Three years ago I spent a month as a volunteer for Wildlife ACT on uMkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It was a month I will always treasure for a variety of reasons. It was my first experience of Africa, and my first encounter with wild vultures.
The thrill of going on safari is thinking about what you might see. Would I find a pack of African wild dogs? Would I spot the elusive leopard? What about the critically endangered black rhino? These sightings are far from guaranteed, and the potential to fail makes the successes all the sweeter.
But there are other species that you assume you’ll see from the minute you book your trip. Zebra, wildebeest, vultures. Don’t get me wrong, you’re hopping out of your seat with the excitement of finally seeing these species in their natural habitat. But you’ve watched a lot of Animal Planet in your time and you feel you’d be in hard luck not to check these species off your list.
I saw quite a few vultures over the course of that month, but they weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as I anticipated. What about all those documentaries I’d watched over the years? We’ve all seen that typical savannah sequence countless times. A predator kills its prey and it seems that almost instantly the swarms of powerful wings and hooked beaks descend to see what they can grab for themselves. You watch how quickly they arrive on the carcass and think the skies must be full of these impressive birds. How else would they reach the kill so quickly?
One of the many lessons I learned on that first trip to Africa is that vultures are in trouble. But vultures don’t inspire the same following as some of the more cuddly creatures on the endangered species list. Vultures are surrounded by negative connotations. In our literature and in children’s cartoons, they are typically menacing characters. We associate them with death. We dismiss them as ugly. The general public are often disgusted by scavenging species like vultures, but this role in the ecosystem is crucial. They’re the clean up crew. By disposing of carcasses they help prevent the spread of diseases such as rabies, anthrax and tuberculosis to name a few.1
The end of October 2015 saw the launch of BirdLife International’s Love Vultures campaign, after they assessed the conservation status of vultures for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This recent assessment found that six of Africa’s 11 vulture species are at a higher risk of extinction now than when their conservation status was last evaluated.2 Today 90% of reported vulture deaths in Africa are related to poisonings or the traditional medicine trade.1
BirdLife International’s Love Vultures campaign was a rare success story for vultures, which aimed to raise £50,000 (€62,545) for vulture conservation in Africa and surpassed its target comfortably, reaching £69,313 (€86,703) at its close.3 This money will fund a ten year plan to tackle the poisoning epidemic, influence policy and create Vulture Safe Zones.1 But promoting and maintaining awareness and public interest is also a crucial part of this plan.
In January of this year I returned to South Africa, this time for a much longer stay on the opposite side of the country. For now I am privileged to call the Kuruman River Reserve in the Kalahari desert my home. A few days before writing this piece I was lying in the sun when all at once 14 vultures appeared in the sky seemingly out of nowhere. I watched them circling for some time before they split off and disappeared into an abyss of blue sky once more. Presumably, they were white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) which I have seen on this reserve before, and which I saw in uMkhuze when I came to South Africa first. The same species, but in those three short years since I first encountered them they have been uplisted from Endangered to Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. With this in mind, watching those 14 elegant, soaring birds disappear from sight one by one became uncomfortably poignant.
As far as I’m concerned, nothing is more graceful in flight than a vulture. We have punished them simply because they are scavengers, because we decided they are ugly. Anyone who can’t abide the appearance of a vulture on the ground, needs to step back and admire them in the air at least once before they cast their judgement. But be warned, it’s not as easy a sight to find as it used to be. Vulture conservation has reached crisis point. The issues facing these birds go beyond persecution. If we are to reverse these declines and see vulture populations rising again, we need to do more than accept their important niche in ecosystems. We need to show them some of the affection and admiration we shower upon the cute and cuddly animals. It’s easy to find someone who loves pandas or tigers, and find public support for their conservation campaigns. That’s not to take from these campaigns in the slightest, but it’s time to support the less conventionally attractive animals and rally around them too.
It’s time to love vultures.