A bird that is vital to healthy ecosystems faces human-made challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.
Zimbabwe is home to six species of vultures, five of which are critically endangered and at risk of extinction. At Victoria Falls, researchers and wildlife rehabilitators are working to increase populations, and advocates in the cities of Bulawayo and Harare educate farmers and traditional healers on the importance of these birds to healthy ecosystems. Producer ish Mafundikwa takes us on a road trip around the country to explore the issues affecting these often misunderstood and maligned birds.
Ari Daniel: BirdNote presents.
Jessica Dawson: Judge is seven years old. She's a beautiful bird. She stands just about two, two, and a half feet tall. She's got beautiful, different colored feathers, from a dark brown at the end, going up to a lighter brown, and then a white, sort of, tuft at the neck going onto the head. So she is a beautiful animal, and we're very fortunate to have her. The part that you need to watch out for is obviously the beak. And that helps to be able to get into the carcasses and break them up. When we agreed to take her on, I didn't realize that was for 50 years. But here we are, ticking away.
Ari Daniel: Hey there, and welcome to Threatened. I’m your host, Ari Daniel. In our last episode we got to know the Puffin, a bird much loved for its cuteness. Today we take a look at conservation efforts for a bird that’s … not so cute. Vultures are an often misunderstood and overlooked bird, but they play an extremely important role in ecosystems all over the world. This story comes to us from producer ish Mafundikwa in Zimbabwe. Hi ish.
ish Mafundikwa: Hi Ari.
Ari Daniel: ish, I’m curious, what attracted you to vultures? I would think most people kind of shy away from them because they think they’re gross or ugly or something.
ish Mafundikwa: Yeah, you’re right. In general, people aren’t exactly attracted to vultures. We’re known here for the world-famous Victoria Falls national park. And we’re home to some of the more charismatic endangered animals. The so-called Big Five get the majority of the attention: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. So it's easy to overlook the plight of the vulture. But I’ve reported on vulture deaths before. So I reached out to BirdLife Zimbabwe, and they pointed me toward the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and the work they’re doing to combat vulture population declines.
Ari Daniel: What’s driving these declines exactly?
ish Mafundikwa: A number of things, Ari, but primarily us human beings.
Ari Daniel: Right right, of course.
ish Mafundikwa: There are numerous human threats to the vultures here. And I was curious about how they’re being addressed. With human problems, sometimes there are opportunities for human solutions.
Ari Daniel: Absolutely. So ish, you live in Harare, right?
ish Mafundikwa: Yes, the biggest city in Zimbabwe.
Ari Daniel: And I understand there are a lot of vulture conservation initiatives across the country, including in Victoria Falls where you went for this story. But, it’s not close to Harare is it?
ish Mafundikwa: Not at all, it’s about a 10 hour drive.
Ari Daniel: Wow! 10 hours!
ish Mafundikwa: Yes, but, this was my first trip since the pandemic started, and I was quite happy to hit the road and spend some quality time with my truck.
ish Mafundikwa: I made it safely to Victoria Falls and headed to the offices of the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. Jessica Dawson, the Trust's CEO, welcomed me and introduced me to Judge, the White-backed Vulture she described earlier. Unfortunately, Judge was found in the wild with a damaged wing, meaning that Judge can’t fly and find food on her own. It's not easy for those protecting vultures. Many people don’t understand the importance of these birds in the ecosystem. I mean, they’re not the best-looking creatures.
Jessica Dawson: I know a lot of times they're not seen as being a beautiful animal, but they actually are. And they're actually quite clean. They do bathe every day. So you'll see them, often, going down to the water after they feed to clean up and clean themselves off so that they get rid of all of the bits and pieces that might've been hanging on, and clean off any parasites.
ish Mafundikwa: Jessica has to be on the defensive about vultures because there's so much at stake. Five of the six vulture species in Zimbabwe are threatened with extinction.
Jessica Dawson: And they play a crucial role as the janitors of our ecosystem. They clean up the carcasses that otherwise would just sit there and possibly spill over diseases. And recently in the last year, I think all of us are a lot more familiar with how that can affect all sorts of different species and the need to ... being able to have these beautiful birds to be able to help maintain our balance in our ecosystems.
ish Mafundikwa: Organizations like the Trust are already doing what they can to ensure the vulture survives. For instance, they monitor vulture breeding in the surrounding national parks to see if their numbers are increasing.
Roger Parry is the Trust's Wildlife and Research Manager. His work takes him into the bush, where he monitors vulture activity -- which includes mapping vulture nests.
ish Mafundikwa: So I am riding with Roger in his truck, and it's through the bush, as you can hear the car being scratched by bushes on either side.
ish Mafundikwa: Roger is taking me to see a White-backed Vulture colony not too far from Victoria Falls. We’re in a national park in a very beautiful part of the country. Everything is green and dense because we had very good rains in Zimbabwe this year. There’s a lot of wildlife, but because it's so green we can’t see too much of it. You see the odd herd of elephants, giraffes, the omnipresent baboons and monkeys, and a lot of birds.
ish Mafundikwa: Roger is an expert at keeping the truck on the road and also looking out for nests. I guess I'll have to call him eagle-eye Roger because he sees things that my city eyes don't see at all. So we are driving through the colony, and hopefully, we'll come across some more nests.
ish Mafundikwa: We do come across quite a few nests, and we stop under a tree where a vulture is sitting in a nest. Another one perches on a branch close by. I ask Roger if they could be a couple.
Roger Parry: Yeah, male and female. So it's a breeding pair. They mate for life. So they will be partners for life. A little bit earlier, we watched a bird flying over with some nesting material in its beak. And, it went straight into a tree and then hopped across to another tree where the nest was. And there was a female sitting on the nest. So she was probably, you know, sorting out the nest, and the male was bringing the nesting material to her to add to the nest.
ish Mafundikwa: Very responsible males, isn't it?
Roger Parry: Absolutely.
ish Mafundikwa: Vulture populations are decreasing rapidly. One reason is how they breed. Out with us in the bush is Obert Phiri. He works in vulture conservation in South Africa and knows a lot about them.
Obert Phiri: They lay one egg a year. Um, they can re-lay another one if it's broken.
ish Mafundikwa: So just one egg per year?
Roger Parry: And that's one of the problems. You know, they take quite a long time to reproduce. So, per year, you know, they will only produce one chick. And there is obviously, a mortality rate as well depending on the environmental conditions and, and the threats, et cetera.
ish Mafundikwa: And, how long does it take for a vulture to mature; to lay eggs?
Obert Phiri: Seven years. Seven years is when they start being adult, and laying eggs. It takes about 54 days for the egg to hatch. It takes about four months for the baby to leave the nest.
Roger Parry: Seven years to start breeding. And then with white-backs, they normally live between 40, 45 years.
ish Mafundikwa: 45 years, that's long!
Roger Parry: Yeah, it is.
ish Mafundikwa: Not like a chicken.
Roger Parry: Yeah, more like a parrot, I think.
ish Mafundikwa: Roger has been looking after the colony since 2014. He says there’s been a 16 percent increase in nests within this colony over the past year.
Roger Parry: So it's quite positive at the moment. But we need to watch it quite closely.
ish Mafundikwa: At this point, we take a lunch break. We park the truck under a tall tree. A vulture lands in the branches above us, which is when we realize there was another vulture there all along. We’re not quite prepared for what happens next.
[sounds of vultures mating]
ish Mafundikwa: So Roger, you know all the good spots. We just heard the sound of vultures mating.
Roger Parry: Yeah, absolutely. So this time of the year, the birds are quite active. The pairs are coming together. There's some social interaction between the pairs. And the one bird flew into obviously the mate that was sitting in the tree there. And they've just been spending the last couple of minutes mating.
ish Mafundikwa: The vulture’s long reproduction timeline contributes to their rapid decline. But there's something else about its nature that makes it a target for poachers.
ish Mafundikwa: And Roger, what's going on here, because I see a lot of vultures up there, very high, flying around very slowly. What are they doing? Are they looking for food on the ground?
Roger Parry: So vultures are soaring birds. They've got those really big wings. And, what they do is they wait for these thermals, which is basically hot air rising. And, in this case, you can see that there's birds all the way up, and you can see that thermal quite clearly just by looking at the birds. And they'll go up to move, or looking for food as well. And their eyesight is extremely good as well. Probably about 10 times better than humans. So they can see, either carcasses or they can see other activity of other birds from miles and miles away. And then they will then go to that spot.
ish Mafundikwa: Okay, they've got brilliant eyesight as well.
Roger Parry: Brilliant eyesight.
ish Mafundikwa: So I guess we change your name from eagle-eye to vulture-eye.
ish Mafundikwa: This superpower of the vultures is also what makes them a target of poachers — the biggest threat to vultures. They give away the location of poached animals like elephants by circling overhead.
The next day, I went to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge to meet Moses Garira, the wildlife officer there. He could tell me about how the vultures’ instinct makes them the enemy of poachers. When I arrived, the vultures were already circling high above.. And landing nearby for a feeding frenzy. That’s because the lodge also doubles as a vulture restaurant. Every lunch hour, the Lodge lays out some meat leftovers and trimmings from their kitchen in an open space. Moses told me they do this to supplement the vultures’ diet with a safe food: meat that’s not poisoned by poachers:
Moses Garira: Some of those poachers, they sometimes poison the whole elephant carcass, hoping that all the vultures in the region will come feed and die, so that next illegal hunting, there won't be any vultures, or less vultures to report them to the national park game rangers.
ish Mafundikwa: Moses says that poachers go to great lengths to kill vultures, even sometimes poisoning an elephant carcass. That’s because once the poachers kill an animal, vultures will start circling overhead -- in effect, reporting the poachers to the game rangers.
Moses Garira: Some of those poachers realized that using firearms to kill elephants is also reporting themselves to the game rangers.
ish Mafundikwa: To avoid detection, Moses says, the poachers poison water holes or where animals lick natural salts. This, he says, ends up killing not just the targeted elephants, but other animals and birds as well.
Local farmers also unintentionally play a role. Most of the farmers in the region practice subsistence farming and own livestock. So, if they find some of their livestock being killed by predators, they might want to find a way to get rid of the predator.
Moses Garira: That's when they come up with ideas such as putting poison on the leftover carcass, hoping that as those predators come to finish their kill, they feed on poisoned meat and all die, but forgetting that those predators are also very, very sensitive animals.
ish Mafundikwa: Moses explains what a scenario it’s like when these farmers poison a carcass, and then the vultures come to eat it.
Moses Garira: So imagine, if I put poisoned meat here, all my vultures I would have just killed in just five to 10 minutes. It means that this whole flock which came here today can disappear on just one carcass.
ish Mafundikwa: And it’s not only the vultures directly poisoned which die. There are also indirect deaths.
Moses Garira: And imagine if all the birds which came here were all females having babies back in the nest. That would also mean the number of babies who we would have lost. Cause if the mothers die here on the feeding site, it means the babies would also die in the nest -- that is, of starvation.
Ari Daniel: Poisoning is by far the biggest threat facing vultures in Sub-Saharan Africa. A few years ago in Zimbabwe, one poisoned elephant carcass killed almost a hundred White-backed Vultures. After the break, what’s being done about it.
Ari Daniel: In July of 2020 the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust took in a Lappet-faced Vulture with a broken wing. After about 9 months in recovery, it’s ready to be released back into the wild. And ish was there to witness it.
ish Mafundikwa: Before the release Obert secures a solar-powered tracking device onto the bird's back with plastic cables. The device connects to the mobile phone system wherever the bird flies, and it can be traced as long as the device is working. The devices are fitted onto the birds to study their behavior and movements. After fitting the device, it was time to release it into the wild. I go along to the opening in the bush where it’s to be let out of a cage.
ish Mafundikwa: Obert and Roger are going to open the door; let's see what happens. It's now open, oh it's coming out, it jumped out, it's looking around. I can see the tracking device on its back. Roger says it’s about eight grams. Oooh, it's spreading its wings, that's majestic. It's about two meters wide, the wing-span. It’s looking at us, maybe saying goodbye. The wingspan is more than two meters I think. Oooh, it's flying off, it just took off. That's amazing, really beautiful there it goes, there it goes, lands.
So it can fly. How does it feel, Roger?
Roger Parry: It's good; it's good to see this bird out; there was a bit of a concern that it wasn't able to get airborne, but it is flying quite nicely.
ish Mafundikwa: The vulture does fly quite nicely, but not for long. Probably because he was cooped up for so long. He is taken back to the enclosure at the Trust, and an attempt to get him to fly off is made the following day. We all go back to the open space where he is to be re-released. He flies a little longer than the day before, but then starts walking along the ground.
So I leave Victoria Falls before the rehabilitated vulture takes off, but a few days later, it finally flies off, and they're tracking it. The bird makes numerous stops, including at the place where it was found all those months ago.
The tracking device Obert strapped onto the vulture has a story; it has been used before to track another vulture. The device was fitted on the back of the bird and was sending signals of its whereabouts. Then one day, the tracker suddenly stopped sending a signal. After some days, the signal returned, but it seemed the vulture was flying along the highway. Obert says they found this strange.
ish Mafundikwa: Because vultures don't follow the road,right?
Obert Phiri: No, they don't drive.
ish Mafundikwa: They followed the signal with the police, and the device was found in someone's home!
ish Mafundikwa: So he invited the police to his home, he reported himself. Do you know what happened to that individual?
Obert Phiri: I think he was arrested; poaching is not allowed in Zimbabwe. Especially with the vultures -- they are critically endangered species.
ish Mafundikwa: After four days in Victoria Falls, I am back on the road, but before heading home, I stop over in Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. There I meet Josephine Maringa, a researcher at the city's National University of Science and Technology. Josephine has been studying the breeding of White-backed Vultures near Bulawayo since 2016.
Josephine Maringa: Every year, we have seen an increase in numbers. We started with about 12 nests initially; after two years, we saw about 19. And then, the 2020 surveys, I think we had more than 45 nests, so that's been quite exciting to see the numbers increasing.
ish Mafundikwa: But it isn't all good news… there's still a threat to the colony, even while it's expanding.
Josephine Maringa: Of course, we've got some places where they are shifting because there are new settlements near those nests, so they are shifting inwards towards the core of the ranch, but we've generally seen an increase in numbers.
ish Mafundikwa: So Josephine touched on another threat to the vultures' survival: human pressure on habitat. But just as human beings are a threat to vulture survival, they can also be the solution. Josephine is optimistic the birds and human beings can co-exist.
Josephine Maringa: So the next stage is to go around communities doing awareness campaigns. But it's not just us sharing information; the ultimate goal is to have people involved, actively involved in setting up their vulture-safe zone.
ish Mafundikwa: The community education project is a collaboration with BirdLife Zimbabwe. A few such community groups are already taking shape across the country.
Josephine Maringa: We are going to have communities having vulture support groups where people can tailor-make conservation goals for their area, and then have them push those goals themselves.
ish Mafundikwa: Christal Dube, a farmer, leads one of the community groups in Gwaai, a wildlife-rich area north of Bulawayo. He acknowledges a noticeable reduction in vulture numbers in his area, but he was not aware of the importance of the birds until BirdLife Zimbabwe educated him.
Christal Dube: If people don't understand the value and the importance of that bird, they might think it is a useless bird. But we have since realized that it plays a very important role within the environment, particularly in terms of cleaning up carcasses, the reduction on diseases, it does help quite a lot.
ish Mafundikwa: After Bulawayo, I got back in my truck for the five-hour drive back home. Back in Harare, there is another threat to vultures that I wanted to learn more about.
Fadzai Matsvimbo: There is harvesting of birds to be used in the traditional medicine trade where there is the belief that vultures can enhance contact with the ancestors, look into the future, predict results.
ish Mafundikwa: This is Fadzai Matsvimbo of BirdLife Zimbabwe. Her organization and other stakeholders, including the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, the custodians of flora and fauna in the country, created the Zimbabwe Vulture Action Plan. One part of that plan targets the belief-based use of vulture parts by traditional healers.
ish Mafundikwa: So vultures become a victim in traditional medicine, where their body parts are harvested to support this traditional medicine.
ish Mafundikwa: Though it is not the most severe threat to the species, it does contribute to their diminishing numbers.
ish Mafundikwa: One can argue that traditional medicine has long been part of African cosmology. You know, it's not a new phenomenon. But we also have to look at the sustainability side. We are a growing population; the birds are in decline. Although we do understand that spirituality in Africans is a big component of our lives, it's no longer sustainable for us to be harvesting animal products for use in traditional medicine.
ish Mafundikwa: One of the goals of the Vulture Action Plan is to discourage the practice. To this end, BirdLife Zimbabwe recently invited healers who belong to the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, Zinatha, to a workshop in Harare. Some 30 healers showed up.
George Kandiero: We are a little group here. Our association has more than 60 to 80 thousand members, so we need to spread the gospel.
ish Mafundikwa: George Kandiero is Zinatha’s chairperson.
George Kandiero: It's a good thing that Birdlife Zimbabwe has called us for this meeting. Hopefully, it's a start to something big. You knoow, we can use the media, we can use social media as well and other forms of communication to try and conscientize our members, you know, the negative side of using these vultures for traditional purposes, for spiritual purposes.
Ari Daniel: So, ish, the vultures in your part of the world are in real trouble -- all over the world really, although not as extreme in some places. So I'm curious, after spending time with all these people working to save them, what do you think is going to be the biggest help or most immediate solution?
ish Mafundikwa: To be honest, I'm just so frustrated by the slow response from the authorities. Remember that tracking device Obert told me about earlier which the police tracked to a person’s home?
Ari Daniel: Yes, yes, I've been wondering what happened with that.
ish Mafundikwa: Me too! And even with all of my investigative skills, I couldn’t find anyone that would go on record to tell me what happened. But I get the sense that's because it wasn't really pursued. The law is clear; killing a vulture means up to three years in prison or a more than $2000 fine, but it doesn't seem like anyone is really going after these guys.
Ari Daniel: I wonder if a punishment like that is the best deterrent.
ish Mafundikwa: Well, certainly not if it isn't enforced. We can't just blame or punish the poachers, though. They do what they do because there's a market and demand.
Ari Daniel: Right, and what frustrates me is that those people driving the industry don't seem to be held accountable either.
ish Mafundikwa: That's true, too. However, Roger thinks with more regional cooperation, vultures still have a chance.
Roger Parry: We have a good population of vultures here. They don't belong to us; they move over several countries. We share them with Botswana, Zambia, even Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia.
So they are really vulnerable. We have started putting systems in place where the different countries coordinate on vulture conservation. So there is some positive stuff happening, and I think vultures do have a chance.
ish Mafundikwa: All I know is that after spending time with the vultures and learning about how important they are to our ecosystem, I want them to be protected. With everything we've got.
Ari Daniel: Studying vultures in and around Zimbabwe means covering vast distances. But on the other side of the globe, in the U.S., there’s a team in the smallest town in the smallest state doing tiny work, banding little birds.
Kim Gaffett: People say, they always want to know what's your favorite bird? Right? Well. My favorite bird is the one that's in my hand, right then. And so right at this moment, my favorite bird is a White-throated Sparrow.
Ari Daniel: Meet the bird banders of Block Island, Rhode Island. Next time on Threatened.
This episode was produced by ish Mafundikwa and me, Ari Daniel. Edited by Caitlin Pierce of the Rough Cut Collective. Audio mix by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael of Final Final V2. Our theme song and original music were composed by Ian Coss, with additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Threatened is a production of BirdNote and overseen by Content Director Allison Wilson with production assistance from Sam Johnson. You can find our show notes with additional resources, BirdNote’s other podcasts, and much more at BirdNote dot org. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.