Bye Bye Birdie, Bye Bye Vultures?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Did you know that eight of Africa’s eleven vulture species have declined at an average of 62% across all regions over the past 30 years? And did you know that globally, vultures are the most endangered group of all bird species?

Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe

Now if you’re wondering what’s the big deal, vultures are weird looking creatures anyway I have two things to say to you… firstly, have you ever seen a Marabou Stork? Now that’s a weird-looking creature that has the look on its face (and in its weird way of sitting) that it has given up on life. Secondly, vultures play a MASSIVE role in the eco system; they are the ultimate recyclers as they can strip a carcass in just a few hours that leads to keeping the environment – wildlife, domestic animals and humans – clean and disease free. Vultures clear away carcasses and help to stop the spread of diseases like anthrax, rabies, cholera and tuberculosis.

Unfortunately poachers know just what an important role vultures play in nature and these birds often give their location away: “circling vultures are great sentinels for poached carcasses, and can alert wildlife authorities to the crime-scene, so poachers will often lace wildlife carcasses with poison to cover their tracks. A single poisoned elephant can kill hundreds of vultures, and this can have huge cascading impacts on vulture populations.”

In 2013 more than 200 vultures died in Hwange National Park and last year 94 died (which included the critically endangered white-backed vultures) after feeding on an elephant carcass poisoned by poachers in Gonarezhou National Park.

Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe
Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe
Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe

And while we’d all love to point fingers to poachers for being selfish (of course they are) also, just for a moment, let’s take into consideration that on the flipside of the coin you have the consumer; consumers who believe rhino horns hold medicinal value, consumers who buy ivory products because it is regarded as a status of wealth (read this interesting Natgeo article: Who Buys Ivory? You’d Be Surprised

But poachers and intentional poisoning are not the only threat to vultures.
Vultures are being used in traditional medicine; others see it as good luck (vulture brains will apparently bring you the lotto numbers) and some see it as symbols of witchcraft.

Other threats to vultures include: power lines( vultures have the wingspan of a Boeing 747), lost of food supply (humans intrude on wildlife areas), indirect poisoning (especially in agriculture to protect livestock or veterinary drugs used on livestock) and direct persecution (some cultures see vultures as pests).

Helping Vultures: Vulture Culture at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls Safari Lodge

The Vulture Culture Experience at Africa Albida Tourism’s Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe is a conservation project that strives to protect endangered vultures whilst educating visitors about these birds in an unobtrusive way. During lunch time, the Vulture Culture “waiter” will stop by the tables of those dining in the restaurant (a portion of proceeds of meals also goes towards Vulture Culture) and just lightly mention that the feeding will start in a few minutes. Visitors will then move to a lower deck area where the trained “waiter” will put out a carcass in the feeding site and he will then go back to the viewing area to share interesting facts and statistics with the viewers.

A few vultures certainly get to wine and dine and others scavenge for scraps as the food put out is not enough to make them dependent on the feeding time but it encourages the population of vultures in that area to spread their wings and fly their circles around a space safer than most areas where poachers and poisoned carcasses lure around unfortunate corners.

Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe
Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe
Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe

The Vulture Culture Experience, was started by Roger Parry, a local wildlife vet , and was brought to life to assist the South Africa Vulture Foundation and VulPro in an effort to educate and raise vulture awareness to the visitors to Victoria Falls; this activity is completely free of charge, donations are up to each individual but the “waiters” put more emphasis on the fact that visitors should share the experience and the importance of vultures in our environment with friends and family. You can read more about this initiative on Africa Albida Tourism’s website, click here.

As always, where humans interfere with wildlife, I find myself with thoughts and questions, and one person I respect greatly because of the conservation and fighting-for-the-voiceless work she has done, and who always put my mind at ease (and I will always refer people to her website when it comes to animal interactions) is Dr Louise de Waal, who responded with “As long as there is no real financial gain, the raising awareness around the vulture issues is greater than the harm it will do to the actual birds.”

And as she mentioned, each “interaction” needs to be judged on their own merits and potential dangers, especially if there are welfare issues involved (which brings me to the issues discussed below).

If you want to read more about the Victoria Falls Wild Trust Vulture Conservation Project, click here.

Vulture_Culture_Zimbabwe

But let’s talk about the elephant (and the cheetah) in the room

Even though I can see the value of the work Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT) is doing when it comes to the vulture population of Zimbabwe, I struggle to see the benefit of having an ambassador cheetah and offering elephant interactions. While I understand that a cheetah born in captivity will never be able to fend for itself in the wild, and while I praise VFWT for not adding having more than one cheetah, I fail to see how cheetah interaction – albeit not always encouraged and minimal (from what I’ve heard) if compared to the typical hug-a-cub experiences – will have a long-lasting positive effect on the cheetah and the schoolchildren who are being educated; according to their website (click here) Sylvester is an ambassador cheetah who is “interacting with the public to raise awareness of their peril as a species and the challenges they face being on the endangered species list”. I honestly believe there are better ways to raise awareness and that a ‘hands off our wildlife’ approach should be used a standard when talking about responsible and eco-tourism, animal rights and conservation.We need to change this perception that we have a right to know what the fur of a cheetah or the skin of an elephant feels like, it has nothing to do with us, and unless you are working in conservation or as a vet, it is not my business, it is not your business.

The same goes for the ‘Meet the Elephant’ experience of Wild Horizons in collaboration with Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust; I commend them for putting a stop to the elephant back riding experiences (effective from 1 January 2018) that they’ve offered in the past but the fact that I still see bull hooks in the hands of the handlers (even though I didn’t witness this being used) and that the elephants are lined up for interaction and photos – and ‘gently’ yanked on an ear if it doesn’t want to stand there… that is something that personally doesn’t sit right with me. Again, I trust that the orphanage and sanctuary do a lot of good work  – the majority of permanent residents is from a culling operation which happened in 1980 – and they do release rescued elephants back into the wild, and I understand that getting elephants that have been used to humans for decades to a more natural state is not a matter of one-two-three go, but I still think a standard no-hands-interaction approach should be synonymous with conservation, animal rights and responsible and eco-tourism. We need to get tourists and tourism to a place where a price tag won’t define whether an animal interaction will take place or not. As humans we need to find the value in merely seeing an elephant – that should be enough and an ‘activity’ worth paying for; while sanctuaries and orphanages often rely on visitor fees to run their operation it is time to stop putting the idea out there that you will get ‘more value for your money’ when you can have a hands-on experience.

PLEASE NOTE: By sharing the information above I’m merely giving a personal opinion, and again, well done to Wild Horizons for taking a step in the right direction. As per an article in Tourism Tattler, the CEO of Wild Horizons, Gary Archer, said: “It is our intention to continue to work closely with the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and numerous other conservation bodies to provide refuge to elephants in distress and further the rehabilitation and release work we have been doing to date.  Our mission has always been to create a facility which would enable us to rehabilitate and ultimately release all elephants in our care, back into a wild free-ranging state.”

Read the full article, click here.

Elephant Camp Zimbabwe Wild horizons

Wild Horizons and Art of Africa offer a unique experience where visitors sit under the shade of a Mopane tree and (finger) paint the elephants splashing around and cooling down in the waterhole by the guidance of local artists. This is an activity I can get behind more in the future if they tweak the experience a bit with no interaction pre-paint activity for starters. 

The Elephant Art Safari has great potential to be a positive and non-exploitive experience – for elephants, visitors and local artists – and well done that they (Wild Horizons) stopped the elephant back riding, but more awareness and conversation is necessary around this topic; perhaps it is necessary to inform visitors on why this activity was stopped, inform them on just how bad it is for an elephant, perhaps tell them what elephants have to endure to make something like that possible and perhaps remove the two enlarged photos on the wall of elephant back riding in the restaurant area, not because it is necessary to hide what happened in the past but because we unfortunately live in a world of ‘monkey see, monkey do’ and the photos of the elephant rides might be off-putting to some, but to others it might just be an encouragement to do something similar at a different place.

Whatever the case may be,there’s still a long way to go.

Elephant Art Safari

The topic of interaction can be a difficult one and with places such as the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, which offers interaction in the form of walking with the elephants rescued from the tourism industry (and used to human contact), it often makes the line between right and wrong finer than fine. What’s considered wrong, what is right, what is an okay interaction, what is not and why is this weird human need – to be so close to a wild animal – being fed?

And on the topic of that… why do so many humans, without even batting an eyelid or thinking about the actual danger, have this desire to touch/hug/pet an animal we are supposed to be scared of? Is it a case of dominance? And why is there this desire to cuddle something like a lion, tiger or cheetah (an animal that can kill you without even chewing twice, never mind thinking twice) but the same desire doesn’t exist when it comes to sharks? Why is it that people prefer to view sharks rather from a cage, why is it a case of “I will never touch a shark” but “I don’t have a problem touching a cheetah?” Regardless of the specie, a tooth is a tooth, right? Dead is dead, right? Exploitation is exploitation… right?

These are the questions and things I wonder – and often worry – about. I am keen to hear your thoughts.

Also, if you made it all to the bottom, go read the post I wrote in March 2017 titled, “Don’t do what I did… travel responsibly.”