A specialised clean-up crew: learn all about the vultures of Kenya
For International Vulture Awareness Day, we’d like to profile the multitude of species of vultures that occur in Kenya. They are heroes – cleaning up the leftovers of others in our savannah ecosystems, and making sure everything is prim and proper; disease free.
The Critically Endangered Hooded Vulture is a small vulture with a long thin bill. It has a pink bare face and a hood of beige feathers (brown in juveniles). Contrary to most other vultures, it searches for food at low heights. It specifically targets small carcasses where competition is low. It is often early at the scene of predator kills, but being low in dominance it has to wait for other vultures to finish, meanwhile trying to steal bits and pieces from the edge of the scene, or bugs that are attracted to the carcass. Once the larger vultures are done, their thin bill gives them an advantage to pick the last meat from between the bones of a carcass.
Hooded Vultures nest in dense canopies of riverine trees, in small and hard to find nests. They’re often located near camps and lodges, as those areas are avoided by the larger White-backed Vultures. They’re more common in western Kenya, and in coastal forests such as the Shimba Hills.
Our resident Hooded, Woody, came from Laikipia after being poisoned. He can’t be released as he has a resulting corneal scar in his right eye that will never resolve. He lives at the Naivasha Raptor Centre.
Hooded Vulture | Necrosyrtes monachus | Tumbusi Kapuchini
The Egyptian Vulture, once common and widespread in the highlands and the Rift Valley of Kenya, is in peril. In 2007, it was the first vulture species occurring in Africa to be up listed to Endangered on the IUCN Red list, yet no real efforts have been made to conserve the resident breeding populations in Africa. There is not even a systematic monitoring scheme in Africa and the current status in many African countries is unknown.
In Kenya, pairs are most frequently sighted around livestock enclosures in northern Kenya and a few pairs roost and possibly nest at Kwenia in southwest Kenya.
If we don’t want to lose the Egyptian Vulture on our watch, we have to step up our conservation efforts. These will have to include those methods adopted by European countries to restore their population – their migrants now comparatively more common in Kenya, than our own population. These restorative programmes include hands-on management such as captive breeding, nest protection, double clutching, which in turn creates enormous public interest and sympathy for the species.
This species has become known for their use of tools (a sure sign of intelligence); birds have been recorded using stones to break into Ostrich eggs – something seemingly impenetrable to Lions!
Egyptian Vulture | Neophron percnopterus | Tumbusi Uso-njano
The White-backed Vulture was once the commonest and most widespread vulture in Africa but it is suffering rapid declines and is listed as Critically Endangered. In 2011 a shocking decline of 52% was noted in the Maasai Mara over a period of 15 years. Imagine the declines outside formally protected areas. It is barely present in Tsavo East and north eastern Kenya. Its former nesting areas of the Athi Kapiti in the 1940s have not seen any nests since then.
White-backed Vulture should be doing well in Kenya. It prefers open woodlands and savanna grasslands with high trees and large carcasses of mammals like zebras and wildebeest. Both were once widely available in Kenya, but conversion of habitat for agriculture and declining wild ungulate populations threaten their existence. Add electrocution from electricity pylons, drowning in water reservoirs and direct and indirect poisoning and a grim future reveals itself. The Kenya Bird of Prey Trust collaborates with several organisations to reduce the threats to these vultures.
White-backeds are notoriously aggressive, even when severely injured. They rarely tame in captivity, unlike their cousin Rüppell’s Vultures, and are usually the species that pick fights around the carcass.
White-backed Vulture | Gyps africanus | Tumbusi Mgongo-mweupe
Rüppell's Vultures begin their soaring flight from a high location, like the cliffs at Kwenia and Mount Ololokwe. Alternatively they use thermal updrafts on a heated plain for which they have to wait a few hours after sunrise to get strong enough. Once up they spend most of the day flying, searching for food. As they are selective eaters, only carrion, they sometimes have to fly a long way to find food - up to 150 km from their nest site. This makes them susceptible to collisions with power lines and windmills.
These Critically Endangered vultures share the same destiny as their close relatives the White-backed Vultures. There is no doubt that poisoning remains their greatest threat. The Kenya Bird of Prey Trust works with several organisations to help prevent casualties and to rescue and rehabilitate injured vultures.
Rüppell’s Vultures seem to be the smartest of all the vultures; their highly communal lifestyle lends them to it. They readily calm down and tame up in captivity, quickly realising that the human handlers provide them with everything they need, and are not a threat to them. They love company and attention, and get very jealous of others that are afforded it. You can see them working things out, and they rarely use the same strategy twice to get what they want. We have 5 Rüppell’s Vultures at the Naivasha Raptor Centre, and they’re consistently the biggest hit with visitors – they all have their own personalities and characters.
Rüppell's Vulture | Gyps rueppellii | Tumbusi-mbuga
The White-headed Vulture has a very conspicuous appearance. It has a triangular head with white down on the crown and nape, forming a slight crest. The face has bare pink skin, the bill is a pinkish red with a black tip contrasting with the blue cere and base of the bill, making it look kind of like a young girl that has played with her mother’s make-up box or the classic “Geisha girl”.
The White-headed Vultures are shy and monogamous; more eagle-like in ecology as they defend territories and forage in pairs, and have also been recorded hunting and killing their own prey.
The White-headed Vulture, native to Africa, has seen catastrophic population declines and is now listed as Critically Endangered. This vulture is highly sensitive to land-use changes and human disturbance and is now concentrated in large protected areas. We know of only a handful of pairs in the Mara, one of their Kenyan strongholds, and only 14 pairs in the Tsavo ecosystem, an area of 48,000 sq km.
Just what precisely has led to their dramatic loss is difficult to determine, as they do not feed at large (poisoned) carcasses in the same way as the “Gyps” vultures. They prefer small carrion and we have even seen them hunting hares, though unsuccessfully. One speculation is that they may feed on dead poisoned vultures or those jackals that also get poisoned, a suitably sized carrion. Given the numerical abundance of these potential food items far above the number of poisoned bait animals, the maths alone could explain such a catastrophic decline. And because more than half of the White-headed vultures are not involved in mating, the population has a very low reproduction rate and recovery will take a very long time. All the more reason to intensify their protection as soon as possible.
White-headed Vulture | Trigonoceps occipitalis | Tumbusi Kichwa-cheupe
The Lappet-faced Vulture derives its name from the large fleshy skin folds, or lappets, on the side of its head. It has the strongest beak out of all the vultures, an adaptation that allows them to almost specialise on the harder parts of the carcass – bone, sinews, cartilage and tendons. Contrary to the popular myth, Lappets do not, and cannot, rip into a carcass to allow others to feed, as their bills do not occlude like a mammal’s jaws do. They can pull and tear, but not chew and slice. The Lappet-faced is a very large vulture and can eat up to 1450g in a single meal, about 15-20% of its body weight!
Lappet-faced Vultures prefer open savannah with large, isolated flat-topped trees to provide nest-sites. They have a huge range, but the population is thinly scattered. Currently listed as Endangered, they need intensive monitoring and conservation action to prevent an uplisting to Critically Endangered. Recent work by our team has revealed a healthy population in the Masaai Mara though near extinctions have occurred in former breeding areas such as the larger Athi Kapiti plains.
They’re known as gentlemen in captivity – very polite and relaxed after a time. Our resident Lappet at the NRC, Horace, is the embodiment of politeness. He keeps himself to himself, only occasionally breaking up fights between the others when they get out of hand. He does enjoy company though– a good head scratch is key (part of their allopreening reputation), and the customary game of tug-of-war.
Lappet-faced Vulture | Torgos tracheliotus | Tumbusi Ngusha
The Palm-nut Vulture. Listed as Least Concern is certainly either threatened or endangered in Kenya. In Kenya it has declined in the rivers and lakes it formerly resided in due largely to the drying up of water courses and loss of protected riparian tall woodland and palms. It is fortunately adaptable and is still found in Entebbe and Kampala in Uganda, but in much lower numbers than previously. In Kenya it may still be occasionally seen on the banks of larger rivers and lake Victoria and the coastal forests.
The Palm-nut Vulture is not a complete vegetarian; about 35% of their diet consists of fish, crabs, reptiles, invertebrates and small birds and mammals. The latter are generally hunted when injured or otherwise disabled and occasionally taken as carrion. Due to their mainly vegetarian diet they are rarely persecuted although they are often killed and eaten in western Africa.
Palm-nut Vulture | Gypohierax angolensis | Tumbusi-miwese
The Lammergeyer, or Bearded Vulture, is native to Kenya and occurs in remote, isolated afro-montane cold highlands, with vertiginous terrain across Africa. Preferred areas for the East African population are not dependent upon large predators although the Lammergeyer feeds on the bones of large carcasses, which make up 70–90% of all food. In most areas, and especially in Ethiopia where the bulk of Africa’s population exists, it is dependent upon sheep and goats that have died mostly from inanition as well as it being a frequent visitor to rural slaughter houses where it is well tolerated.
The Lammergeyer is not a vulture (nor is it bearded), and nor does it feed like one. It is adapted to swallow long fragments of bone up to 30cm after it shatters them by dropping them on large flat rock surfaces. In this way it avoids competition for food from the soft tissue eating vultures.
The most prevalent threats to the Lammergeier are poisoning, collision with power lines, direct persecution and predictably with increased wind farms. Another major threat is the increasing rate of anthropogenic disturbance of their habitat due to access with modern day vehicles and adventure activities. An example is Hell’s Gate National Park where the Lammergeyer vanished in 1979 due to rock climbing. Attempts to bring it back in 2000-2001 were thwarted by increasing geothermal exploitation, increased tourism and an explosion in the horticultural industry around the small park. We cannot overlook the reality of climate change and for a species that prefers cold high altitude plateaus, global warming will predictably force it to higher altitudes, where ultimately the land will shrink exponentially.
There is no doubt that the local status of the Lammergeyer in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda is Critically Endangered even by the early 1980s and much more so today with its possibly being functionally extinct as a regular breeder in Kenya and Uganda. While it may have always been extralimital and never at high numbers, such outliers are crucially important to the species genetic diversity and should never be left to go extinct without efforts to conserve them. Such abandonment of responsibility is tangible today when limited resources call upon us to save the “core” population. It has the irony of long being Globally listed as Least Concern (it is only recently listed as Near Threatened in part recognition of its wider distribution) which is in part owed to its intensive restorative management in Europe. Adoption of those same methods to reinstate the species are essential in Eastern Africa and although proven they are unlikely to be enacted because of its better status elsewhere, highlighting a potential inadequacy of global status summaries. Its Global status therefore makes it difficult to attract attention and funding for its conservation in Eastern Africa. Help us raise awareness for the need of raptor conservation action by supporting our work.
Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture| Gypaetus barbatus | Tumbusi Mlakondoo
Help us protect our free-of-charge clean-up crew
All in all, each species has their own role and preferred spot around a typical large ungulate carcass – and in combination with one and other, the result is sterilisation. In this day and age, with a major pandemic swirling and strengthening, the part they play cannot, and should not be understated. Let us learn the lessons from the Asian Vulture Crisis (where the Indian subcontinent lost 99.97% of their vulture populations in 25 years, leading to huge detriment to human health), and protect our scavengers; our free-of-charge crew of janitors. We need them now more than ever.
How you can help:
Share our social media posts so we can raise awareness to as wide an audience as possible.
Visit the Naivasha Raptor Center and hang out with our gang of vultures. Leave with a better understanding of the species and the need for their conservation. You are guaranteed to form a whole new attitude toward vultures by the time you leave!
Add your sightings to the Global Raptor Information network (GRIN) or eBird by Cornell University. Both are large scale databases and you can sign up and use an app to easily enter data and raptor sightings, plus extra information like age, sex, breeding status and behaviour. eBird also let's you upload photos and audio which are added to the MacCauley Library.
And if you have the opportunity, please support our work with a financial donation.
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Kenya Bird of Prey Trust
Understand - Protect - Restore