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SafariSpy: A restaurant for vultures…

By Kat Holmes

The SafariSpy camera trap has been out with Dr Paul Bartels, a lecturer and veterinarian at the Tshwane University of Technology. Paul has set up a vulture supplementary feeding site or “vulture restaurant” on his land in the Magaliesberg mountains near Pretoria. This site offered a great opportunity for SafariSpy to capture these misunderstood birds…

As is often the case with camera trapping, all did not go as planned. The mysterious forces behind capturing wildlife meant that the cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) did not land for us once! Paul cannot explain it and it cannot be due to the presence of the camera trap, as he frequently uses them here. Luckily for us this means we can see what we would have captured… so here is one Paul made earlier…

Vulture restaurant

Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) at the vulture restaurant, courtesy of Dr. Paul Bartels

Misunderstood birds

Vultures feed only on dead animals (carion) and up to 200 birds can swarm around a carcass at one time, an image that gives them a bad reputation in some people’s eyes. I am was incredibly excited to see a scrum of vultures on a carcass myself but the noise, smell and constant jostling was stark evidence of nature in practice. Yet this sight also shows the important role vultures play. They provide a crucial service of recycling animal remains back into living tissue and the broader ecosystem.

Different species feed on different parts of the carcass. For example, cape vultures and the african white backed vultures (Gyps africanuswill feed on muscle and internal organs —they are even known to crawl into the ribcage to extract these. Whereas the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbarous) feeds mainly on bones, which they often break into smaller pieces by dropping them from height. Other vulture species feed on skin and sinew. They also provide a number of services to livestock owners including preventing fly borne diseases. Vultures are certainly helpful to game viewers too — if you see vultures circling in the sky you know there will be a fresh kill below and probably a predator!

Cape Vultures at vulture restaurant, courtesy of Dr Paul Bartels

Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) at the vulture restaurant, courtesy of Dr. Paul Bartels

Vulture restaurants

Looking past their reputation you soon learn that vulture species around the world are under significant threat. In Asia they are primarily threatened by pesticide poisoning and here in Africa they are threatened by habitat conversion, reduced food supply, persecution and illegal wildlife trade. One way of reintroducing vulture populations back into their natural ranges is through ‘vulture restaurants’.

Here carcasses of domestic stock or game are placed specifically to provide an additional food source for vultures. They can increase vulture breeding and survival rates by providing a safe, poison free and reliable food source in areas of reduced where carrion supply has reduced. If managed and monitored carefully they can inform and help conservation. Of course other visitors often cash in on the free dinner, like this black backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)…

A black backed jackal visits the vulture restaurant, courtesy of Dr Paul Bartels

A black backed jackal visits the vulture restaurant, courtesy of Dr. Paul Bartels

Stay tuned for more SafariSpy adventures; the next one is coming soon…!

For more information:

The SASOL guide to the establishment and operation of supplementary feeding sites for vultures

Nyoka Wildlife Field Station Facebook page

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