Of all the large birds out there on the Serengeti plains the vultures are probably the most recognisable, with their long barely feathered necks and large hooked beaks, you can’t miss them. For a lot of people they are ugly birds and their behaviour makes people shudder, all that frantic plunging of necks inside messy carcasses. Some cultures revere the vulture, instilling magical attributes to them whilst others vilify them.
But the truth is they are just birds with their own unique ecological niche, one that is absolutely essential to the health of the whole ecosystem.
Lets break it down. That neck, well the fact that the whole head and neck is either bare or only lightly feathered is a marvellous adaptation to keeping clean. Yep, not something people generally associate with vultures but they are in fact pretty clean birds. That beak, well it may look like it could kill quite efficiently but it is actually designed to grip hard and rip. Believe me I have been around rescued vultures and felt the effect, there is a lot of power there. A vulture will use its sizable feet to hold a tricky bit of carcase down when trying to tear off a chunk but the real power comes from the strong neck muscles and the powerful beak.
If you look closely at the different species of vulture you will notice that not only is there a difference in size of individual species but in the beak size. There is a hierarchy in vulture etiquette at a fresh carcase. If the dead animal is large and has a tough hide, say a buffalo, the larger species such as lappet-faced will be needed to ‘break in’. Their huge beaks and added bulk allow them to head straight for the good bits where lesser vultures would have to start with the natural openings such as the eyes, mouth and anus. Once the large vultures have broken in, the rabble takes over and fights it out for the good meat, the white-backed and Ruppell’s. Around the peripheries the hooded vultures will be waiting for the chance to snatch up bits of anatomy that are sent flying by over- zealous cousins or to dart in when the carcase looks almost clean to pick off the last bits of flesh in hard to reach places. It is not uncommon to see this species right inside the empty carcase and its slim lined beak is great at cleaning up.
Vultures search for food from the wing. Research has shown that in the Serengeti it is most often the lappet-faced that arrives first despite the numbers of this species being lower than the others. It seems they are extra vigilant or just have better eyes. The descent of this the largest African vulture draws in the other species who can be clued into the find from over 30kms away. It is quite breath taking to see many vultures on rapid descent with wings held inwards, feathers splayed it can also be noisy.
But other than cleaning up unsightly dead things how do vultures help the ecosystem? Like other organisms that consume dead animal matter vultures are immune to a lot of deadly diseases. Their stomachs are filled with very acidic digestive juices which can destroy diseases such as anthrax, cholera and rabies. Most scavengers would not be immune to these types of disease and what’s more, diseases such as anthrax can lay dormant for decades posing an ongoing risk. Of course vultures alone can’t keep the Serengeti disease free but with their ability to fly over 100km a day they do a darn good job of patrolling the plains and keeping them clean.
But outside of protected areas vultures are in decline. In places like South Africa there has always been a value placed on vultures with Sangoma or witchdoctors prescribing vulture heads for people needing to see into the future to answer big life questions. Of course this has modernised, now people purchase vulture heads to see the winning lottery numbers. Vultures are also targeted by poaching gangs who, in an effort not to have their poaching camps discovered, place poison bait to attract and kill the vultures. India, several years ago nearly lost ALL its Gyps vultures. 95% where thought to have died and the main cause discovered to be adverse effects from a drug called diclofenac that was widely given to domestic stock. The drug has since been banned in India but its use as a veterinary drug in Africa is rising causing major concern amongst conservationists. Loss of habitat is also an issue.
We are lucky that the Serengeti is an ecosystem functioning normally with all its facets. You may be lucky to spot, lappet-faced, white-headed, white-backed, Ruppell’s griffon, hooded and Egyptian vultures in our camera trap images. It is quite remarkable to find this type of balance these days and we thank the vultures for their ongoing services.