The bushveld of Mkhuze Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal is one of South Africa’s last strongholds of wild nature. I had joined a small group of biologists on a field trip, spending several days walking through a remote valley.
Early one morning we encountered a horror scene.
We found several dead white-backed vultures hanging upside down from the branches of some thorn trees. The birds’ intestines had been ripped out, left to rot on the ground. Blood was splattered everywhere. Their feet and heads had been chopped off, and were also dangling from the branches. Despite the humidity and heat, goosebumps quickly covered my body.
Fortunately, a potential shoot-out with poachers was avoided as the experienced team leader quickly guided us away from the site.
We returned later with anti-poaching rangers, and the vultures’ bodies and heads had been removed. But the birds’ feet remained. The poachers had been watching us, and while we’d gone looking for help, they had taken what they could and ran.
Like elephants, rhinos and lions, vultures in Africa are in dire straits. And while the charismatic species get all the attention, vultures are largely ignored.
In February this year, more than 110 white-backed vultures were poisoned by poachers in Kruger National Park. In October 2015, 46 were poisoned.
“Consider that there are only 3 000 white-backed vultures in Kruger, and only 7 500 in the whole country” said Andre Botha, manager of Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Bird of Prey program, and the co-chair of the IUCN Vulture Specialist Group.
“The Lowveld of South Africa, including Kruger, is the last place vultures survive in any great numbers in the country. There are far fewer of these vultures than rhinos in Kruger, and if the killing continues at the current rate, they will all be gone by 2034.”
There are eleven vulture species in Africa, and all of them are on a downward spiral to extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded four of these species to critically endangered in October 2015.
“This means that the white-backed vulture, the hooded vulture, the white-headed vulture and the Ruppel’s vulture are all in imminent danger of disappearing forever.”
Across South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, other vulture species are on the way out too. Cape vultures – found only in the region – number about 8 000, lappet-faced vultures about 250, hooded vultures about 200 and white-headed vultures about 160.
“These are cataclysmic figures,” said Botha, who has studied, researched and conserved Southern Africa’s vultures for several years.
“Think about it – there are at most 160 individual white-headed vultures left in the country. It’s tragic, because we know what’s happening, yet most people don’t seem to care about vultures like they do about rhinos or lions.”
Across the rest of Africa, things are no better for these ultimate cruisers of the sky.
Some species of vultures have declined by 70% in the last 30 years. Since the 1980s, 98% of all vultures outside of protected areas in West Africa have disappeared.
In July 2013, more than 600 vultures were found dead at a poisoned elephant carcass in Bwabwata National Park in north-east Namibia.
The steep increase in elephant poaching across Africa has meant bad news for vultures, which can find a carcass within minutes, and will congregate in the sky above the carcass in great numbers.
“Anti-poaching rangers can often be guided to the site of a carcass by the circling of vultures in the sky above” explained Botha. “So as soon as poachers kill an elephant, they will lace the carcass with poison. Within minutes of eating the flesh, the vultures will be dead. This gives poachers enough time to hack off the tusks, which can take up to three hours.”
The widespread use of traditional medicine in Africa also is bad news for vultures. According to some studies, up to four out of five Africans use so-called “muti” to cure ailments, or for other reasons: in the case of vultures, body parts are bought and consumed from traditional healers to improve gambling success and to help see into the future.
“Because vultures are known to have excellent eyesight, and can see long distances, people think they will get some of that power if they eat part of the body.”
Farmers will also set poisoned carcasses to kill predators like leopard, jackal and caracal, but inadvertently wipe out large numbers of vultures in one go. In South Africa, the agricultural pesticide Temik was once used extensively, but was banned in 2014. Now Carbofuran – banned in Kenya, yet widely available elswhere – is now the poacher’s poison of choice in many parts of Africa.
“Poachers are people who have no moral scruples, and will do anything to earn money,” said Botha. “We live in a largely lawless society, and police forces generally don’t consider dead birds as a priority. So unless we change attitudes among consumers, and unless we reduce the demand for vultures quickly, then things won’t get better.”
And while rhinos and lions are iconic species of Africa, vultures are overlooked. Yet they are arguably more important from an ecological and human perspective.
Vultures are the most efficient consumers of dead, rotting flesh in Africa. Up to 70% of carcasses are consumed not by lions, leopards or jackals, but by vultures. The birds’ stomach bacteria can digest rotting meat that would easily kill a human.
These massive birds provide a free service to human society, especially in rural areas, where other scavengers like dogs, rats and jackals tend to stick around and spread disease. On a continent where medical and municipal services are largely lacking, vultures are invaluable.
And the poisoning of carcasses could also end up killing people who consume vulture body parts.
“Traditional healers need to realize that if someone eats a poisoned vulture, that person could easily die,” said Botha. “And they could be liable for homicide.”
Besides their value to Africa’s human society, these birds are some of the most impressive wildlife on the continent. They fly higher than any other bird – a Ruppel’s vulture was hit by an aeroplane at over 11 000 metres, a height where all other birds would have died from lack of oxygen. And they can fly immense distances, covering more than 1 000 kilometres in one flight.
How to make a difference
– Support organisations like Endangered Wildlife Trust (www.ewt.org.za), which work intensively to conserve vulture species in Southern Africa, and educate communities and traditional healers about the negative impacts of poaching.
– Report sightings of birds with research tags, and report any dead birds or the use of poisons, to Andre Botha of Endangered Wildlife Trust (email@example.com or 082-962-5725).
– Speak up for vultures. They are more endangered than rhinos or elephants, and their disappearance from Africa is a very real probability. Don’t be silent on this one.
– Educate those in your community. Much like the consumption of rhino horn in Asia as a cure for flu or cancer, the consumption of vulture body parts in the traditional medicine market is driven by superstition, and has no scientifically-proven benefits.
– Visit the national parks and nature reserves which are home to vultures, take photos and share them with your friends on social media. Vultures are impressive creatures! The best places to see them are Kruger National Park (for white-backed, lappet-faced and hooded vultures), De Hoop Nature Reserve (for Cape vultures) and Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the Drakensberg (for bearded vultures).
Scott Ramsay is a photojournalist focusing on wild places and conservation in Africa. Partners include Cape Union Mart, K-Way and Ford Ranger. For more, go to www.LoveWildAfrica.com.