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Working with VulPro in South Africa

I recently had the opportunity to travel to South Africa to volunteer at VulPro, a vulture conservation organization that Zoo Atlanta supports through its Mabel Dorn Reeder Conservation Endowment Fund and through the African vulture SAFE program. Kerri Wolter is the founder and manager of VulPro, and has dedicated her life to creating an organization with a multidisciplinary approach to saving Africa’s vultures. They focus on rehabilitating injured vultures, breeding non-releasable vultures, reintroducing offspring born in human care and releasable rehabilitated birds, monitoring wild populations, conducting veterinary and ecological research, and conducting educational outreach and awareness programs.

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This was the first year that VulPro was going to conduct annual health exam on all ~200 Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres) and African white-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) who call VulPro home. Dr. Sarah Woodhouse, a vet from the Detroit Zoo, came to VulPro tasked with running these health checks. She transformed VulPro’s incubation room into a makeshift laboratory so she could analyze all of the samples we collected from the vultures.

So what do annual health exams look like? First step in the process is catching each vulture, one by one. Some of the wonderful people who work at VulPro (literally) cheered me through the process of safely catching and restraining the vultures. Big thanks to Charne, Livingstone, Notice, Orbert, and Charles for being so patient with me! Catching vultures becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on because eventually, only the Houdinis are left in need of their exams.

Next comes the physical exam and sample collection, in which Dr. Sarah assessed each bird’s physical condition and collected a blood sample. I was allowed to practice my blood collection skills, which was a great learning experience for me. I also learned how to prepare some of the blood collected to conduct a lead test. The last step is to mark each bird with a snazzy purple stripe on its wing to indicate that the bird has received its exam. (Don’t worry; the purple spray is actually an antiseptic spray and will wash right off.)

In addition to examining the birds already living at VulPro, new birds in need of help come in regularly. Unfortunately, two new vultures arrived at VulPro during my stay there. One white-backed vulture had flown into some barbed wire and injured her wing. It’s likely she was unable to fly or find food, so she came to VulPro extremely dehydrated and malnourished. The second vulture to come in was a Cape vulture who had likely been poisoned. Kerri set up a makeshift IV drip station for both vultures in her shower (she really gives everything she has to the vultures!). When I left VulPro, both vultures were on the road to recovery. It was pretty incredible to see what a big turnaround they made, especially the white-backed vulture who had been so dehydrated she couldn’t even open her eyes when she arrived.

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I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to visit VulPro and see firsthand what an amazing organization it is. Vultures are a critical part of the ecosystems in which they live. Healthy vultures = healthy humans. If you want to do something to help African vultures OR vultures we have here in our own backyard:

  • Visit Zoo Atlanta and celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD) on September 7, 2019
  • Host your own IVAD celebration at your home, school, or recreation center. Find resources here.
  • Tell your friends or post on social media about how important vultures are to us.
  • Pick up roadside trash.
  • Encourage the use of non-lead bullets for hunting.
  • Go on a hawkwatch!

Huge thanks to Zoo Atlanta for giving me the opportunity, to Dr. Sarah for being so patient and letting me have some great learning opportunities, and most especially to Kerri Wolter, without whom VulPro wouldn’t exist. I learned so much from this experience and can’t wait to go back!
Taylor Rubin
Keeper I, Birds

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl