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Vulture culture

3 min read

Updated 23 June 2024

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Picture of Mike Unwin

By Mike Unwin

Freelance Writer
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*A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2024 Bush Telegraph newsletter. You can read our recent newsletters and sign-up to receive these in your inbox on our Bush Telegraph newsletter page.

‘Dirty’, ‘ugly’, ‘disgusting’: vultures seldom get a good press. Our distaste for these big, feathered scavengers no doubt reflects our squeamishness around death and decomposition – reinforced, perhaps, by time-honoured Disney-style stereotypes. Whatever the reason, vultures seldom make anybody’s safari must-see list. In fact, the moment they start dropping from the sky is often the moment your safari guide turns the ignition and pulls away.

This is a great shame. Vultures are fascinating birds that reward our attention and deserve our respect. They have evolved a unique suite of adaptations for locating and processing food, from their amazing powers of flight and eyesight to their powerful stomach acids. What’s more, they mate for life, make devoted parents, can live for 40 years and bathe daily.

To ecologists, meanwhile, vultures are keystone ecological species, essential to cleaning up waste, preventing disease and recycling nutrients. Remove them, and food webs break down, with profound consequences across entire ecosystems. We humans are part of these ecosystems.

Today, sadly, vultures are in trouble. Of Africa’s 11 species, seven have declined by more than 80% over the last 50 years, with three (white-headed, Rüppell’s and hooded) now listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered. Visit any of African’s major conservation areas today – from the Serengeti to Kruger – and you’ll see only a fraction of the vulture numbers you’d have expected just two decades ago.

This decline partly reflects habitat loss: vultures are losing the undisturbed sites they require for breeding, and running out of food as farming and development replace the wild bush where carcasses were once plentiful. But it also reflects more specific threats. A belief among some rural communities in the clairvoyance powers of vultures continues to drive the killing of the birds for their body parts, used in traditional muthi medicine. Vultures are also increasingly targeted by poachers, who poison carcasses to kill the birds and thus prevent the sight of the circling scavengers alerting the wildlife authorities. Even when farmers set out poisoned bait for jackals and other predators, it invariably ends up killing vultures.

Poison is especially devastating because vultures feed in such large groups. One shocking 2019 incident in Botswana saw 468 white-backed vultures, 28 hooded vultures, 17 white-headed vultures, 14 lappet-faced vultures and 10 Cape vultures – 537 vultures in total – found dead near the carcasses of three elephants laced with poison.

Thankfully, some far-sighted safari operators are doing their bit. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, in Zimbabwe, now operates a ‘vulture restaurant’, where piles of kitchen scraps and bones are dumped in a clearing to supplement the birds’ natural diet. By noon every day, as guests assemble at a viewing platform, the birds are already circling. And as lunch is distributed from a wheelbarrow, they swoop down to pile into the feast. Within minutes there may be more than a hundred – mostly white-backed – vultures bickering over the spoils, often with a few smaller hooded vultures. As visitors marvel at the spectacle, local vulture champion Cossam Ncube explains the importance of these birds and their conservation.

So perhaps it’s time we learned to love vultures. And if your next safari takes you to Victoria Falls, why not visit the vulture restaurant? Lunch may never seem the same again.

Thinking of visiting Victoria Falls and Zimbabwe? Why not add a stop to see the vulture restaurant at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge as part of our 8 day Klipspringer Safari, or contact us to chat about all the options for what to see and do on a safari to Zimbabwe.


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