Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
I'm doing a series of articles on vultures. Vultures are, ecologically speaking, amazingly important, being the 'cleanup crew' of nature. Sadly, in Africa, almost all vultures are currently seriously endangered, for various reasons. Today I show you the Lappet-Faced Vulture, Torgos tracheliotus. This is, in overall dimensions, the largest vulture in Africa, although some vultures of the genus Gyps can be slightly heavier. It reaches an overall length of 120 cm/47", a wingspan of 2.9m/9'6" and in Africa, a bodyweight of just over 9 kg/20 lbs. A subspecies occurs in Arabia that is even bigger, females reaching 13.6 kg/30 lbs! It is certainly the most powerful vulture in Africa, with the largest and strongest bill. It is easy to identify: it is the only African vulture with an entirely bald, red-skinned head. The 'lappets' on its face are skin flaps and folds, which the vultures probably consider to be very dashing and stylish! The body of this vulture is very dark, almost black in Africa and brownish in Arabia, but with white leg feathers like shaggy trousers.
Dominating the Kill
Like other vultures, the lappet-faced is primarily a scavenger. Vultures may feed on animals killed by large mammalian predators like lions, hyenas or leopards, or on animals that have died of disease or starvation. The lappet-faced vulture is a vital species in the latter case. Other African vultures, upon finding a carcass in the veld, of a large animal not having been killed and partly eaten by something else – in other words, still being pretty much intact – can't do much with it. Animals tend to have thick, tough hides, against which the beaks of typical vultures can't do much. So, a crowd of vultures will assemble around such a dead critter, and just stand there. Perhaps they are actually hoping for help to arrive, perhaps they just stand there because they don't know what else to do. They may squabble and scream and hiss at each other, but not much gets accomplished.
That is, until the lappet-faced vulture arrives. The huge bird will land at leisure, often right on the carcass, spreading its wings, overshadowing all the vultures around it. They will very respectfully make way for it; indeed, a single lappet-faced vulture can keep at bay up to 30 white-backed vultures. It walks tall and proud, keeping its wings partly spread to show just how big it is. Any other vulture too foolish to give way, may get attacked, the lappet-faced lunging at it with its claws. The lappet-faced will thus have the choice of the entire kill. But for the privilege of getting to pick and choose, it performs a vital service. Among the vultures, its formidable bill is the only one that can cut into tough hides. So, the lappet-faced vulture can 'open up' the carcass, gaining access to the meat and guts inside not just for itself, but also for all the other vultures. Feeding as royally as it might, it can't devour an entire antelope, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, rhino or elephant by itself. It can eat about 1.5 kg/3.3 lbs of meat at a sitting, which is like a 75 kg/165 lb person eating 12.5 kg/27.5 lbs of meat! The other vultures will wait patiently until the lappet-faced offers them a gap; then they, too, dig in. There will seldom be more than one lappet-faced vulture at a carcass, but typically several dozens, of smaller vultures like the white-backed.
Sometimes the lappet-faced will actually not feed first. If the carcass has already been opened, the smaller vultures may throng all over it. The lappet-faced may wait, then, until they've picked the carcass clean of all the softer tissues. Again, with its powerful bill, it can then move in and tear off and consume the parts too tough for the other vultures, like the skin and the sinews.
Lappet-faced vultures are also often seen feeding on the carcasses of reptiles, birds and smaller mammals like hares or mongooses. It may be that they can kill such animals, thus being not merely scavenging but actively predatory. But maybe these are also animals that have died, the vulture simply having been quick to find them. Lappet-faced vultures certainly have very sharp eyesight. We still don't know enough to confirm that it is indeed an active predator, but the evidence for it is mounting. In Kenya it's reported as eating young flamingos as well as their eggs.
Being big birds with specialized food requirements, lappet-faced vultures have territories many square miles/kilometres in extent. They form monogamous pairs, often flying together, and displaying their fine, bare head skin to each other. They build enormous stick nests, up to 2 m/6'6" in diameter, typically on top of a thorny tree. There may be more than one nest per territory. The nest is lined with grass, leaves, animal fur and bits of skin. The female lays one or two eggs. The chicks are fed by both parents, who regurgitate yummy chunks of carrion for it. The chicks in turn regurgitate pellets containing clumped fur and hair. Even after leaving the nest, the chicks beg food from their parents, who keep feeding them for another six months to a full year. Because of this slow growing up of the chicks, vulture couples may only breed every second year.
A remarkable event occurred when a pair of white-headed vultures, birds much smaller than the lappet-faced, snuck in and laid an egg in a lappet-faced couple's nest. The larger lappet-faced vultures chased them off … but then incubated the egg, and successfully raised the little white-headed chick to fledging! On another occasion, a kestrel (a kind of falcon) shared a nest with a vulture, the kestrels incubating their eggs just a short distance from where the vultures sat on theirs.
Sadly, lappet-faced vultures are presently endangered. Vultures are suffering from multiple threats. They're losing habitat to humans, and losing food as well as the numbers of large, wild African mammals continue to dwindle. They sometimes collide with power lines. Too much human activity will cause them to abandon their nests. They suffer worst, perhaps, from poisoning. People put out poisoned carcasses to kill predators like jackals; the vultures then die when they discover these carcasses and feed on them. But even worse, vultures are being deliberately poisoned all over Africa, by poachers of elephants and rhinos! The poachers worry that vultures circling above the poached carcasses will lead anti-poaching units to them; they therefore often poison the carcasses so the vultures that come will be killed. In Botswana in June 2019, three poisoned elephant carcasses led to the poison deaths of over five hundred vultures from five different species, including 14 lapped-faced vultures – and also a couple of tawny eagles. Just to remind you how terrible humans can be. But we can also be better than that, and for the sake of our planet and everything on it, including ourselves, we had better be! Here in South Africa at least, there are now many 'vulture restaurants' where animal carcasses are left out for the vultures to feed on. There are often hides where bird-watchers can sit and watch the vultures as they feed. There are several such vulture restaurants around my home town of Polokwane, and lappet-faced vultures do turn up there regularly. This is helping them to recover their numbers.