“Vulture Restaurant” gains ground in saving endangered species

It’s a classic African landscape scene, but one that’s becoming increasingly rare: a colony of vultures wafting high above tree canopies and making the slow, lazy circles for which they are famous. Vultures are endangered throughout the continent, and in South Africa, Drakensberg Sun remains one of the “very few resorts or lodges that you can go to and see 50 or 60 of them in the air at any given time”.

So says Roy Strydom, a local conservationist who has been making headway in his efforts to sustain the vulture population in the Berg area and raise awareness about the plight of an often unappreciated bird species that’s “critically important” to a safe and healthy ecology.

Roy, an independent operator, runs a vulture-feeding programme in close reach of the resort, where he offers guests and the general public an attraction with a difference, one that enhances the array of niche experiences that can be enjoyed while on holiday at Drakensberg Sun: the mouth-dropping, eye-opening opportunity to see the drama of a vulture feed live and in person at his “Vulture Restaurant”.

The restaurant in question is no fine-dining brick-and-mortar establishment but is entirely al fresco, and the patron’s table manners – not to mention experimental preferences in cuisine – might leave a lot to be desired. It’s an open section of bushveld where vultures flock to devour the animal carcasses Roy sources from farmers in the area and puts out for the birds in the interests of keeping them fed, ensuring that they have a non-harmful food source, and maintaining their population numbers.

“We use the carcasses of animals that are already dead or that otherwise had to be disposed of due to illness or injury,” Roy said, explaining as well that the carcasses are vetted to make sure they don’t contain antibiotics or other medicines and substances known to be harmful to vultures.

Viewing happens from a game hide located some 30 metres away from the feeding station. A structure sunken into the ground, the hide is comfortably appointed with chairs, two beds, a kitchenette and toilets, and can accommodate up to six people, making it ideal for small-group or family visits.

Roy cautioned, however, that the experience is not usually suitable for children under the age of 12, as they tend to fidget and battle to sit still, scaring away the vultures. It’s also not something for the overly squeamish. While the hide is far away enough from the “Vulture Restaurant” to shield sight-seers from much of the intensity of the feast, and “the prevailing wind blows towards the vultures, so you don’t get the smell of the meat in the hide”, this is nature raw, unedited and hungry.

Describing a typical feed, Roy said, “Vultures have a pecking order, so from the viewing spot you’ll probably see about 10 to 20 or 30 vultures on a carcass at a time, but there could be another 100-150 which you won’t be able to view from the hide and which are waiting their turn to come and feed … People get very excited when they see these birds in flight and whilst feeding. It becomes like a shark feeding-frenzy, with a lot of squabbling among the vultures.”

The hide and the viewing experience help Roy keep the feeding programme in operation as well as educate the public about a bird that has been decimated for being thought of as vermin, an idea which couldn’t be further from the truth. “When vultures strip a carcass, it’s just bones left, nothing else, so you don’t get flies and maggots breeding and so on. From a conservation point of view, vultures are critically important to health and safety as they clean carcasses so well.”

In recent years, vultures have also faced an increasing threat from rhino, lion and elephant poachers, who poison the carcasses of the animals they kill so that the vultures that come settling down “don’t take off but die right there” – those slow, lazy circles that vultures make can be “tell-tale signs” alerting people to the fact that poachers are in action. Roy said that although this is largely confined to the big national reserves and not an immediate problem in the Drakensberg, it underlines the need to provide vultures generally with a safe feeding environment.

But there is encouraging news. “I started this programme in 2008, and with the first carcass, we had about six vultures. In our vulture count as at the first week of September last year, between seven o’clock in the morning and 12 o’clock we counted 327 Cape Vultures and four Bearded Vultures. All vulture species in Africa are on the endangered list, but the Bearded Vulture is critically endangered. I think that, nationally in South Africa, we have about 500 of them.”

People tend to lament the demise of vultures while doing little about it. “This is where I step in with the vulture-feeding programme,” Roy said, remarking that over the past ten years he and his son have succeeded in building up “pockets of vultures” in the area. The programme, in short, is working – with the support that comes in from the viewing hide and the colourful spectacle on offer at the “Vulture Restaurant” being key to its steady, ongoing success.

For more information on the vulture-feeding programme, please enquire at reception at Drakensberg Sun Resort. Kindly note that viewing is subject to the availability of carcasses and that this is a service offered by a private concern with its own fee structure and booking arrangements.

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