Magaliesberg – Cape Vulture Colony

One of my goals with the African Journey Collection of poster-print designs is to create some sort of personal ‘tribute’ to the most absorbing and interesting places that I have been to as an observer of the natural world. In this way, most of my illustrated designs can be regarded as autobiographical, reflecting my own reaction to a place or setting, albeit in a stylized ‘pop-art’ form.

For some 12 years – between 1979 and 1992 while living in Johannesburg – I devoted virtually all of my spare time to the projects of the Vulture Study Group (VSG). Inspired by the energy, discipline and rigorous scientific methods of Dr John Ledger and Dr Peter Mundy, I was among an enthusiastic band of volunteers involved in various aspects of the conservation efforts directed towards the endangered Cape Vulture. In my particular case, this included the writing and illustration of informative bulletins, booklets and charts, T-shirt and product design, fund-raising, assistance with field research, delivering educational talks to school groups, and the provisioning of supplementary carrion feeding-stations (‘vulture restaurants’). Each year, usually on the first two weekends of September, everyone associated with the VSG gathered at the two Cape Vulture breeding colonies in the Magaliesberg mountains, about 80km north of Johannesburg. Here, Mundy and Ledger would direct the weighing, ringing and colour-banding of every Cape Vulture nestling that could be reached by teams of abseiling climbers; around 100 chicks were typically processed on each of the two days, while nest positions were mapped by telescope observers. Cape Vultures lay a single egg (in mid-winter: May-June) which is incubated for about two months before hatching, but the nestling needs to be just old enough (i.e.feathered enough) to handled for weighing and ringing, but not so old that it is tempted to make a premature flight from its cliff nest. Overall, the vulture chick spends about 140 days on the nest, before launching out on its maiden flight; it then returns time-and-again for several weeks to be fed at the nest site by its parents. In the evenings, after a day of punishing and often dangerous work on and below the cliffs, everyone would gather to laugh, drink and eat around a roaring campfire – a camaraderie among like-minded souls committed to the same cause.

Skeerpoort Cape Vulture colony, Magaliesberg, September 1993

I don’t expect to sell very many of this Magaliesberg poster-print design – it is not a renowned tourist destination (although it is a unique and important biosphere reserve) and vultures are loved by few, but it has been created and added to the African Journey Collection to capture a vital part of my own life journey.

Footnote: Little did I suspect, back in 1992, that the Cape Vulture – the focus of our conservation efforts – might be the least threatened of African vultures 28 years later. This is not to say that the Cape Vulture does not require ongoing protection, but the formerly more ‘secure’ savanna vultures are being poisoned even within – but especially beyond – the national parks that cannot contain such wide-ranging birds. As the populations of White-backed, Lappet-faced, White-headed and Hooded Vultures have crashed throughout Africa, due to both incidental and deliberate poisoning (primarily by ivory poachers), the breeding population of Cape Vultures (which forage largely on cattle rangelands in communal areas) has probably remained about the same as it was in 1992 – somewhere in the region of 5,000 adult pairs.

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