It's complicated
African Birdlife|November/December 2021
PROS AND CONS OF FEEDING VULTURES
CHRISTIAAN WILLEM BRINK, RAPTOR AND LARGE TERRESTRIAL BIRD PROJECT MANAGER

Supplementary feeding has long been used by conservationists to support struggling wildlife populations and perhaps nowhere more so than in vulture conservation. Although humans may have been feeding vultures directly or indirectly for centuries (as in the case of Tibetan sky burials, for example), actively doing so for conservation purposes is said to have originated at Giant’s Castle Game Reserve in the Drakensberg in 1966.

Vulture supplementary feeding sites, also known as ‘vulture restaurants’, are specific locations where carcasses and offal are leftfor the scavengers to feed on. The aim of the Giant’s Castle vulture feeding site was to support the local Bearded Vulture population in particular, but subsequently similar sites have become a popular intervention to assist declining vulture populations around the world. In the early 1980s the Vulture Study Group undertook a major project to promote the use of vulture restaurants in South Africa and by 1988 there were 40 documented feeding sites as well as others that were not formally recognised.

Many of the sites were run by private landowners and were regarded as representing a win-win situation for both them and the vultures. Landowners gained a cost-effective means of carcass disposal and no longer had to burn or bury dead animals, practices that are both more expensive and more laborious. In addition, when vultures are absent from an ecosystem, mammalian scavengers, including feral dogs, tend to fill the gap left in the scavenging community. They, however, lack the extremely acidic stomachs that enable vultures to deal with pathogens. Thus, an increase in mammalian scavengers may result in an uptick in the transmission of harmful diseases such as rabies. For vultures, it was proposed, supplementary feeding sites benefited breeding success and survival.

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