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AAsk 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.
It is among the most majestic raptors you’ll see in South African skies. These fierce-eyed birds with their creamy, buff feathers are highly intelligent, far-sighted, blessed with a sense of humour and (mostly) not too smelly.
Griffons are often the first vultures you’ll see arrive at a kill, or at a ‘vulture restaurant’. You’d think that they, or any vulture for that matter, would smell as bad as the carrion they eat. But in fact, Cape vultures 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 – 8 000m, which means their eyesight is incredibly good. Scientific studies have suggested they can see 8 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 may not 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, and the species is currently classed as ‘vulnerable’. The best places to see them are the Magaliesberg mountains in Gauteng and North West (where there is a large, stable colony), near the Sterkfontein Dam in Free State and north and south along the nearby Drakensberg mountains, in De Hoop Nature Reserve near Cape Town in Western Cape, or at Kranskop in Marakele National Park in the Waterberg mountains of Limpopo province – a few hours’ drive 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’ – designated protected areas in the countryside, sometimes with nearby viewing/study sites, where safe, poison-free carrion is left out to feed any vultures in the region.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
De Hoop Nature Reserve: The De Hoop Collection
Tel: +27 (0)21 422 4522
Marakele National Park
Tel: +27 (0)14 777 6929/6928/6931
Tel: +27 (0)82 453 8444
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 close to Sterkfontein Dam near Harrismith in Free State province, 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 will it cost?
Prices vary, depending on the facilities and accommodation available at different viewing locations. It’s best to check the latest pricing options online once you have decided on a destination.
Length of stay
All the locations that are good for Cape vulture sightings are also places of astounding natural beauty and a huge diversity of wildlife. So, stay 2 or 3 nights if you just want to spot the vultures, but you could easily spend a week or more taking in all the local attractions.
What to pack
Unless you chance upon the birds at the side of the road, it would be best to have binoculars or even better, a telescopic lens 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 North West province, and the Magaliesberg mountains north of Johannesburg. You can also see them near the Sterkfontein Dam in Free State, in a region replete with Drakensberg accommodation spots.