Excerpts from Vulture Trapping (Part 3)

Keith and John with a Lappet-faced vulture
Keith and John with a Lappet-faced vulture

It was the last carcass of the day. Our last chance, but also our best chance. This Lappet looked hungry. We put down the traps and within minutes, I was shouting with joy as we raced towards our second Lappet-faced vulture of the season. The bird was so pre-occupied with feeding and attacking the White-backed vultures surrounding it that it didn’t seem to notice the blue beast sneaking up on it. The noose was clearly on its leg, so there was no need to wait. When we finally came up on the side of the carcass and jumped out of the car, the Lappet finally reacted. Wings stretched it was only able to move a few feet away, its foot firmly entangled and attached to the dead wildebeest on which it had been feeding.

Twenty minutes later, backpack attached we were ready for release. After a few final sweet chirps, the enormous bird was back in the air. As we took off the nooses, I eyed the carcass and the small pile of vulture regurge that now lay along side it. The bird had eaten huge chunks of cartilage right off the bone. You could see the tiny triangular slices taken out of the shoulder blade, like wedges of coconut from the shell.

Lappet-faced vultures are always odd to handle. I’m usually so excited that I can’t stop shaking through the whole process, but do at least take the time to marvel at how such a large aggressive animal can be covered in the feathers most often associated with chicks. Fluffy white down feathers line the entire chest of the Lappet. With a head larger than a baseball, I can’t even fit my hand around the skull and usually end up grabbing them around the neck. Fortunately Keith seemed to have a great hold of the bird throughout, which was good since I can’t imagine the damage that could be done with a beak that can literally crush gazelle skulls. Generally the Lappets are calmer than their smaller cousins – the white-backs and Ruppell’s vulture, but this particular had had a lot of spunk. Ready to take on not only the other vultures, but its captors as well. Nonetheless it had been released without a hitch and I could now watch its movements online as the text messages came back from the unit one day at a time.

Like our last Lappet, the bird seemed to be frequenting an area some 50 km outside the park border: an area known to be rife with poisoning. I only hoped this bird would fair better than our last tagged Lappet.

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