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On the verge of extinction, one of the world's most misunderstood creatures receives a lifeline

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Vultures stalk death, and death stalks vultures. Think about the scavenger bird and images of disease and decay soon follow. The birds have a bad reputation – unjustifiably so, say conservationists, who argue vultures are one of nature’s great recyclers, and one of the most misunderstood creatures.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to four critically endangered species of vulture, and in South Africa, a non-profit conservation and rehabilitation group called VulPro is working to protect these fascinating birds.

Last month, VulPro relocated a mix of 160 Cape and African white-backed vultures 1,049 kilometres (652 miles) to their new home at the Shamwari Private Game Reserve in Eastern Cape. The operation involved over 50 people, logistics company DHL and WeWild Africa, an NGO specializing in animal rewilding and translocation.

Many of the birds had been rehabilitated by the center, others the product of its breeding program. The move comes with the hope of supplementing the number of vultures in the wild and establishing new populations, while also reducing the risk of VulPro’s birds falling victim to disease in the center’s high-density environment.

"I had an opportunity of hand-raising a vulture whom we still have today," says Kerri Wolter, founder and CEO of VulPro. "He was 10 days old, and he fit in my hands and I have fairly small hands. It was at that very moment that I actually understood how fragile and misunderstood the species were."

Shaking the stigma

The first perception to dispel is the idea vultures are dirty animals. "Vultures are meticulous about their cleanliness," says Wolter. "They spend hours cleaning their feathers after feeding, because those feathers have to be so well streamlined and cleaned for flight. They don’t flap like other birds, they soar."

Vultures have evolved into highly efficient scavengers, travelling hundreds of kilometres in flocks, with excellent eyesight able to identify carcasses up to six kilometres (3.7 miles) away. Their beaks are thick and strong, allowing them to tear into flesh, and can efficiently strip a large carcass within hours. Their stomachs are extremely acidic and packed with enzymes not found in other species, allowing them to digest what other animals cannot.

"Harmful pathogens such as anthrax and brucellosis bacteria get destroyed in the vulture stomach, (and) that prevents infections to vultures and other animals," explains South African veterinarian Dr. Johan Joubert.

In a world without vultures, dead animals would naturally be removed slower from the environment. This would result in a "build-up of harmful bacteria and other pathogens that might lead to disease outbreaks in human and animal populations, especially in countries with poor removal systems," says Joubert.

There are indirect consequences too. Take India, where vultures numbers have plummeted since the 1990s. Feral dogs have benefitted with fewer vultures around, and as a result, the country has experienced a significant rise in rabies cases and deaths in the past 20 years.

Hunted and maligned

Yet rather than being protected as an ally in the fight against disease outbreak, the vulture finds itself hunted and maligned in parts of Africa.

A study published earlier this year on African savannah raptors, which include vultures, found "large raptors (like vultures) had experienced significantly steeper declines than smaller species," and that declines were steepest in West Africa, and "more than twice as severe outside of protected areas."

VulPro is intent on increasing the viability of multiple vulture species. Recent efforts have concentrated on the white-headed vulture, with a population of only 3,685 adults continent-wide, according to BirdLife International, and only a small percentage of that figure in South Africa.

Wolter notes that in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, along South Africa’s eastern coast, the white-headed vulture is "now extinct as a breeding species," largely at the hands of humans.

"The number of poisonings directly related to belief-based purposes in (KwaZulu-Natal) is astronomical," says Wolter, adding that the use vulture parts is popular among gamblers, for "any type of ability to potentially foretell the future."

Some people in South Africa kill vultures for their supposed clairvoyant powers, believing it will let them see into the future, an idea based on the birds’ keen eyesight, "eight times better than humans" says Joubert. Others believe that sniffing the brain of a vulture, sleeping with a skull under their pillow, or carrying a foot around the neck could bring one good luck.

Poisoning is the most common reason for vultures to require treatment in South Africa, often from ingesting lead in discarded batteries, or bullets in animal carcasses, says Joubert. Once poisoned, "the central nervous system is affected, causing symptoms such as anorexia, aimless walking, blindness, muscle tremors, paralysis and/or death," he explains.

Finding a safe haven

VulPro’s rehabilitation center, led by Wolter, has homed vultures for more than 17 years, and until recently had 300 birds in its care, many having suffered wing injuries from collisions with power lines. These injuries can be so severe they require amputation, meaning some birds can never be released back into the wild, although they can still partake in the center’s captive breeding program, says VulPro’s CEO.

But housing such a significant population also has its downsides. Globally, "avian influenza is having a massive detrimental effect on birds," says Wolter, and "it is not safe to have all these 300 individuals under one roof should a disease come."

The vultures that became the newest residents of the Shamwari game reserve in Eastern Cape in January will have to learn to live alongside elephants, rhinos, lions and other species. The exclusive 22,000-hectare (54,300-acre) reserve is patrolled by an anti-poaching team, and birds will be able to scavenge with little to no human exposure, although each vulture – some of which have been in rehabilitation since 2022 – has been fitted with a tracking device in order to monitor its whereabouts.

Wolter says the project has started to engage with human populations near vulture colonies, roosting sites and popular foraging areas, to educate communities on the benefits of the animal to local ecology, and dispel popular misbeliefs. She adds that since the education program began, it has already rescued live vultures that had been captured for sale for traditional medicine.

The VulPro CEO says that together with Shamari Private Game Reserve, she hopes the "huge task of housing and protecting the largest collection of African vultures in the world will secure their future."

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