To save South African vultures, learning to love them

Pair of conservationists put positive spin on vultures’ image in efforts to save them

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HARTBEESPOORT, SOUTH AFRICA Many people associate vultures with death and decay.

However, a couple of conservationists in South Africa are trying to show the public what they love and admire about these birds in order to try to save them.

“No one’s going to try to save a species if they don’t love them,” said Kerri Wolter.

Ms. Wolter and partner Walter Neser run the Vulture Program, where visitors can see the birds as they do - as loyal mates, devoted parents and resourceful foragers, as well as spectacular fliers.

Visitors to the Vulture Program, a 25-acre plot with spectacular views of the Magaliesberg Mountains near Johannesburg, can observe the birds feeding at “vulture restaurants” where they dine on carrion.

Walter Neser squats down with Cape vultures in their enclosure at the Vulture Program at Boekenhoutkloof near Hartbeespoort Dam, South Africa. Visitors to the center can see the birds as they do - as loyal mates, devoted parents, resourceful foragers and spectacular fliers. Kerri Wolter hatches a Cape vulture's egg. Once the chicks are hatched and deemed strong enough, they are returned to their parents. (Associated Press)

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Walter Neser squats down with Cape vultures in their enclosure at the ... more >

They can get close to a Cape-vulture breeding colony on an artificial cliff made from mesh, concrete and paint.

The Cape vulture, with its 8 1/2-foot wingspan, creamy feathers and golden eyes, is southern Africa’s only native vulture.

South Africa has the largest population of breeding Cape vultures, with about 2,400 pairs, but their habitats are threatened by human encroachment. The species is listed as vulnerable, a classification below endangered.

Neighboring Namibia, where the bird is listed as critically endangered, is believed to have only about a dozen wild breeding pairs left.

This time of year, visitors to the Vulture Program can watch the birds dining and will see young birds on the verge of flight.

During the Southern Hemisphere spring, in September and October, visitors might glimpse a pair of adult birds brooding over an egg.

While the scene looks natural, it is the result of painstaking human intervention.

To ensure as many successful hatchings as possible, Ms. Wolter and Mr. Neser remove the eggs from adults pairs, which mate for life, soon after they are laid. They then replace the eggs with wooden dummies.

The real eggs spend most of the 54-day incubation period in a kitchen in an old farmhouse near the large bird enclosures.

When the chick is ready to hatch, signaled by the sound of tapping from within the egg, Ms. Wolter takes over the role of hen.

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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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