africa

Percy the Victorious Vulture: A Hit in Zimbabwe

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Black vulture perched on a boulder. Photo buy Nina Duggan.

Black vulture perched on a boulder. Photo buy Nina Duggan.

Vultures are generally not people’s favorite animal, especially with kids. They see them only in movies and story books that do no justice to the story of vultures, but only portray them as loathsome beasts. It cannot continue like this in our time; we cannot afford to let children go on being ignorant about issues of the state of their planet or the important role every organism plays in the ecosystem around them. If we let it happen, the world is going to be handed over to a more disastrous people than we have been, people that will not appreciate the life in it.

I personally did not think anything of vultures before my year-long internship at VulPro in South Africa. I did not love or hate them, but I knew they were not my preferred choice for birds to work with. I certainly thought I was going to be bored to death with them. My childhood had only just exposed me to the cute and grand side of wildlife: the lion prides filmed on television and the fluffy, little animals I would see at the wildlife orphanage from time to time. However, I always felt drawn to the weird animals, the strange ones that were not as easy to love, like painted wild dogs instead of cheetahs and lions. After seeing a lot of species of vultures, all affected by human actions, helplessly ceasing from poisonings, paralyzed from lead, and sometimes reduced to being flightless and confused from power line collisions, my passion for championing their cause was ignited. All birds should fly free, and it is up to us, the humans of today to make the right decisions to make it possible.

Percy the victorious vulture Cover.jpg

The children’s book Percy the Victorious Vulture was published in April 2017 while I was a trainee at Hawk Mountain. This book features the message of the importance of education birds and birds that are survivors of the hazards they face in the world today. The text in the book is very simple and precise, and it teaches kids about the importance of vultures, scientific techniques of tracking and trapping, monitoring, migration, and interactions of wildlife with humans in human-dominated landscapes.

With just this one small book, I am certain that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has changed people’s perceptions on black vultures and vultures as a whole, and has opened a window through which readers can look into the everyday lives of the species.

I was very excited when I got my own copy of the book, as it gave me the idea of writing similar books on African raptors, since such education material is much needed in my region, and encouraged me to spread this story in my community. After talking to librarians in my city, they agreed to let me use their library space for education programs. This was wonderful, as the space is central for most people and is a hub for students and adults in the city. All the education and awareness work I had been doing before at the Natural History Museum had been a little exclusive because of time and location. A book reading was a perfect program to begin with, being at the library, and it justified my conservation education effort.

Merlyn prepares to begin the reading of  Percy the Victorious Vulture .

Merlyn prepares to begin the reading of Percy the Victorious Vulture.

The turnout was amazing, kids with their parents and friends, and even some young adults who came to just ‘check it out’, all had never been to a book reading before, nevermind one about vultures. I myself had never been to a book reading and had no idea what happens at one other than reading it aloud to the audience. I was nervous, but eventually the day arrived, and kids filled the hall. Anybody that has presented in an educative capacity knows that kids are not the easiest crowd, and that they are sharp and can spring questions on you that take you back to the roots of a concept. It can be very intimidating. You also need to be entertaining and engaging, or else you’ll lose their attention, and they’ll be bored.

I talked to my friends at the museum, and they helped me put together my makeshift raptor education trunk. Unfortunately they had lost their vulture mount to an infection and only had a martial eagle and another raptor’s head that I could use. I put it in the box together with a cattle ear tag labelled 43 (Percy’s wing tag number) and made my way to the library. At the library, I set it up on a table and used the specimen mounts to define what raptors are and to compare adaptations of raptors to their different lifestyles, especially focusing on eagles and vultures which I had pictures of on a slideshow. Almost all of the kids in the room had never seen an eagle or vulture, and it was clearly exciting to be that close and able to touch them. The time came to read the book, and everyone was eagerly waiting to hear the story of Percy. To prevent stuttering and calm the nerves, I started off with introducing African vultures and their distribution using beautiful posters loaned to me by a friend, I know this information so well it is like telling a story I have told a thousand times but still get excited over; this made it easier to move on to the ‘book reading’ that I had no idea how to do.

Attendees' hands shoot up to answer Merlyn's raptor questions. 

Attendees' hands shoot up to answer Merlyn's raptor questions. 

I only had one copy of the book, and this presented the challenge of how to read and showcase the lovely illustrations while maintaining that excitement and enthusiasm readers must have with kids. Fortunately the kids were attentive and patient with me, and the contents of my raptor box kept them awake. At the end of the reading, I invited questions expecting a dozen questions to be fired my way but nothing came. I decided to then fire questions their way, and the response was amazing. These kids remembered all of the complex scientific terms I had read and explained plus some I had defined in passing. They seemed to have been absorbing everything I was reading. To be honest, just one question was asked, “Where can we buy or get copies of this book?” Unfortunately, I did not have the answer to this question.

This book reading I had planned to teach kids about vultures ended up teaching me a lot more. It reaffirmed the value of conservation education and awareness, especially at grass root level where perceptions are being sewn and grown in the minds of our future. I will endeavor this year to continue seeking opportunities to educate more youth and most importantly developing raptor education material for children in my region, for there is truly so much diversity in species, ecosystems, and cultures regarding raptor conservation. I’m afraid this counts as a publicized new year’s resolution!

Merlyn (right) poses with some of the children who attended the education program.

Merlyn (right) poses with some of the children who attended the education program.

Culture in Conservation

By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Former Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

Merlyn atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout

During my time at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I realized that conservation was a science and has to be regarded so. Before then, I thought it was a love for the environment, turning off lights around the house or turning the tap off when I brushed my teeth. All these acts are important, and if everyone did them they could make a difference.

However, as raptor biologists and conservationists, Dr. Keith Bildstein taught us that conservation is so much more. Conservation is not just an explosion of emotions, because emotions are personal and no one approach is a panacea.

In Africa today, various ‘cultural’ practices have had a negative impact on raptors, particularly vultures. It seems as though culture is playing a part in the demise and extinction of our vultures. This is odd as culture has always been the driving force to safe guarding and conserving wildlife and forests for centuries. Going into this year’s vulture awareness month, I had the question of how culture has evolved so much in southern Africa into a monster that is wiping out vultures in their hundreds.

In my culture, there is no fairy godmothers or tooth fairies, so when my teeth fell as a child, my mother took me outside and taught me a song. The song is to the Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius, an Intra-African migrant. What you do as a child, if you want your tooth to grow back is to sing the song that goes Mzwazwa! Mzwazwa! Thathi’zinyo lami ungiphe’lakho elihle! This directly translates to: "Yellow-billed Kite! Yellow-billed Kite! Take my tooth and give me your beautiful one!" This is weird since birds have no teeth, and this bird’s tooth is a yellow, curved, and razor sharp bill, which nobody would like growing on them. After singing the song, you are then supposed to throw the tooth over the roof for the Yellow-billed Kite to collect as it flies over your house. This small tradition in my corner of the world makes the bird so important, because children everywhere want the safety of the bird as it brings their adult teeth, and parents everywhere want that moment my mother shared with me so many years ago, passing along the tradition.

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

Attendees of the 2017 IVAD seminar

My second annual International Vulture Awareness Day seminar at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe for this year was themed Vulture Conservation and Culture in Zimbabwe. My intention was for scientists, the general public, and culture experts to talk about vulture conservation issues and what needs to change in Zimbabwe for their protection. I invited the BirdLife Zimbabwe Conservation officer for Special Species Ms. Fadzai Matsvimbo, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority (ZimParks) senior ecologist Ms. Lovelater Sebele, and renowned author, historian, and culture expert Mr. Pathisa Nyathi. We had a great turn out of people from all over the city that knew close to nothing about vultures but were intrigued and interested in getting to know about them.

The two speakers from BirdLife Zimbabwe and ZimParks illustrated the current status of vultures in Zimbabwe and what conservation efforts are happening on the ground. BirdLife Zimbabwe works closely with ZimParks in Hwange National Park and has reported on various vulture poisonings around Zimbabwe. In Hwange Park, cyanide poisoning on salt leaks in elephant poaching is the main cause of mass deaths of vultures and many other scavenging animals; however, in other parks like Gonarezhou on the boarder of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Aldicarb a carbamate insecticide is the most common, along with the harvesting of body parts for muti (traditional medicine).

The major problems faced by organizations like these two are the lack of understanding of the value of vultures and inconsistencies in the litigation process. The judiciary system is failing our vultures, delivered sentences are inconsistent, and often vultures are not included as part of the cases. There is a lack of awareness in game rangers working in the parks, where vulture losses are not properly documented. For these and many other reasons, the two organizations have partnered in educating rangers on identification, data collection on poaching crime scenes, and conservation status.

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

African white-backed vulture photo by Julia Wheeler 

Our historian and culture expert explained the African philosophy on conservation, and he reminded us that African communities were the best conservationists of natural resources whilst being utilitarian at the same time. African conservation is linked to cosmology and African spirituality, the belief that the earth is our mother and provider—that all matter has life in it, and in order for there to be life there has to be death. This spiritual approach to nature and the world, compared to the scientific, modern approach instills in all Africans a reverence to nature that inspires conservationists.

Due to the philosophy that all matter possesses life, all the parts of an animal carry spiritual characteristics of the animal, and for this reason, vulture bones, beaks, feathers, talons, and even meat are used as muti. Originally, because of the ability of vultures to ‘miraculously’ tell where carcasses are, it was only used by traditional healers for divination as part of their wardrobe. The use of vulture body parts for muti has only recently spiraled out of control due to increased possibilities for foretelling with sports betting, gambling,business successes, and investment results among others.

The biggest take home for all that night, especially for the conservation scientists, was that no external policing is more effective than internal conviction. This means that African children today need to be taught about African philosophy and spirituality to regain that awareness of wildlife. Along with western, scientific, material/physical education, African spirituality also needs to be taught to younger generations as it is being lost in current generations. The scientists were also urged to educate the public of the world view and wildlife understanding through indigenous African knowledge systems and to remain respectful of local people’s beliefs; perceptions are real, just as their consequences are.

In the end, I learned the value of my culture in conservation and how to be a holistic and effective advocate for conservation in my country. Most importantly, I realized the value of one day teaching my children the Yellow-billed Kite song and sharing with them the folklore that made me love and respect nature in my life and my career.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.

Merlyn with African white-backed vulture. Photo by Julia Wheeler.