IF you were asked to come up with a list of endangered species in Zimbabwe, you would probably name the African savanna elephant, the black rhino, the African wild dog, the porcupine and the pangolin.
The vulture, a bird of prey that scavenges on carrion, would have been far from your mind when you came up with your list.
But it should have been because vulture birds are vulnerable to poachers in Zimbabwe and Africa.
Conservationist Kudzanai Dhliwayo, an assistant curator in the Ornithology department at the Natural History Museum in Zimbabwe, is out to raise awareness on the poaching and killing of vultures.
She is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu Natal and she is employed as the assistant curator in the Ornithology department at the Natural History Museum in Zimbabwe since 2015.
The area of specialisation on her PHD project inspired her to raise more awareness on the importance of vultures to the environment.
Her thesis aims at understanding the status, causes of decline and improve conservation awareness on vultures among communities surrounding the Gonarezhou National Park.
In Africa, soaring vultures act as sentinels, alerting rangers to the presence of poached animals, something that poachers are totally against.
There are eleven species of vultures found in Africa and of which, six are found in Zimbabwe.
These are White-backed Vulture, Hooded Vulture, White-headed Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, Palmnut Vulture and Cape Vulture (however, the Cape Vulture does not breed in Zimbabwe).
However, the population of vultures in Zimbabwe has declined because they are killed, often with poison. Their body parts are used for juju and muthi.
Dhliwayo believes it is her duty to raise awareness on the importance of vultures to the environment and the ecosystem.
“Vultures play an important role in the ecosystem that maybe a few of us are aware of. They are often referred to as the environment “garbage collectors” since they feed on carcasses.
“Due to their specialised diet, vultures provide a cleaning service in the environment by removing dead animal matter and help reduce the spread of diseases such as anthrax, botulism and cholera.
“Imagine what would happen if we removed all the vultures in the environment. This would be a disaster,” said Dhliwayo.
Vultures naturally occur in low numbers, and Dhliwayo said there is need to educate the masses on the importance of these species for them to be protected.
“Vultures have slow reproductive rates; they reach reproductive maturity at the age of four to five years depending on the species. They have a low turn-over rate laying only one egg in a year or two.
“These factors are coupled with external pressures such as poisoning, disturbance at nest sites, habitat destruction and fragmentation, use of vulture parts in traditional medicines and hunting vultures for food.
“Electrocution on power lines and reduction in food availability also threaten vulture populations. Therefore, these magnificent birds need our help and people should be taught to preserve them for they are precious to the people and the environment,” said Dhliwayo.
How citizens can support the preservation of vultures
Reporting any vulture nests, they see.
Recording co-ordinates of where nests are sighted, tree species where the nest is, time vulture(s) was seen on the nest, activity of the bird(s).
People must exercise caution and not disturb nesting vultures or approach nest trees as vultures are sensitive to disturbance.