African vultures, are they safe yet? Vultures are arguably the most misunderstood scavengers. With their hunched posture, bald heads and their use in cartoons to represent opportunistic greed. Humans have long considered them to be the outcasts of the animal kingdom, and due to their association with death, they are feared and reviled.
Vultures vary in size and appearance depending on their species. Colors range from white to brown to black with white accents, and many species have a bare crown, face and neck, accompanied by a neat or scraggly ruff of feathers.
There are 11 different species of vultures in Africa and they clear up to 70% of the Africa’s carrion in their ecosystem. In doing so, they help protect other species (including humans and their livestock), by preventing the spread of disease from these carcasses.
With such a variety of vulture species in Africa, these birds can be found in most kinds of habitats. In wooded areas, you’ll find white-backed, palmnut and white-headed vultures; while in arid, semi-desert regions you’ll see Rüppell’s, lappet-faced and hooded vultures. Cape vultures and bearded vultures, meanwhile, can be found in more mountainous areas.
As large birds of open grassland they have intrinsic value as living beings, they keep habitats free of carcasses and waste, and are arguably nature’s most important scavengers.
Unique adaptations make these birds some of the most successful scavengers in Africa. Soaring on updrafts allows them to cover great distances, while strong eyesight enables them to easily detect potential meals. Low pH levels in their stomachs help digest rotting meat quickly and without issue.
While several species of the vulture almost exclusively on carrion for sustenance, others, like the Egyptian, lappet-faced and white-headed vulture, are known to hunt fish, reptiles and small mammals. The palmnut vulture even eats fruit!
For those species that do dine on carrion, specialized beaks and behaviors equip them to eat different parts of a carcass, reducing competition for food. For example, bone makes up roughly 85 percent of a bearded vulture’s diet. To get to the nutritious marrow, these birds use their strong beaks to crack open small bones and carry large bones up into the sky, dropping them on rocks below to break them open.
There are eight vulture species in Kenya. Four of these, namely the White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus, Rüppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppelli, White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis and Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus, are considered Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species.
Poisoning is a major aspect of human-wildlife conflict in Kenya. In some areas of Kajiado county, particularly those bordering wildlife conservation areas, more than 60% of vulture deaths are due to poisoning. When a predator such as a lion, hyena, leopard attacks and kills cattle, herders retaliate by lacing a carcass with poison targeting the predator. Vultures, which are not the primary targets, are attracted to the poisoned carcass in large numbers.
As humans expand their communities and agricultural lands, new problems arise for vultures. New infrastructure, like power lines, presents myriad hazardous obstacles for these birds during flight. Meanwhile, agricultural expansion is pushing ungulates out of the bird’s territory, reducing the amount of carrion available to these scavengers.
As the birds flock to animal carcasses, they also give away sites of poachers’ activities. Wanting to remain undetected, poachers have turned their sights on vultures too.
Nature Kenya has been instrumental in conserving vultures in the rangelands. To help curb deaths by poisoning, the organization is engaging communities by employing a community awareness approach with the help Vulture Liaison Officers and Vulture Volunteers, who are well-distributed across Kenya’s southern rangelands.
The Vulture Volunteers are located at human-wildlife conflict hotspots, in order to help create awareness on the negative impact of wildlife poisoning and educate the community about the importance of vultures in the ecosystem.