One of the largest vultures in Africa, Torgos tracheliotos, an Old World vulture, stands more than three feet tall and boasts a wingspan of nine feet.
We came upon this pair in a nest at the top of a thorny acacia tree. The lappet-faced vulture is the most powerful and aggressive of the African vultures, with their large, arched bill and big size. More lappet-faced info here.
Like all vultures, their bald head is crucial for hygiene and thermoregulation. Old World Vultures (Europe, Africa, Asia) scavenge on carcasses of dead animals. When a predator takes down a mammal on the African savanna, kills it, there is a succession of scavengers that follow. Vultures are vital in this process.
It is a competitive frenzy, and not pretty. But quickly the carcass is devoured. One time we came upon a pride of lions that had just killed an antelope. The guide brought us back 24 hours later, and there was not even a bone fragment left in that spot.
One African vulture can consume two pounds of meat in a minute. A productive wake of vultures can completely consume a dead wild zebra in 30 minutes (per Natl. Geo. Jan. 2016).
Even Charles Darwin called vultures “disgusting.” But now people are finding out how important vultures are to the African eco-system.
Vultures prevent the spread of disease and insect populations, by quickly and efficiently eating dead carcasses. This is important to humans, livestock, and other wild animals. Equipped with powerful stomach acid, they can safely digest putrid carcasses loaded with bacteria, that would be lethal to other scavengers.
Unfortunately vultures are disappearing from the savanna at an alarming rate, largely due to poisoning, which accounts for 61% of vulture deaths.
African farmers, upset with lions for killing their cattle (their livelihood), use inexpensive and severely toxic poison to kill the lions. Then the vultures die from eating the lion.
In addition, poachers poison vultures in order to prevent the overhead kettles of vultures from alerting game wardens of their illegal killing.
Most vultures reproduce relatively slowly, not reaching a sexual maturity until 5-7 years old, and only producing one chick every 1-2 years.
This combination of rapid decline, with slow maturation and breeding, has brought the African vulture population to a troubling point. In October 2015 the lappet-faced status was listed as endangered.
Often times it is not easy to see the benefits of some creatures in the environment, until they begin to disappear and we see the ecological upset.
Fortunately the movement to save vultures and prevent poisonings has risen. Groups like VulPro (click here) and many other conservationists are working toward preventing further decline.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander