South African vultures are facing everincreasing threats. Of the nine vulture species that occur in South Africa, seven are listed in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. The main cause of the demise of this important raptor group is a declining food source, although other issues such as loss of foraging areas, electrocution on electricity pylons, and inadvertent poisoning also have a strong influence on their numbers.
The Kruger to Canyons Birding Route, a BirdLife South Africa project, has recently been involved in developing a number of infrastructure development projects in the Lowveld including the establishment of a vulture restaurant and hide on the Grietjie Private Nature Reserve, 20 km south of Phalaborwa. The reserve forms part of the Greater Kruger National Park.
The purpose of this new viewing hide is threefold. Its main purpose is to provide exceptional, close-up views of these magnificent birds, but more importantly it will serve as an educational facility highlighting the plight of vulture populations in southern Africa which are in a drastic state of decline.
As well as reaching birders, BirdLife South Africa plans to bring school groups to the hide to show them the importance of vultures in the ecology of the Lowveld, as well as to dispel the myths surrounding the birds. Lastly the hide will also be used by sister organisations, such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust, who play a critical role in monitoring vulture populations in the Lowveld.
Carcasses are normally only put down at the weekends, ensuring that the birds do not become dependent on the additional food source. This vulture restaurant is one of just a few that are located within the reserve and hyaena and other carnivores frequent the carcasses.
Spotted Hyaenas are particularly useful in breaking up the remaining bones from old carcasses, and vulture restaurants such as this have been proven to increase the breeding success of vultures by providing bone fragments which substantially increases the calcium content of their diet.
Mark Anderson, executive director of BirdLife South Africa, officially opened the vulture restaurant on 20 March 2009. Since then all five locally occurring vulture species have become regular customers. The visitor book also reveals that it is not uncommon to find yourself surrounded by more than 150 vultures during feeding time.
The vulture restaurant is easily accessible and open to the public. Reservations can be made through Ian Owtram ian@antares. co.za or 0832868281, or through the reserve warden on 0788758722. A small fee of R30/person is charged which will go directly back into maintenance and providing carcasses for the vultures.