac in particular (Voltaren) caused the deaths of millions of vultures on the Indian subcontinent in the 1990s, where most of that region’s vultures were wiped out when the veterinary drug was given to cattle – it proved lethal to vultures feeding on their carcasses. The population of white-rumped (Gypsbengalensis) vultures in South Asia decreased by about 90%, from 80 million to only several thousand. Veterinary Diclofenac is now banned in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, allowing for vulture populations to slowly stabilise, but they are still nowhere near what they once were. Nine species of vulture can be found living in India, but most are now in danger of extinction.
In some areas of Asia they practise sky burials, where they put out human bodies to be fed on, and some of the dead have been taking a host of medicines lethal to vultures. There was a further domino effect in Asia: when the vulture population collapsed, instead of vultures consuming and getting rid of the carcases, stray dogs consumed them, and this was followed by an outbreak of distemper.
In South Africa, human encroachment with farming and growing human settlement means carcasses from wild animals are scarce. Fortunately, over 250 vulture restaurants have been established across the country, providing food for vulture populations – mostly from pig and cattle farm mortalities. However, the carcasses dumped at these sites have to be strictly managed as livestock are often dosed with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which even in small amounts prove lethal to vultures.
“There’s only one NSAID which is vulture-safe in South Africa,” says Wolter. “Only livestock should receive these drugs. VulPro is encouraging vets in South Africa to use safe drugs and most of the unsafe drugs have been banned, but some of the other medication used on horses is also deadly to vultures. We have to be very thorough with the carcases we receive, and ensure we are given their full treatment history before placing them at our feeding sites.”
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a significant cause of the drop in African vulture populations is indiscriminate poisoning, where the birds are drawn to poisoned baits set by poachers, as the presence of vultures can alert authorities to illegally killed big game carcasses. A single poisoned carcass can kill hundreds of vultures, wiping out an entire colony or local population.
Wolter says that although this threat is real, it is nowhere near as prominent as the threat of power lines, and often too much focus is placed on this issue. There are some elements of direct poisoning, with vultures being sentinels, alerting game wardens to poaching, but most would be indirect poisoning, such as famers poisoning pest animals.”
“There was a vulture-poisoning incident in the Drakensberg a few years ago, but this was out of spite and ignorance. We lost over 80 vultures from that. Lead is another big issue for us – We are working with hunting associations to promote the use of non-leaded ammunition or use a solid than a fragmented round. There’s not much education out there, but we’re trying to raise awareness.”
- Traditional medicine
“Superstitious beliefs are prominent, creating a demand for vulture parts, especially the head (brains, eyes) and feet, in the establishment of luck and forecasting the outcomes of events such as soccer matches and the national lotto. Vultures are sometimes poisoned for this purpose,” says Wolter.
- Habitat loss and climate change
Vultures are increasingly being brought into VulPro for treatment for dehydration, starvation and injuries caused by calcium deficiency. Wolter explains the causes: “Habitat fragmentation and lack of available food sources is resulting in vultures having to range further. With heatwaves and drought increasing from climate change, we are seeing birds being brought in with heat stroke, completely disoriented and as flat as can be.” She says lack of water and food are the prime cause for this “environmental collapse” of the vulture populations. “Many of these birds are being found in areas far out of their range, often in urban areas, extremely dehydrated, and more than likely to have been without food for up to 10 days. Some have come in with broken bones, dislocated joints, bent bones which are sure signs of calcium deficiency. Some we have sadly not been able to pull through. This too has stretched our manpower resources. However, we have a responsibility internationally to safeguard African vultures.”
Supporting vultures through Vulpro:
There are various ways the public can get involved in saving the vultures, ranging from active involvement to offering financial support:
- Get a MySchool card and nominate VulPro as your charity.
- Volunteer at the centre.
- Adopt a vulture.
- Contact VulPro to assess feasibility to establish a vulture artificial feeding site.
- Report all grounded and injured birds. (“We ask that someone always remains with the bird until we arrive,” says Wolter).)
- Report tagged birds (a yellow tag with black numbers), and include a photo, location, and status of the bird if possible.
- Help Vulpro build a vulture hospital to help sick and injured birds
- Donate to the organisation Vulpro is a registered NPC with PBO status, so donations are tax deductible (NPC Reg #: 2011/127419/08, TAX #: 9888/246/15/5, PBO Status: (18A) 930038988). Donations can be made by direct transfer to our bank account: VulPro, Standard Bank, branch code 019205, account #: 242139817, SWIFT: SBZAZAJJ. Please send an email to inform us of any transfer or PayPal donation made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- To find out more about supporting VulPro visit their website, www.vulpro.com