A Tail of Vulture Whisperers and Restaurants
Story by Louise de Waal, photos by Mario Fazekas, Eleanor Muller & Louise de Waal
I gaze at a defrosting bone from the hide, camera ready and patiently waiting in the VERY fresh morning air at 2,285 m altitude. Two ravens arrive finding an easy meal. While they peck at the flesh, the bone rolls out of sight. Jeremia puts it back on top of the rock. Time is slowly ticking by. I add a layer of clothing to keep the chill out. Suddenly, some action. I get excited, camera pointed in the direction of the out of sight bone, but start laughing as soon as I realise a local dog runs off with this half-defrosted treat.
The intended guests at Witsieshoek Vulture restaurant are the Bearded vultures that have some of their last breeding sites in the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains. These impressive birds are classed as endangered in South Africa and can be seen soaring overhead on clear days. Each morning Jeremia, Witsies Vulture Whisperer, talks about his special connection with these scavengers and shares his knowledge before placing a big bone on a prominent rock. The waiting game begins for either Bearded or Cape vultures to appear from the nearby cliffs.
This daily event is not just for the entertainment of Witsies’ guests. Vulture restaurants can make a contribution to the survival of these birds, as both species are threatened by the expansion of human activities into their natural ranges. Many vultures are killed when they feed on poisoned carcasses left out by farmers deliberately targeting predators such as jackals that threaten their livestock. Their parts are often collected for use in traditional medicines and they are known to collide with power lines and wind turbines.
Vulture restaurants however are no fast food events. A lot of patience and some luck come into the equation. I just saw the Cape vulture circle the area and depart without feeding, but there is something almost hypnotic about watching their characteristic flight in ever decreasing circles as they descend closer to the feeding area. In fact, you will find that some of your best photo opportunities are when the birds pass overhead, revealing their impressive wing span and plumage.