19 Feb 2018
Vulture (Aegypius Monachus)
Vultures are part of the accipitridae family and are extremely important members of an ecosystem. Vultures fly in from huge distances to pick rotting carcasses clean thereby helping to control disease outbreaks. These magnificent birds essentially allow us to measure the functioning and health of an ecosystem. Many vulture species are now only abundant within protected nature reserves and these characteristic sightings are becoming more and more of a luxury.
Wildlife ACT’s Work with Vultures
- Focusing on the three tree-nesting vulture species found in KwaZulu-Natal, namely: the African White-backed Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture and White-headed Vulture, Wildlife ACT is working with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the Endangered Wildlife Trust to conduct an annual Vulture Tagging Project in Zululand. The project includes taking DNA samples, wing-tagging and fitting GPS units to vultures to help understand flight paths, foraging areas, roosting spots and survival rates, and facilitates ongoing monitoring of vulture performance to better secure and protect the areas that these birds utilize.
- Educating and creating awareness among local farmers and communities living near protected areas, as well as the wider public, also forms a huge part of this work.
- Information about the extent of traditional use of vulture parts is sorely lacking, so research and investigations are required to help inform and implement demand reduction campaigns.
One of the vulture conservation goals is to fine-scale vulture movement patterns of the various species breeding in the province by deploying GPS units to both adults and fledglings. We are hoping to identify trends based on these movements to help conservation management better protect these endangered birds.
Of the 7 vulture species that occur in South Africa, all are either endangered, or critically endangered.
White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis): Critically Endangered
White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus): Critically Endangered
Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos): Endangered
White-Headed Vulture: An estimate of 7,000-12,500 mature individuals was extrapolated from a number of regional estimates. This equates to 10,500-18,750 individuals in total. However, a new estimate of the global population suggests the population is much smaller, consisting of just 5,500 individuals (Murn et al. in prep.)
White-Backed Vulture: The most recently published data on this species’s population suggests the species has declined extremely rapidly, with a median estimate of 90% (range: 75-95%) over three generations (55 years) (Ogada et al. 2015).
Lappet-Faced Vulture: The African population is at least 8,000 individuals and there may be 500 in the Middle East. This gives a total population of only 8,500 individuals.
Vultures throughout southern Africa are specifically targeted for traditional medicinal purposes in the muthi trade as well as for meat. Poachers catch vultures by poisoning animal carcasses, which can wipe out huge numbers at once. There has been a 70% decline of breeding pairs since 2004 as a result.
Many cultures also have superstitions about vultures, such as the birds being harbingers of death, or mistaken beliefs that vultures are a threat to healthy livestock, and in many areas vultures are still illegally hunted or driven away from food sources. Accidental poisoning is another issue, as some medicinal drugs used to treat livestock are fatally toxic to vultures. The birds may also be poached as trophies or for illegal feather trading. In addition, due to their wide wingspans, vultures are susceptible to being electrocuted by power lines.
Vulture Profiles (Juveniles)
AFRICAN WHITE-BACKED VULTURE
- Home Range: 70 000 to 107 000 km2
- Distance from Nest: 530 km
- Highest Altitude: 1610 m
- Top Speed: 106 km/h
- Average Speed: 41 km
- Home Range: 30 000 to 90 000 km2
- Distance from Nest: 494 km
- Highest Altitude: 1194 m
- Top Speed: 76 km/h
- Average Speed: 39 km
- Average Wingspan: 9 feet
AFRICAN WHITE-HEADED VULTURE
- Home Range: 2 000 to 3 000 km2
- Distance from Nest: 62 km
- Highest Altitude: 1194 m
- Wingspan: 230 cm
Interesting Vulture Facts
- Vultures have fantastic vision. A soaring vulture can spot a 3 foot animal carcass from 4 miles away
- A world without vultures would be a foul-smelling place filled with disease and rotting carcasses
- Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that contains special acids that will dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria
- There are 23 species of vulture with 16 of these found in Africa
- Vultures can eat up to 20% of their own body weight in one sitting
- A group of vultures is called a venue, and when circling the air, a group of vultures is called a kettle
- Vultures have bald heads and often bare necks so that when they feed on rotting carcasses, bacteria and other parasites cannot burrow into their feathers to cause infection. Any left over germs are baked off by the sun
- Most vulture species mate for life