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The Value of a Vulture Restaurant

Vultures seem almost untouchable when you watch them circling on thermals high above the clouds.

They have an air of ease and confidence when they glide, as if they are the rulers of the sky—the masters of their destiny.

But for many of the vultures in Africa, their future is not looking so bright. In some countries, vultures are running out of wild space to forage for food, and when they do come back down to earth, they often face poaching and persecution by people.

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The great wingspan of a white-backed vulture. Photo by Claire Wright

In northern Zimbabwe, near the famous Victoria Falls, you can still see vultures circling in their hundreds, catching thermals high into the clouds. But those soaring dots in the sky are fading from the horizon.

There are eleven species of vultures in Africa, and experts say numbers have declined at an average of 62% over the past 30 years. Electrocution by power lines, loss of food supply, poisoning and use of their body parts for traditional medicines are among the reasons for the decline.

To aid the survival of vultures, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in northern Zimbabwe created a Vulture Culture Experience for tourists to view, learn about and photograph these remarkable birds.

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The dust and madness during a Vulture Culture session. Photo by Claire Wright

For the last five years, guests have had a unique perspective on vulture behaviour during a daily feeding experience. Staff put out leftover meat scraps from the kitchen in a designated feeding zone in front of the lodge and the vultures in the area are able to swoop down and grab the scraps. This meat supplements their diet.

The lodge wanted to enhance the existing experience for guests, so a newly constructed wooden deck and hide in front of the main lodge, was opened this month. On the deck a guide explains the ecological importance of vultures, and the plight they are facing, before being led down to the hide to view the vultures.

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The Vulture Culture viewing deck overlooking the Zambezi National Park. Photo by Claire Wright

The feeding program also allows the threatened vulture species—such as the hooded vulture and white-backed vulture—to be monitored by scientists with data collection and population counts.

Prominent vulture conservationist Kerri Wolter, of VulPro, visited last year, and was very positive about the Vulture Culture Experience at the lodge.

“What is important to understand,” she said, “is that a vulture restaurant does not create dependency, it is simply a supplementary feeding site to prevent vultures from starving to death. That is why vulture restaurants are so important as there is not enough food out there for vultures to rely on for natural feeding.”

“What the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is doing here is definitely positive. Look at the educational side: they are creating awareness. Also, they are not feeding them an entire carcass; they are feeding a leg or rump. So if they get 200 vultures a day none of them are going to go away full.

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Photo by Claire Wright

“Again, they are supplementing their diet, helping them to keep going so that they are actually able to search for food. If vultures are weak and starving then they actually don’t have the ability to forage for food, and they are actually helping with that.”

As vultures find their place in a changing African landscape, the supplementary feeding site at Victoria Falls will continue to provide support for the birds; data for researchers, and education for passionate people who want to know more.

The hope is that one day, when we look up at one of these magnificent birds soaring high, it will be a vision of true freedom.