The Shangaan people of South Africa have a proverb that translates as “Where the Vultures assemble, there is a kill.”
And that proverb proves true when you see dozens of vultures unashamedly fighting over every last scrap of meat left on the bones of a kill when you are on a Kruger Park safari.
When watching vultures at a kill, you will see the determination to get whatever scraps of meat they can get, eating up to a kilogram of meat at one sitting and being able to strip a carcass to bare bones within a couple of hours.
Vultures are not the birds we go looking for in the Kruger National Park, possibly because humans view them as dramatic raptors, scavengers and their appearance is not the most appealing. That being said, I think it’s time to set the record straight for our Vultures in the Kruger National Park.
Breaking the misconception
Vultures do in fact have a high sense of personal hygiene and after scavenging on carcasses, they will go take a bath in a nearby river. Vultures are also nature’s own ecologists, minimising animal disease by keeping the veld clean of carrion.
Vultures are not equipped to hunt live prey. Although they have strong beaks, their feet are not built to catch prey. They do, however, have incredibly sharp eyesight and they spend a lot of their time soaring on the thermal currents and keeping a keen eye on the activity on the ground.
Patience is truly the Vultures virtue. Once they have spotted a kill, they will settle into the trees nearby and sit and wait, sometimes up to 36 hours, to get their share of the kill. Have a closer look and you will notice that there are several different species of vultures putting their differences aside in the wait to feast.
Vultures living in the Kruger National Park
The White-Backed Vulture has a habit of roosting in dead trees and the Shangaan people believe that this enables the vulture to dream of death and thereby guide the vulture to a carcass. The head of the White-Headed Vulture, according to sangoma’s, will enable you to predict the future.
These are the most social of the vultures and can be found roosting together in large communes, tucking their heads under their wings as they sleep. Presently there are about 2000 pairs of White-Backed vultures in the Kruger National Park. These vultures can be found in lightly wooded grassland areas in the east and in the Mopane veld of the north of the Kruger National Park. These voracious scavengers arrive in great numbers at a kill site and often drive away other vultures that have started scavenging on a carcass.
Consisting of only about 48 breeding pairs in the Kruger National Park, the Lappet-Faced Vulture is a threatened Species. The Lappet-Faced Vulture is often last to arrive at a kill site. Dropping in a spiral from great heights, these vultures are undeterred by their late arrival, as their size can be used to chase off the other vultures. The Lappet-Faced Vulture eats the skin, tendons and ligaments which other vultures do not eat, making their late arrival irrelevant as those scraps are generally left by the other vultures.
All vultures are built to scavenge. The smallest of the species is the Hooded Vulture and being the smallest, it is often chased off a carcass by the larger vultures and therefore supplements its diet by catching lizards or eating termites.
Hooded Vultures are extremely clean feeders; they don’t like to get dirty while feeding. These vultures have a thinner beak which enables them to peck in smaller bone crevices to find bits of meat missed by the other vultures. There are only about 65 Hooded Vultures in the Kruger National Park, and they are found mostly along rivers. It is believed that these vultures will follow Wild Dogs or Hyenas in an attempt to be first at a kill. Unphased by hyena, Hooded Vultures will often get between the legs of hyaena to pick up a scrap to eat.
Normally found nesting in the Boabab trees in the north-eastern part of the Kruger National Park, White-Headed Vultures are an extremely rare sighting, as there are only about 500 breeding pairs in the whole of Southern Africa. White-Headed Vultures mate for life and the female is usually dominant. These vultures feed together and don’t limit their feeding to scavenging. White-Headed Vultures are not averse to stealing food from larger birds and will also attack and kill small mammals.
Book your private safari and perhaps you too can spot one of the vultures inhabiting the Kruger.