Vultures in Africa: Declining Populations

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“In the greyness
and drizzle of one despondent
dawn unstirred by harbingers
of sunbreak a vulture
perching high on broken
bones of a dead tree”

-Chinua Achebe

There are 11 different species of vulture in Africa and they clean up 70% of Africa’s’ carrion but sadly, most are now endangered. To put this into perspective, West Africa has lost 90% of its white-backed vultures!

Vultures of Africa Scientific Name Threat
White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus Critically Endangered
Cape Vulture Gyps Coprotheres Endangered
Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes Monachus Critically Endangered
Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos Tracheliotos Endangered
White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps Occipitalis Critically Endangered
Egyptian Vulture Neophron Percnopterus Endangered
Bearded Vulture Gypaetus Barbatus Near Threatened
Griffon Vulture Gyps Fulvus Least Concern
Palm-nut Vulture Gypohierax Angolensis Least Concern
Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps Rueppelli Critically Endangered
Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus Near Threatened

Source: Bird Life International – Saving Africa’s Vultures

Interesting Facts About These Misunderstood Birds

The last 3 decades have seen a 62% decline in the populations of vulture. Their biggest threat, like most other animals, is humans. The relationship between humans and vultures is volatile. Some farmers intentionally kill these scavengers. Farmers sometimes lace their livestock carcasses with poison intended to kill the scavengers which feed off of it. Other human-wildlife conflict may come from cultural practices and beliefs. Cultures across the globe use wild animals for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Some practices surrounding these birds include ceremonies where their bones are used. Talons are used to treat fevers and creating medicines, to give people metaphysical powers. It is believed vultures are lured to poisoned meat, that is left out by these groups of people.

Vultures are known for their size and wing-span. Because of these traits, they struggle to get airborne. In fact, you will seldom see them circling the sky before the sun is up and the conditions are favorable for flight. In the morning, vultures will sit and wait for the first air currents. This is when they will launch themselves into the sky. But on a still day you may not see vultures flying at all!

But what about their wings? The muscle arrangement of a vulture’s wing is very unique. This allows them to keep their wings extended in the soaring position for long periods of time. If a vulture were to constantly flap its wing, it would mean that their foraging range would only be about 40 km. With their specially adapted muscle arrangement, they can soar for around 150 km. This will give you plenty of time to snap a shot of these creatures.

Did You Know Vultures Are Scavengers?

This means they feed mainly on the fresh carcasses. When you see vultures circling and dropping to the ground at a fast rate this means they have spotted a kill. As a guide, is very helpful as you can be sure there is a kill and potentially a predator in that area. With a larger kill you may see multiple species of vultures feeding on the animal. The lappet face and white backed vultures have a powerful large beak. This enables them to open up the carcass, which the smaller hooded vulture cannot do. Because of this they try to get to the kill first. To beat the larger vultures, they fed on the fleshier parts of the animal before they arrive. They normally then go and sit on the lower branches of a tree, waiting for bits and pieces of meat to be flung outside of the feeding area.

By feeding on carrion, vultures are in fact protecting other wildlife from the spread of disease. They have very strong stomach acid, which allows them to feed on carcasses infected with anthrax and rabies. Both of which are lethal to other scavengers like hyenas.

There is much more to these creatures than meets the eye. Vultures are anatomically phenomenal, they form an integral part in cleaning up our biosphere and are at the heart of prevention of the spread of disease.

Want to photograph some of Africa’s endangered vultures? Check out our Wildlife Photography Projects!

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