Credo Mutwa, the celebrated Zulu Sangoma, tells us that, traditionally, the Zulu people respected and honoured vultures and protected them with very strict laws. They are known as ‘birds of the Lord,’ or ‘birds of the King’ To African peoples the vulture was the symbol of fertility even in some cases being regarded as the great mother earth. Where there are vultures there is safety, purity, and life.In Zulu culture a vulture is called Inqe, which means the purifier, the one who cleans off the land. Tswana speaking peoples know the vulture as lenong, which has to do with fertility.

The vulture is associated with great strength and they are said to be reincarnated souls of warriors and hunters. One of the greatest things that could happen to a warrior or hunter was to be granted permission by the tribal king to wear vulture feathers as part of his headdress. However, he could not kill a vulture to get feathers: they had to be taken from a bird that had died naturally. {One hopes that this custom is true of modern times]

The bones of a vulture that has died of natural causes are regarded to be of great value by African healers and shamans Ground into a powder these bones are used to protect people from mortal enemies. The head is a powerful instrument of divination, but it is important that the bird must have died naturally

There are two types of vulture in the North Eastern Free State: Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture.

The Bearded Vulture, formerly known as Lammergeyer is a most interesting bird but is on the Endangered List. It is most unlikely that it will be seen in the immediate surrounds of Clarens but may be observed in Golden Gate and in the Drakensberg if a walk is taken from The Sentinel to the Amphitheatre. David Bristow has described it as the most impressive of all birds. It is easily recognized in flight by its long arrow shaped tail and a massive wingspan of 2.5 meters, and by its beige head. At one time, the African race of bearded vulture was known in the Atlas Mountains, Abyssinia, the mountains of Central Africa, and in South Africa from the Drakensberg to the Cape and in Lesotho. Today it has a very limited habitat along the Natal Drakensberg and Lesotho as well as in Barkly East.{ ref O Pearse ‘Barrier of Spears’]. We are privileged in Clarens to be so near to its last remaining habitat in Africa.

There are a very similar species of Bearded Vulture in Europe and Asia where it once occupied a vast area. Today it is an endangered species there as well only surviving in a few areas. One of these areas is in Crete where there are less than 100 birds left. It is written that’ the lammergeyer displays no predatory behaviour and has no natural predators but faces extinction due to man. Destruction of natural habitats, poisonous baits by shepherds, tourist disturbance and high voltage cables all take their toll’ these are the very same reasons that have contributed to its extinction in Africa, except along the Drakensberg and Lesotho.

For centuries people believed the Bearded Vulture killed lambs and domestic birds. Man, therefore, attempted, usually successfully to exterminate them. From 1959 onwards Pearse and others made a very careful study of the bird in the Drakensberg and never once did they see the bird come in with a ‘live kill’. It was always some portion of the body of a sheep or antelope, which the Cape Vultures had finished with. They did once see a Bearded Vulture with a dassie in its talons but this was believed to be an exception. Ornithologists have dropped the term ‘lammergeyer’ and the bird is simply known as ‘Bearded Vulture’ because of the diagnostic tuft of hair like feathers below the chin.

The Greek philosopher Pliny accused a bearded vulture of killing Aeschylus by dropping a tortoise onto the unfortunate poet’s head {Bristow} But over the years Ornithologists scoffed at such claims and for some reason there was controversy as to whether or not bearded vultures did drop bones from a height to smash them into smaller pieces for easier digestion. Today this habit is clearly accepted. Recently when asking a Mosotho man who had been a herd boy about the bird, he immediately stated ‘Oh, you mean the bird that drops bones from the sky on to a flat rock to break them’

These days there is a kinder attitude towards this magnificent bird and they not persecuted as in former times. ‘Vulture restaurants, where carcasses of animals are donated by farmers and placed at strategic places where vultures can feed to help them survive. There is one in Golden Gate and is well worth a visit.

By Peter Millin

References: O Pearse ‘Barrier of Spears’, Roberts ‘Birds of Southern Africa’, Bristow “The Bearded Vulture’ Africa Environment & Wildlife’ Credo Mutwa ‘ Wildlife Campus – African Folklore.

Author: Craig Walters

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