Nature’s clean-up crew

Nature’s clean-up crew

The Cape Griffon with its beautiful hazel-coloured eyes.

Have you ever considered what our wonderful wilderness would look like (or smell like!) without the scavengers? When one discusses this subject, top of mind is usually animals such as the hyaena. In truth, there is another vital component to the food chain, and that is the vultures.

Also known as Kolbe’s Vulture, the Cape Vulture or Cape Griffon (Gyps coprotheres) is Africa’s heaviest species of vulture, weighing in at between seven and eleven kilograms. Body length can reach 115cm, and their wingspan can be up to 2.6m! They can eat about one kilogram of food in only two to three minutes (a necessary adaptation as they are regularly chased off the carcass by larger predators).

It is an Old World vulture in the family Accipitridae, endemic to southern Africa, and can be found mainly in South Africa and Botswana, with lesser numbers occurring in Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. This species has a small population that is currently experiencing rapid declines, and as such they are listed as “Vulnerable”. They were originally listed as “Endangered” in 2015, but down-listed to “Vulnerable” in 2021, as some populations are increasing and have been stable since around 2016. They have an estimated wild population of only approximately 8,100. Reaching sexual maturity no earlier than five years old, their average lifespan in the wild is estimated to be between 50 to 70 years!

“This way, madame…” ?. A long stretch to keep the limbs agile.

This bird mates for life, nesting on the ledges of high cliffs faces – where they build their shallow stick nests that are lined with a thick layer of soft grass and leaves. They lay one egg per year, and both the male and the female spend about 56 days incubating their egg. When it emerges, the hatchling is covered in white down. Both parents care for the chick, and whilst they grow quickly, they will remain in the parents’ care up to several months after they fly from the nest. So, as you can see, it takes a lot of energy and effort for these birds to raise a single chick. Once they are finally able to survive alone, the young will congregate in ‘nursery areas’ away from the core breeding area.

These birds will eat pretty much anything, as long as it’s dead. Where their natural food is not available, they will resort to eating dead livestock. There are organisms in dead and decaying carcasses that can be dangerous to humans and the environment. Vultures are part of the team that cleans this all up. In fact, it is said that 100 of these birds can strip a 100lb carcass in three minutes. This assists in containing the spread of diseases, but also, on occasion, assists with their demise. 

The rare Egyptian Vulture, preening.

The Cape Griffon spends much of Its time soaring over the savannah in search of food. They feed off of carrion, usually nothing smaller than an antelope. To locate their meals (using only sight), they mostly rely upon scavengers such as jackals, hyenas, other vultures and even dogs. Whilst soaring high in the sky on thermals, they scan the earth below, looking for these animals. Once located, they will drop down to investigate. At a kill, there is a pecking order with the strongest dominating, and vultures are often the last to eat. That said, the Cape Griffon will generally dominate all other vultures, even when outnumbered…

Once they are finished with their meal, it is time to clean themselves up. They are fastidious animals and spend a large amount of time getting clean. They will often spend many hours around waterholes in the afternoons, bathing and then just generally lounging about. It’s important for all birds to keep their feathers neat and well-groomed, so they use their beaks to preen their feathers. Vultures have very few feathers on their heads. This is an adaptation – when feeding, they often need to put their heads deep into the cavities of carcasses. If particles of meat got deep into the feathers, they could cause bacteria to grow. The (nearly) bald head of the vulture thus assists in keeping the bird healthy.

A “Committee of Vultures” resting up in a tree in the Madikwe Game Reserve.

It is their feeding habits that often pose the largest threats to vultures. Their numbers are dropping rapidly due to poisoning. The first issue is a carbamate pesticide called Carbofuran or Furadan. It is put down by farmers to poison predators like lions and hyaena and to stop them from preying on their livestock. When, for example, Furadan is sprinkled on a dead cow, it kills not only the target species, but also the vultures, tawny eagles, bateleurs, storks and even the jackals. The second issue originates with poachers. They poison the carcass specifically for vultures, as their presence alerts the authorities to the incident.

The Cape Griffon is also facing other threats, including collisions with and electrocutions on power lines, significant damage by wind turbines, habitat loss and food shortages. A more macabre threat is where vultures are being killed and used for “muti” (body parts used in traditional medicine). The bird is believed to have “clairvoyant” abilities (as a result of their ability to find carcasses straight after the death of an animal). As such, their brains are consumed by individuals seeking clairvoyant power…To top it all off, they are also drowning in farm reservoirs, which they have no way of getting out of once they’re in.

Because… appearance is everything!! More seriously, preening keeps these birds healthy and able to fly.

I share these sad stories reluctantly, as my preference is always to focus on the positive. But, in this case, they are important – showcasing the many obstacles these birds face, and why it is important to help them wherever possible. If you choose to visit the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre previously featured in this newsletter, you will have the opportunity to see these birds up close (which is where most of these photos were taken). All their birds are rescues, unable to survive on their own in the wild. One of their heart-warming success stories is how two of their captive birds bred and raised their youngster who is now flying free in the Magaliesberg. 

And before we end off, let’s have a little fun with the English language. What is the collective noun for vultures? Well, you’d be mistaken if you thought there was only one for these interesting birds. A colony of vultures refers to them as a group in their breeding spot. A committee of vultures would be found resting in a tree, whilst a kettle of vultures can be found circling in the sky. A group of vultures feeding at a carcass? Why, a ‘wake’ of course!!

Take the time to watch these birds closely when next you encounter them – they really are quite special!

And that, people, (as they say in the movies), is a wrap! Over and out…

#vultures #capevulture #capegriffonvulture #annvandykcheetahcentre

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Munir Virani’s TED Talk: “Why I Love Vultures”:

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