They've never been rated as "nature's beauties" but "this lover of all things decomposing" performs one of nature’s most important tasks: processing the bodies of the dead so their nutrients can be recycled back into the environment.
Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, which is marked on the first Saturday of September every year, and brings to the forefront one of the planet’s "most recognisable, albeit misunderstood", birds, says BirdLife South Africa.
To help safeguard ever-threatened vultures, BirdLife South Africa has today declared the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, situated in a remote corner of the Northern Cape as South Africa's first Vulture Safe Zone.
The reserve protects unspoilt wilderness in the heart of the green Kalahari and will be "leading the way in what is hoped will become a vast network of safe zones that will not only allow vulture populations to stabilise, but to thrive.
"We need to nurture our vultures so that they can nurture our land. By becoming a Vulture Safe Zone, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve has taken us one step closer to ensuring the survival of these magnificent birds," says BirdLife South Africa.
"Lappet-faced Vultures are known to breed on the reserve, and White-backed Vultures, which breed further north along the Kuruman River, regularly frequent the reserve to feed and bathe."
It has worked closely with reserve management to implement measures to safeguard vulture populations on the property.
"They (Tswalu Kalahari) are to be commended for the commitment shown to the conservation of our dwindling vulture populations," says BirdLife South Africa. "We need to nurture our vultures so that they can nurture our land.
Vulture Safe Zones, explains Linda van den Heever, BirdLife South Africa's vulture project manager, are the future of vulture conservation in southern Africa.
"This is one of the most threatened group of birds on the planet. They forage over vast distances which complicates efforts to conserve them," she tells the Saturday Star.
"Simply protecting them within national parks and nature reserves is not sufficient. We now need vast areas where threats to vultures are removed or minimised as much as possible, and we can only do that if we get private landowners to manage their properties in ways that are conducive to vulture survival."
BirdLife SA says that without the ecosystem services that vultures provide, carcasses will be left to rot, attracting less specialised scavengers, such as jackals, rats and feral dogs. "This can then create the ideal circumstances for the spread of diseases such as rabies and canine distemper."
Vultures clean our environment and remove carcasses that could harbour potentially harmful bacteria," adds van den Heever.
"What makes vultures so special is that they provide all of these services free of charge. All they ask of us is that we appreciate their existence, and ensure that they will survive for generations to come."
But Africa’s vultures are facing an uncertain future. Three of South Africa’s nine vulture species, including the once-prolific White-backed Vulture, have declined to such an extent that they are now regarded as critically endangered.
Soaring flight gives vultures the ability to detect carcasses quickly and to cover vast distances in short periods of time.
"With poaching of Africa’s large herbivores reaching unprecedented levels in recent decades, vultures’ unique adaptations have bestowed on them the unexpected role of sentinels. A kettle of vultures circling over a carcass give rangers the opportunity to uncover poaching incidents quickly.
"Unfortunately unscrupulous poachers have caught on to this useful practice, and are now killing vultures in large numbers by poisoning poached carcasses. Since the beginning of 2019 at least 850 vultures have been lost in southern Africa in this way, with 537 vultures dying in one incident in Botswana alone," says BirdLife South Africa.
"The scale of these losses are unsustainable and its continuance could see the extinction of species such as the White-backed Vulture within our lifetimes."
Vultures, it says, are also the unwitting victims of farmers who use poisoned baits in their futile attempts to rid their properties of so-called “problem animals”, such as jackals and caracals.
Collisions with, and electrocutions on, powerlines play a major role in their decline, as does direct persecution, lead poisoning by fragments of ammunition, and inadvertent disturbance of breeding vultures at their colonies.
Conservation efforts are often hampered by the ecology of vultures themselves, as they can travel vast distances in search of food, paying no mind to country borders, says BirdLife SA.
Vulture Safe Zones were first conceptualised and applied by the RSPB, a sister organisation of BirdLife SA, in Asia, where vulture numbers were decimated by the use of the veterinary drug diclofenac,
They cover vast stretches of privately-owned land that are managed in ways that are conducive to vulture survival.
"The multi-species action plan to conserve African-Eurasian vultures has now brought this initiative to Africa, where it is being adapted to address the unique and multi- faceted challenges facing the continent’s vultures."
Vulture Safe Zones are an appropriately sized geographic area in which targeted conservation measures are undertaken to address the key threats relevant to the vulture species present.
These are developed in southern Africa as an approach to complement national and international efforts to reduce the impact of existing and emerging threats to stabilise and promote recovery of existing vulture populations.
The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), too, says it is too, "preparing to extend its conservation wings" with a long-term vulture conservation initiative that will ultimately see the establishment of three new important Vulture Safe Zones in strategic sites across South Africa - in Mpumalanga, the central Karoo district and the south central Karoo.
"Within these zones, we actively mitigate and, where possible, remove all major human-related threats to vultures," says the EWT.
An important step is the direct involvement of landowners in the establishment of Vulture Safe Zones, "engaging and empowering owners across large areas to commit to managing their properties in ways that will create safe spaces for vultures and other wildlife to thrive.
"This ensures that existing vulture populations stabilise and, importantly, provides the opportunity for vultures to return to their traditional home ranges and breeding sites. Vulture Safe Zones can also function as release sites for captive-bred birds and provide benefits for many other species.
The EWT has partnered with SANParks, private reserves including BlyOlifants and Timbavati Private Nature reserves, and other key stakeholders including the Kruger 2 Canyons Biosphere (K2C), Raptors Botswana, BirdLife International and BirdLife South Africa, to create Vulture Safe Zones in important vulture breeding and foraging habitat across the SADC region, to achieve this broad-scale conservation initiative across southern Africa.
"The first Vulture Safe Zone is in the vulture-rich region of Mpumalanga, with a focus on protecting important breeding clusters of critically endangered White-backed and Hooded vultures along the Lowveld riparian systems of the Blyde and Olifants rivers – a highly threatened vegetation type, which will also benefit from our conservation work.
"The second Vulture Safe Zone falls within the central Karoo district around one of the southernmost breeding colonies of White-backed Vultures in Mokala National Park.
"In the third site, we will establish a Vulture Safe Zone in the south-central Karoo to recover Cape Vulture populations that historically frequented – and even bred – in the region. "Our focus here comprises a critical conservation zone that spans across approximately 23 000 km2 in and around three major protected areas: the Karoo, Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks," says the EWT.