9 Facts about the Endangered Lappet-faced Vulture

Words by Tania Anderson

Helen Biram, our country’s leading lady birder, feels extremely fortunate to be able to travel widely in southern Africa to feed her birding obsession, which she freely does since she retired more than 20 years ago. She particularly enjoys birding in the grasslands of Gauteng and the Northern Kruger National Park.

According to Helen, there’s a lot more to see in the Kruger National Park besides the Big Five and Little Five. Birds are far more colourful and challenging to see. The Big Five are what most visitors to Kruger are after – the lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Today, the challenge is to find the Big Six birds – the Lappet-faced Vulture (Swartaasvoël), Southern Ground Hornbill (Bromvoël), Martial Eagle (Breëkoparend), Kori Bustard (Gompou), Saddle-billed Stork (Saalbek Ooievaar) and Pel’s Fishing Owl (Visuil).  These large birds are all listed as threatened in The 2015 ESKOM Red Data List of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Lappet-faced Vulture
Lappet-faced Vulture (Swartaasvoël) in flight.

Startling facts about the Globally Endangered Lappet-faced Vulture (Swartaasvoël)

* The Lappet-faced Vulture is one of the most imposing birds, with a massive meat-hook of a bill used for ripping through the skin of a carcass.

* Its wingspan is close to three metres, it weighs up to 10 kilograms and stands almost one metre tall.

* It inhabits fairly open savannas and is absent from areas with closed dense woodlands.

* Just like its counterparts, this species is rapidly retreating from its range due to various threats.

* One of its biggest threats is poisoning.  There has been an upsurge of poachers of large mammals in the past decade, and the carcasses are laced with poison (some of which is intended for vultures) so that poaching activities remain hidden.

* These vultures are sensitive to disturbance at their nests, which are built in the canopies of large thorn trees. Outside of protected areas they now battle to find suitable nesting sites to rear their young.

* Sadly, their body parts are sold in African traditional medicine markets due to a belief that vultures have magical properties.

* It has suffered major decreases in numbers in West Africa and is possibly extinct in some of the North and West African countries.

* The Lappet-faced Vulture is BirdLife South Africa’s Bird of the Year for 2017.

Lappet-faced Vulture
The Lappet-faced Vulture (Swartaasvoël) is Africa’s largest vulture species

The Red Data status of the Lappet-faced Vulture was uplisted to Endangered in 2015 and the worldwide population has been estimated to be only about 8 000 individuals.  There are possibly less than 3 000 left  in southern Africa, but there is no specific number for South Africa alone.

The remaining havens are now almost exclusively large, formally protected areas, such as the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Etosha and other protected areas in Namibia, Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe and the Serengeti and Mara regions of Tanzania and Kenya.  The latest estimates for the Kruger National Park state that there are only approximately 50 nests (about 100 breeding individuals).

This vulture once occurred throughout the entire length of Africa, from Cape Town in the south to the Mediterranean in the north. But its numbers are rapidly declining, and once widespread in South Africa, it now survives only in the far north. The situation in North Africa is even worse, with the species now extinct in Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and it is barely hanging on in Mauritania and Egypt.

Read: 4 Birding Spots to Try This Year.

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