Often seen as the portent of doom, spirals of slowly descending vultures are one of Africa’s dramatic wildlife sights. However, these beautiful creatures are in danger of extinction across the continent. Namibia is a popular birding safari destination as it is home to the Cape Griffon and Lappet-Faced Vultures. Programme’s are in place to try and halt the decline in their populations. Namibia is a fantastic self-drive destination with many birding hotspots.
The Cape Griffon Vulture and the Lappet-Faced Vulture are two of Namibia’s most elusive raptors. Either flying high above us, or sitting in a distant tree-top, they are mostly recognised by their sheer size. But their elusiveness has little to do with character. These two species of vultures are on Namibia’s list of endangered species and for good reason. For years vultures have suffered a bad public image, but education and a better understanding of these high flying birds, have slightly improved the public perception. However, in South Africa, traditional medicine seems to threaten these birds more than anything else.
The Cape Griffon Vulture is nothing but spectacular – it is the heaviest vulture in Southern Africa and has a record of flying about 8000 metres above sea level. But why are the Cape Griffon Vulture numbers so low in Namibia? There are many factors contributing to their dwindling numbers, but one of the main ones lies in their breeding. Unlike many other birds, vultures cannot vary their reproductive rate to suit environmental factors. The female lays a single egg, and shares the responsibilities of incubation and feeding with her lifelong mate. As Vultures have a reproductive cycle of approximately 12 months, fatalities have a profound impact on populations.
After the nest is built and the egg is laid (one egg and not necessarily annually), the incubation period is close to 2 months. The nestling is then dependent on its parents for four months. Once the chick leaves the nest, it still relies on the parents to educate it, which can take up to 6 months. Of course, it is not only their own fault that they are so few. Due to their very social behaviour, the Cape Vulture breeds in colonies on cliff faces – they are in grave danger when eating from a poisoned carcass. The use of indiscriminate poison is one of the biggest killers in Namibia. High-voltage power lines, habitat destruction and bush encroachment are just some additional causes. A recent study has pointed out that Uranium mining in Namibia can be added to the list of impacts on vultures.
Whereas the Cape Griffon Vulture prefers rocky outcrops for breeding, the Namib Desert is the main breeding area of the Lappet-faced vulture. The nests of these large birds are found from the Orange to the Kunene Rivers, with the highest concentration between the Swakop and Kuiseb Rivers. It is here and north of the Swakop River where the uranium rush is now taking place. To date, no negative effects of this disturbance have been recorded and only time will be able to tell.
This year a record number of 88 lappet-faced vulture chicks were ringed in the Namib-Naukluft Park. The chicks are fitted with numbered metal rings on one leg and then a yellow, plastic tag, also numbered, is attached to the right wing. Identification in the field is easy with the aid of binoculars or telescopes. The public is asked to assist by reporting any marked birds seen. Unfortunately the numbers of Cape Griffon Vultures are not as high and there are only about 12 breeding pairs in Namibia. But why do we need to conserve these distant creatures?
Vultures act as nature’s vacuum cleaners, and by clearing up a carcass they prevent a host of diseases that may spread to livestock including anthrax and blowfly endemics. They do not carry rabies or foot-and-mouth disease as previously believed, but they and other harmless animals may often be the victims of reckless “control” measures. The Roberts Bird Guide, 2007, lists the Cape Vulture as Vulnerable in South Africa, Regionally extinct in Swaziland and Critically Endangered in Namibia. In an effort to save these birds, several Vulture Restaurants have been set up in southern Africa where tourists and locals alike can see these magnificent birds in action! In Namibia the first restaurant was run by Maria Diekmann and the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST) at the Waterberg Plateau. In July this year, the new centre for REST was relocated to Otjiwa Safari Lodge, where it now runs as a separate establishment.
The centre houses a few non-releasable vultures. The aviary was built into the natural cliffs of the area and provides ideal photographic opportunities. REST continues to offer visitors the opportunity to view and photograph wild vultures through the refurbished hide. Other than at the Vulture Restaurant, the Cape Griffon Vultures can be spotted around The Waterberg area, just south of Otjiwarongo. However, the Lappet-faced Vulture can be seen from the Etosha National Park in the north of the country to the south of the country in the Namib Naukluft Mountains.