At the turn of the century, a farmer in Oribi in southern KwaZulu-Natal started seeing Cape Vultures soaring above his lands. Perhaps they were from the thriving colony at Msikaba on the Wild Coast? Maybe some were survivors of the Umtamvuna Nature Reserve colony that had collapsed some years earlier? Regardless of their origin, to see wild vultures in his home skies again was a thrilling sight for nature-loving Mike Neethling.
Aware of the desperate plight of vultures – according to BirdLife South Africa, they’re among the most threatened groups of birds on Earth with 70 per cent of the world’s 23 species being globally Threatened or Near Threatened – Mike established a feeding station. This entailed leaving uncontaminated livestock carcasses (not containing poisons or veterinary drugs such as anti-inflammatories that can kill vultures) on an expansive grassy plateau on his farm above the Umzimkulu River Valley.
Initially, about 20 vultures frequented this ‘restaurant’. Over time, Mike built up a wide network of livestock farmers who would dispose of non-toxic carcasses at the site at an average of one a week. In concert with the increased food supply, vulture numbers soared.
Today, says Andy Ruffle, chairman and project coordinator of the Oribi Vulture Viewing Hide, about 1 000 birds benefit from this initiative. “Two hundred are from the resident breeding colony,” he explains.
We are standing beside three stripped-to-the-bone carcasses, midway between a bathing pond – vultures clean themselves after feeding – and a hide, a natural rock structure that blends into the landscape.
“Another 400 fly in from Msikaba, and we think others come from areas where the Msikaba and Oribi birds go to forage,” says Mike. Using satellite tracking, the project has determined that Oribi vultures go as far as Harding, Kokstad, Ixopo and Highflats. Some of the colony’s youngsters are thought to be based at Kamberg where pig farmers are also feeding vultures.
To put the 1 000-vulture figure of the feeding project in context, the estimated global population of Cape Vultures (Near-Endemic to Southern Africa) is between 8 000 to 10 000. “That means this site benefits ten per cent of the global population,” explains Andy.
Numerous perils to their existence
On the horizon, a dozen vultures appear through the early morning mist. They circle, as though waiting for us to move away from the bony buffet. I feel as if we’re intruding, but Andy tells me that our presence will merely reassure the birds that no danger lurks. Once we leave, they’ll land and finish the remains. “We clean up the bones regularly,” Andy adds, “but we leave carcasses for a while, especially when there are youngsters around. This gives them a chance after the main feeding frenzy to learn how to become vultures without being trampled on by the adults.”
As we enter the hide, Andy talks about the perils vultures face. Habitat loss, poisoning, and electrocution on power lines are the major ones. To give Eskom its due, the utility has changed the design of poles, in the Oribi region at least, to prevent the birds’ wings making contact with the lines. It also fixes poles that Andy reports as potentially lethal. The muthi trade impacts heavily on vultures, as traditional healers believe that sleeping next to a vulture’s head gives a person clairvoyant powers and the ability to predict sports scores, Lotto numbers and the like.
However, it appears that killing vultures for the muti trade is more a problem in urban areas than in the vast rural areas of that southern KwaZulu-Natal region where, Andy says, people understand the clean-up role the birds perform. “The national dipping programme was halted in 1994. People in those remote areas can’t afford to treat their cattle, so when a cow gets sick and dies, to prevent it infecting others, it’s dragged away from the main herd and left for the vultures to dispose of.”
Watch them soar
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As Andy talks, his passion for the birds and the extensive knowledge he has gained from observing them in their natural habitat is evident. It’s a surprise to learn that he came to birding almost accidentally when he moved to South Africa from the United Kingdom 11 years ago. “I had aviaries in England but I wasn’t a birdwatcher. Arriving here, I decided that the climate allowed for a walk-in aviary in my garden.”
He began to notice the birds in his garden, counting 100 species, which spurred him to join the local bird club Trogons, where he was soon involved in setting up the Oribi hide in memory of Barry Porter, the late chairman of the club. “Mike agreed to the idea of the hide as long the vultures were not disturbed and guests were escorted on their visits as the hide is on private property.”
A typical two-hour Oribi vulture experience includes more than merely sitting in the hide. Whether visitors get to see the birds feeding or not depends on whether a fresh carcass has been delivered, and on when the birds last ate. “Vultures consume about one kilogram of meat at a time which keeps them going for three days,” says Andy.
More enthralling than watching a feed is visiting the cliff-top vantage points where guests can see the birds nesting and flying. “People’s perceptions of vultures as ugly and revolting change when they see them on the wing,” he says.
The roosting cliffs
Once our vultures in the mist have departed, we head to the cliff tops. The sky is clearing as we follow a rocky path through the natural veld. The exquisite grassland flora absorb my attention. When I finally look up I’m dumbfounded at the sight of countless vultures wheeling high above us. I have never seen so many vultures in one place.
And there, to our left, are the roosting cliffs, a great sandstone rampart presiding over the verdant hills and valleys of Oribi. It’s a busy community. Vultures swoop back and forth, some flying in tandem, others bringing nesting material to spread on ledges where they’ll raise their young. With effortless elegance they glide above and below us. How easy they make it look. Some are close enough for us to count their wing and tail feathers and see the glint in their sharp eyes.
The colony’s first champion and custodian, farmer Mike, comes to meet us. His Rottweiler Roxy accompanies him. They sit right on the cliff’s edge. “She loves watching the vultures,” says Mike. A dog after her master’s own heart. He tells us the area has everything the vultures need.
“They’re the third-heaviest flying birds so they require the right conditions to be able to glide.” The qualifying conditions at that site include the thermals rising up from the hot river valley, and the cliffs that provide secure nesting ledges which also allow for an easy take-off. And then there’s the supplementary food that originally encouraged the birds to stay. “Research carried out here by a team from a German university shows a direct correlation between numbers of nesting attempts and the food that’s available,” says Andy.
A mountain of bones
I could have spent hours watching those vultures going about their daily lives with such serene grace, but eventually, we are forced to tear ourselves away. As we go, Andy tells us about the amazing biodiversity on the farm. He mentions some of the wildlife recorded there, such as the aardvarks, aardwolves, the Endangered oribi, and rare birds such as the Corn Crake. Even African Marsh Harriers nest in the sugar cane thinking it’s a reed bed.
Encountering so much biodiversity has changed the way he regards farming. Where farmers keep their land in good shape and protect watercourses, wildlife habitat is secured. Or, as Mike has done by providing food, a threatened species is able to thrive. “I’ve recorded every carcass,” Mike says. We do the sums. An average of one carcass a week over 19 years adds up to nearly 1 000. And the bones are all still there, in a huge bleached pile that Mike takes us to see and that, he says, shows up on Google Earth. He picks up a huge hip and a massive spine, “My favourites for showing school groups.”
Driving home, I think about the immense achievement of Mike and Andy. Supporting ten per cent of the global Cape Vulture population while also changing attitudes toward these much-misunderstood birds is truly heroic. It reminds me of something Madiba said, ‘We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in our hands to make a difference.’