Soaring in spite of the odds!

We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope

– Martin Luther Jr-

An African White-backed Vulture parents lands on its nest in Shangani, Zimbabwe. In the nest, a big nestling lying flat.

If you have been following vulture conservation reports in Southern Africa in recent years, you would agree to that the plight of this guild of raptors is rather dire and as it seems, another sad extinction story could be on the horizon. However, amidst all these devastating reports of massive losses to poisoning, power-lines and the myriad of other threats they face in Africa it is prudent for us to keep hope alive as in Europe, Asia, the Americas and no doubt Africa, so many great conservation successes are on the horizon for vultures today. While I was in Botswana in June, I heard of a catastrophic poisoning not too far from where I was, close to 600 vultures were poisoned on a poached elephant carcass a few months after a 5yr long hunting ban on elephants had been lifted. I was devastated. The Smithsonian Magazine reports that between 2012 and 2014, researchers catalogued 2,044 poaching-related vulture deaths in seven African countries.

Earth hath no sorrow that earth cannot heal

– John Muir –

Often times in all spheres of life it is the bad news that gets more coverage, speed and makes a more lasting impression. Wars, disease outbreaks, poverty, global warming and the reality and threat of extinction on every living thing (except of course ourselves). Bad news makes for good press I suppose. As real as bad news is, there is still real good news and hope in everything, something we are doing right, something that is still going right and if it had gone to the ashes, ambers it can rise like a phoenix from. We may never answer all the earth’s problems and repair all the damage we have subjected it to, but we need to believe in order to start out and hope as we keep on.

The Guadalupe Caracara is the only raptor known to have gone extinct at the beginning of the 20th century in central America. Since then, many island raptors have been suspected to have gone extinct in the wild and in most occasion have been rediscovered e.g. Madagascar’s Serpent Eagle. In North America, birds of prey like the iconic Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon were almost lost to DDT and Goshawks in Europe to egg theft and other factors. All these species have made their comebacks. In recent years, Bald Eagle numbers have been on the increase leaving conservationists, researchers and the American citizens very happy over the successful conservation intervention. Vultures have in the last 30 years had unprecedented declines in all their ranges with extreme rates of loss in the Indian sub-continent causing declines of over 95% in some species in just a decade. Of the 23 species in the world 19 are at risk of extinction, the odds seem to be stacked up against this group of birds and if we could all hazard a guess in some lucky draw we would not bet on them as not being the next extinction story. This is very sad.

Kerri Wolter teaching me how to hold the first vulture I ever handled. October 2014

I have worked with vultures for a few years now from the beginning of my career and I have the hope of a child for their survival. Maybe seeing them come in at the rehabilitation centre at VulPro, helpless, dying and some unable to walk then seeing them fight very hard to keep their grip on life and fly off after release gave me this immense hope. I have met a lot of people and vultures on this journey, that have cemented this hope, phenomenal and extraordinary individuals. People like my Professor Peter Mundy who has been studying vultures since 1970 and wrote an amazing book on African Vultures; Kerri Wolter of VulPro who has dedicated her life to vulture conservation; Andre Botha of EWT who has been studying and conserving vultures all over Africa, Linda van den Heever of Birdlife South Africa and in Zimbabwe; Josephine Mundava and Fadzai Matsvimbo of Birdlife Zimbabwe and many more people from all over the world who are now good friends of mine, the hopefuls. They are all doing their part for African vultures, it is not easy but all of these people refuse to see any of these birds tap out and be history.

On a tree, in search of Vulture babies.

Ten years ago on a piece of paper, I said to myself that I would be a conservationist, researching and conserving God’s beautiful creation. I think I have navigated myself well and kept true to my vision. Vulture conservation must have called me before I fully comprehended the meaning of the word. Today, atop a 15m tree on a windy day, tired and shaking, I lift myself up, raise my head through the dense sprouting branches to see the most beautiful sight, a fluffy ball of a huge vulture baby. A hopeful inexperienced little one determined to survive and keep its species alive. Nestled on a bunch of twigs on the loftiest tree just enough to sit still on, you can already see in the behaviour of both parent and baby how everything is done out of necessity, the necessity to survive and thrive. Pretty soon this sweet meet and greet is ruined by either a lunge for your eye in defence or regurgitation (throwing up) of the most putrid stuff you’ll ever come across and you get to work quick bagging the little rascal and lowering it down to your comrades to deal with the stinking attitude or bag. This is not your conventional love story it is hard to understand for many, but for many who have fallen in love with vultures, it is a privilege and duty to see them through to generations to come. I cannot and I do not want to imagine a world without vultures. Therefore, I will endeavour to prevent such a world from ever becoming a reality. Is there something important to you, something you are passionate about? What are you doing about it to bring the change you want even when faced with a nasty reality?

Teamwork makes the Dreamwork!


The Debshan Vulture Survey Team of 2019

Prof Peter Mundy, Ms Josphine Mundava, Ms Lovelater Sebele, Ms Lynnia Mukarati and Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo aka Big-Birdie

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