NDEGE WETU: A Tribute to the Birds of Kenya (Part 13 – The Vultures)

Scavengers are perhaps the most underappreciated and misunderstood animals on the planet. And there is no group of animals on land quite as specialized at scavenging as the vultures. They are the best at it.

Most animals referred to as scavengers, such as hyenas, are actually not dependent on scavenging. They are what’s called ‘facultative scavengers’, meaning that they can hunt for themselves but will scavenge when they get the opportunity. Most vultures on the other hand are what is called ‘obligate scavengers’, meaning they only obtain their food through scavenging. A few species of vultures do hunt a little bit too but they mainly depend on scavenging for their food.

This scavenging lifestyle has led to vultures developing what is in my opinion the most hardcore digestive system of all animals. The extreme acidity of their digestive tract allows them to eat carcasses infected with the most lethal of viruses and bacteria and they will not get sick. They will in fact neutralize it and prevent it from spreading.

Today’s Ndege Wetu post pays tribute to Kenya’s vultures, most of which are highly threatened with extinction.

Kenya’s commonest vulture is the White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus). They occur throughout the savannas and rangelands of Kenya. But their numbers have fallen very sharply in recent decades (estimated declines of about 90% over 55 years), which has led to their listing as Critically Endangered.
White-backed Vulture soaring over the Athi-Kaputiei Plains. Vultures are perfectly adapted to fly effortlessly over huge distances daily in search of food. This makes them a lot more efficient at finding carcasses than ground-based scavengers.
Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppellii) is the White-backed Vulture’s closest relative in Kenya and is also fairly widespread in the country’s savannas but requires large cliffs to breed. Like that species, it is listed as Critically Endangered
Rüppell’s Vulture feeding on a Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) that drowned in the Mara River during the annual wildebeest migration. A vulture’s lightly-feathered head and long neck allow it to bury its head deep into a carcass without soiling itself. This makes it easy to clean up afterwards.
White-backed and Rüppell’s vultures at their bathing pool in Nairobi National Park. Many people think of vultures as dirty and filthy birds but they in fact take their hygiene seriously and bathe daily.
One vulture that is unmistakable is the Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos). This is Africa’s largest vulture. It’s large size, bald red head and heavy bill make it hard to confuse with any other species. It is rated as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
On the other end of the spectrum, one of Africa’s smallest vultures can also be seen in Kenya. This is the Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus). Sadly it is also Critically Endangered.
Three Critically Endangered species together along the Mara River. Rüppell’s Vulture (left), White-backed Vulture (right) and Hooded Vulture (bottom)
Similar in size to the Hooded Vulture is the unique Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus). A small mostly white vulture with a yellow face and slim bill. I am yet to get a descent photo of this one. They were once fairly common in Kenya but are now virtually gone from most of the country. Far northern Kenya is now the most reliable region in which to see this species. This photo was taken near Lake Turkana. They are considered globally Endangered.
The only vulture occurring in Kenya that is not listed in any threat category or as Near Threatened is the Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis). It is considered of Least Concern. In many respects however, this species is not really a true vulture and is in fact nicknamed the ‘Vulturine Fish Eagle’. It is omnivorous, feeding on the fruits of palm trees as well as hunting for crabs, fish, mollusks and other small (mostly aquatic) prey. It feeds on carrion too but is not dependent on it.
Palm-nut Vulture at Mida Creek, Kilifi. In Kenya, this species is mainly coastal but can also be found in some inland localities. Young birds wander widely and have turned up at Lake Nakuru, Nairobi National Park and other places where they aren’t expected.

Two other vultures occur in Kenya, both of which I have never seen: White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) and Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) (Gypaetus barbatus). The Lammergeier is now so rare in Kenya that it has become almost like a mythical creature for bird watchers and ornithologists.

The decline in Kenya’s vultures has been caused by many factors but the main one is secondary poisoning due to human-carnivore conflict. The long-term conservation of vultures in Kenya therefore seems intimately linked to the conservation of big cats, hyenas and wild dogs through the prevention of livestock depredation and resultant retaliatory poisoning.

Feel free to contact me if interested in how you can help support vulture conservation efforts in Kenya.

If you enjoyed reading this, look out for the next installment of the NDEGE WETU series next Thursday!

Further resources on the vultures of Kenya:

  1. The Vultures of Africa – Peter Mundy, Duncan Butchart, John Ledger and Steven Piper. 1992
  2. African Raptors – Bill Clark and Rob Davies. 2018
  3. The Birds of Africa, Volume I – Leslie Brown, Emil Urban and Kenneth Newman. 1982

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About Sidney Shema

Sidney is a Kenya-based ornithologist and photographer specializing in the birds of Africa, with an especially keen interest in the birds of prey (raptors) of Kenya.
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Diana Jerop Serem
1 year ago

This is such a great piece. I normally watch the hooded vultures flying over at my workplace admiring their team effort not realizing anytime they would be gone. I will always give my best to their conservation through citizen science efforts.