Kelbe Photography

Life In A Blink Of An Eye



I always have enjoyed Ghanzi despite little time spent there. Maybe it is because it represents the height of luxury after 2 weeks with nothing in CKR. Still it is a small busy friendly town with great biltong and San art. We are heading north but decide to overnight at Thakadu lodge about 4 km south of town. It is a small dry reserve with rutted roads but there is a floodlit waterhole by the bar and restaurant and eland, zebra, wildebeests stroll in and out all day. Also the queleas were flying in big flocks around the water which beckoned a few hours happy chasing. Well it was an overnight cold beer stop until we saw the brochures. They had installed a vulture hide, the first and only vulture hide in Botswana. Surely that was worth a visit and we decided to stay.

Vultures fascinate us. Their natural role is so precise and niched and for such a fearsome bird they are very very wary making any approach difficult. We saw many in Mabua but any attempt to approach within 100m and they flew. On the whole our experience in the last 5 years is that they are less common than before and more difficult to approach. There are certainly many stories of both accidental and intended poisoning by farmers and poachers.

A group of vultures is known as a wake, venue, committee or volt and vultures in flight is called a kettle. What is one vulture called? It is called the future if we don't do something about the current crisis. Read on and see……

Vultures: the Desparate Facts


According to a scientific paper released in 2016 vultures have suffered the greatest decline of all bird species in the last 10 years and 16 of 22 species are on the endangered list, 6 critical. This extinction risk particularly targets our old world vultures because of their larger size, slower reproduction and maturation and their dependency on keen eyesight to locate food means that they locate large mammal carcasses and display social foraging where dozens or hundreds of birds may forage on one carcass. In 2013 a single poisoned elephant carcass in Namibia caused the death of 600 birds. In contrast the new world vultures are smaller, mature more quickly with shorter breeding cycles and larger clutch sizes and use smell rather than sight to locate prey on the forest floor and so targeting smaller mammal carcasses with less birds foraging on a single carcass limits the damage one poisoned carcass can cause. The most threatened vultures include our white backed, white headed, hooded and Ruppells vultures while the lapet and cape vultures are endangered and the bearded near threatened. This represents a decline of 70-80% in population in 3 generations.


In South Asia a decline in vulture population of more than 99% between 1992 and 2007 was firmly linked to the use of a drug we are all familiar with, Diclofenac ( Voltaren ) in stock animals on which the vultures fed. Diclofenac causes kidney failure and due to the extreme lethality of the drug in vultures and the social foraging only 0.8% of carcasses needed to be contaminated with Diclofenac to account for this decline. The banning of Diclofenac in veterinary practice has led to a stabilisation of the crashing vulture populations in Asia and India. It is of interest to note this drug is equally lethal to big cats and for this reason is not used in wildlife practice in South Africa either. In Africa much of the poisoning is a by product of the deliberate poisoning of mammalian carnivores such as lion, hyena and jackal to avenge livestock losses. With the recent escalation of poaching there is also intentional poisoning of vultures to prevent their indicating a recent kill which might otherwise alert authorities to the crime. Insecticides pesticides and strychnine are commonly used.

The loss of the vulture population causes widespread repercussions. They are an important factor in the clean up and recycling of carrion and play a major role in locating carrion. We are all familiar with the iconic kettle of vultures circling over a kill. Before their decline in Serengeti it was estimated they ate more meat than all the mammalian carnivores combined. Without them carrion remains around longer, other scavenger populations increase out of balance and disease spreads. Carcasses provide a reservoir and vector for many diseases including Ebola, plague, anthrax, rabies etc. An example of this followed the vulture crash in Asia which led to an increase in the feral dog population by 7 million which in turn led to 39 million dog bites and 48000 rabies mortalities in India. Vultures have highly acidic stomachs with a pH as low as 1 which kills most viruses and bacteria ingested.

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The vulture crash in Asia even led to a religious crisis among the Parsis, a sect practicing 'sky burial' where the deceased body is left out for vultures to consume. With no vultures there is no method of corpse disposal harmonious with their beliefs. The functional extinction of vultures will clearly resound with a cascade of negative consequences, some even devastating.

The Vulture Hide


So with that rather morbid thought in your mind you can understand why a visit to a vulture hide, the effort that implies towards their conservation, was so tempting. And a great effort had been made to provide a good view over the vultures almost at ground level. The smell was a little off putting as donated cow carcasses are the bait but it is small price to get the opportunity to see these great scavengers in action. Sadly it was not our day. Despite many hours spent in the hide waiting patiently the birds would not come down. Even the shutter click made them shuffle and fly. Still they will become more habituated in time I am sure and it is encouraging that there is increasing awareness of the need to provide safe haven for our top avian scavengers in Africa. Also we had many opportunities with rollers and bee eaters attracted by the insects around the carcasses. Still there is a word of caution. The smaller birds are apparently often preyed on around vulture restaurants because of the increase in opportunistic predators. There is a price for even the best motivated interventions.