Helping Them Soar Again

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park will be hosting a Vulture Awareness weekend September 1–3 to celebrate International Vulture Awareness Days. In the run-up to this fun weekend, we’re sharing insight and stories from Park keepers that work with, understand, and admire vultures.

Vultures are some of the world’s most important scavengers—and they are in trouble. African vultures are currently experiencing a rapid decline due to multiple threats, including power line collisions and electrocutions, poisoning, and the illegal trade of vulture parts for various medicinal uses. Why does this matter? As the planet’s cleanup crew, vultures are essential in the disposal of dead animals, preventing the spread of diseases such as botulism and rabies. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is helping to combat the African vulture crisis by collaborating with VulPro, an incredible organization in South Africa that is working tirelessly to save these incredible animals from disappearing from the earth.

Established in 2007 by Kerri Wolter, VulPro is a nonprofit group committed to the conservation of African vultures. Kerri and her staff work around the clock, 365 days a year rescuing, rehabilitating, breeding and releasing African vultures back to the wild. As the only organization in all of South Africa doing this type of work, it is a colossal task, and they rely heavily on volunteers to assist in every aspect a job of this magnitude requires. Volunteers live on grounds and spend their days cleaning pools in pens, removing old food, feeding birds and collecting nesting material, to accompanying VulPro staff on rescues. There’s always so much to do and it’s never boring!

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park staff gathered nesting materials for the birds at VulPro…

…and their “clients” approved of their selections!

The Safari Park has partnered with VulPro as a participant in the Association for Zoos and Aquariums’ Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program for vultures by providing support in the form of expertise and critical supplies used to increase success in their efforts to combat the African vulture crisis. For the past two years, I have had the incredible opportunity of volunteering with them for several weeks.

After excruciatingly long days of travel, arriving at VulPro is the best reward. Stepping out of the car, you are immediately greeted by the most stunning sight—wild vultures flying freely overhead! To see one of these massive birds gliding effortlessly through the sky is a beautiful experience. Two San Diego Zoo Safari Park keepers were sent in the past two years, and this time Don Sterner, the bird department animal care manager, accompanied us.

There really isn’t an average day, as you can get called away at any hour of the day or night to collect an injured bird. Calls come in from all over the country to retrieve injured vultures—most often birds that have been electrocuted or collided with poorly marked power lines. I collected one such bird from a farm about an hour’s drive from VulPro, a young African white-backed vulture that broke a wing in a power line collision.

Evaluating, treating, and (when possible) rehabilitating vultures takes commitment, skill, and dedication.

The poor thing eventually had to have its wing amputated, but made an otherwise full recovery and now lives at VulPro with other non-releasable vultures that make up a breeding colony. One day, these birds may contribute to VulPro’s successful breeding program and the eventual release of their healthy offspring back to the wild. But with the addition of eggs and hatching chicks, the already-full work load gets that much busier. That’s where the keepers from the Safari Park step in!

Along with egg monitoring duties, the Safari Park staff volunteering at VulPro tended to important housekeeping tasks.

With the success of the California condor program and years of experience artificially incubating eggs, assisting in hatching, both hand raising and parent raising chicks and prepping these birds for eventual release back to the wild, we had all the right experience for the task. We arrived just in time to help out with the tiniest new additions to South Africa’s vulture population. Every year, eggs are pulled and artificially incubated for safe keeping and to ensure fertility while the doting parents sit on a fake egg (called a dummy egg). This is the same practice we use in the California condor rearing program at the Safari Park. We kept a close eye on the developing vulture eggs, weighing and monitoring the developing embryos (often at night already dressed in our pajamas—this is an around-the-clock job!) and making minor adjustments to incubators and egg positions—just as their parents would be doing. After a long wait, all the hard work paid off! We successfully hatched chicks that were then returned to their parents (and the dummy egg removed), who took it from there.

This just-hatched Cape vulture chick is a ray of hope for its endangered kin.

The long days and hard work of caring for these birds are made easier by the incredible people of VulPro who have dedicated their lives to vultures and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is so very proud to support them in their efforts. It has been an absolute honor and privilege to have the opportunity to volunteer at VulPro and to be a part of such an amazing organization doing the hard work of trying to recover such a beautiful, often misunderstood and crucial part of the world’s ecosystem. Visit the Safari Park for International Vulture Awareness Days, September 1–3, and you’ll learn why we love vultures so much!

Erin Womack is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog, Tool-using Vultures.