Did you know?
Cape vultures or griffons are the heaviest vultures in southern Africa, and they fly the highest.
Ask any rehabilitator of injured raptors about their favourite birds, and they will confide that it is not the noble eagle, but instead the vulture – preferably a Cape vulture, also known as a Cape griffon.
These fierce-eyed birds with their creamy, buff feathers are highly intelligent.
And you’d think that Cape griffons, or other vultures for that matter, smell as bad as the carrion they eat. But in fact they are fastidious birds, bathing in clean water after every meal. They mostly exude a faint, pleasant fragrance not dissimilar to baby talcum powder.
They can also be mischievous, and seem to find human shoelaces endlessly amusing.
In the wild, they are majestic on the wing. They fly higher than any other vulture – 8000m, which means their eyesight is incredibly good. Scientific studies have suggested they can see eight times further than humans, with 20 times better resolution. They can even see air molecules moving, which is how they find thermals.
In other words, you don’t see them high in the sky, but they certainly can see you.
They’re also the biggest eaters at a carrion feast, wolfing down a kilogram or more in just a few minutes.
They have gregarious lives, mostly roosting in cliff-side colonies.
South Africa is home to about 10 000 Cape vultures. The best places to see them are the Magaliesberg mountains, where there is a large, stable colony, near the Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State, the Drakensberg mountains, De Hoop Nature Reserve near Cape Town, and at Kranskop in the Marakele National Park in the Waterberg a few hours' north of Pretoria.
Their greatest threats are poisonings and collisions with power lines. And the greatest help for their continued existence comes from farmers who bring carcasses to ‘vulture restaurants’.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
De Hoop Nature Reserve: The De Hoop Collection
Tel: +27 (0)21 422 4522
Marakele National Park
+27 (0)14 777 6929/6928 & 6931
Tel: +27 (0)83 259 0444
Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)58 622 3520/1093/3892
How to get here
There are two ways to see Cape vultures – either from the ground at vulture restaurants like the one near Sterkfontein Dam near Harrismith, or within game reserves. Alternatively, you can see their colonies, the easiest of which to reach is at Marakele National Park.
Best time to visit
You should be able to see Cape vultures any time of year.
Either in your own vehicle or by game drive vehicle.
What to pack
Unless you chance upon them at the side of the road, it would be best to have binoculars or even better, a scope to really appreciate a view of them on the cliffs in their colonies.
Where to stay
The best places to see Cape vultures are also beautiful places to stay – De Hoop Nature Reserve on the southern Cape coast, Marakele National Park in the North West Province, and the Magaliesberg mountains north of Johannesburg. You can also see them near the Sterkfontein Dam in the Free State.