Kafue 16 – Vultures

 

 

Vulture 01

 

Space and time according to Einstein are one and the same, just like you cannot have left without right and up without down.

And whatever you call it, left or right depends on which side you look at life. Seen from the front it is on your right, from the back it is the left, from underneath it is up, and from above it is down. We look at the same thing and describe it in different frames of reference.

 The genius of Einstein is that he realized that time is part of this paradox of perception. That it is all relative and real. The past and future are part of the same left/right, up/down thing, and the present is just where we are in time when we happen to open our eyes. And if we did this change of perspective at the speed of light, time would come to a standstill and we would become infinitely heavy, because it is all linked to the inexorable tug of gravity.

 And Einstein also said, ‘God does not play dice with the universe’.

  But to me at that moment, it seemed that he did, because as I looked up at the azure hugeness of the hot summer sky, I could almost feel Sophia’s ghost standing next to me. After all I was in Africa, and here the spirits and ghost are everywhere at all times, not just in the haunted darkness of the night or a person’s imagination, as some in the west believe.

  The vastness of the sky above us, (me and my imaginary ghost that is), was underpinned and thus enhanced by the flatness of the unfettered perspective when viewed from the center of the bridge, because out here over the water there are no trees to obscure the view in any direction. It was almost as if the heat of the sun directly overhead, as it glared down on the river, had melted away any lumps in the landscape.

 As I looked over the dull broad turquoise of the waters, the river flowed towards me, and if I turned around, it flowed away, like time.

 There’s something about mountains which always seems to bring forth a sense of inspiration in most people, including myself.  The crags of the Drakensberg, the giant inselbergs of the Matopos, the cloud draped crowns and clefted-cliffs of the Vumba, all of these trigger a stir of something in my soul. Life feels good when I am hiking along some dirt path tucked into the folds of a valley of any of these ranges.

 But in this part of the Kafue basin it was the lack of anything ‘gimmicky’ that really brought home to me the enormity of nature. Out here there are no hills, no crags, no deep valleys, or clefted-cliffs. As I stood on the bridge and squinted my eyes to cut down the midday glare reflecting off the water all I could see was the huge flat horizon. Like the rip of a tide, it cut across my perception, stretching seemingly forever with its left and right, it’s before and behind and with the ripples of the Bush below and the sky above.

 I grew up as a child surrounded by similar huge flatness, between the Munyati and Sebakwe rivers and all that spilled and seeped across that flatness. How could I not be imprinted with all this bonanza of raw Africa? It utterly fascinated me. From the age of five when my father bought a pair of binoculars and a copy of Robert’s birds of Southern Africa, with a slingshot around my neck, almost every day I joined my Umfana friends to go out and explore and hunt the birds in the bush.

  collected bird’s eggs, the first egg of which was that of a Dabchick, with its glossy water impervious eggs hidden under the strands of weeds it had pulled over them as it sneaked off its barely floating nest at my approached, and the last was that of a Yellow-billed Kite taken from a nest near Shongweni.

 And I collected butterflies. African Swallowtails and Monarchs and Mimics, beautiful fast-flying Charaxes, which I had lured with rotting bananas, just long enough to drop my net over. The prize of my collection was a rare ‘Mother of Pearl’ I had caught as it sat opening and closing its wings amidst the leafy detritus caught between a jumble of granite boulders on the family farm.

 This childish dabbling in nature led to a degree in biology earned (barely) over many years of evening and later on-line studying. I think that I was the student with the longest attendance at the institute. I suspect that I was finally awarded my degree simply to get rid of me. It was starting to be embarrassing, I had been there longer than some of the staff with tenure.

 But that study has served me well in understanding the wonders of nature.

It allowed me to know that one of the true wonders of nature is the eye… The complexity of how the eye evolved, to function as it does is astounding. This has left even some of the most die-hard proponents of evolution with a niggling doubt about shutting the door on creationism.

But there are those in both the evolutionary and creationist camps who say that understanding the science behind life trivializes it. They prefer to look at it in a romantic emotional fashion. They are like those who only look at the outside of a car. However, if one wants to see the real marvel of the modern motor vehicle one needs to open its hood and look at what is underneath.

 Thus my formal studies allowed me to appreciate the mind boggling complexity of every aspect of life in its expressions in nature. It was the marvel of my eye that thus picked up the specks in the sky. There were less than a handful of them distributed vertically in a loose slowly twisting column. If they had not been thus clustered I probably would not have noticed them seeing as the closest column was approximately two ‘clicks’ (kilometers) away, far off to the northwest.

 I immediately recognized them for what they were and what they were doing, vulture’s gaining altitude in the updraft of one of the powerful thermals so prevalent on a hot African day. Returning to the cruiser I fetched my binoculars to more closely observe the birds. As I watched, the spec at the top of the column reached an altitude of a few thousand feet above ground level. Suddenly it peeled off and started to head north northeast in a flat shallow glide. Every now and again it would slightly drop its wings in a stiff half wing beat, which I knew was a signal to others.

 Following the direction of its flight with my binoculars, sure enough I picked up the next column, and then continuing the direction of my scan, I detected a further pillar of circling birds, now so distant that it was barely visible even with the magnification of the glasses.

 The vulture’s were on the march. Somewhere far away to the north northeast was a kill. The vultures were using the thermals to gain height before gliding to the next elevator, whence they once again gained altitude, before gliding on. There occasional stiff wing beat was a signal to every other vulture that there was food to be had.

 I turned around in a slow circle and scanned the skies in every direction. Sure enough off to the east in the direction of Mumbwa, where I was headed, was another thermal column and another progressive line of birds heading to where they could join the final feeding frenzy.

 I knew that most of the birds would be White-Backed’s, as they are the commonest of the Vulture’s in the Kafue. A pair of these birds had a nest right above the dirt road that led upstream along the river from our Lodge to that of our neighbors, who currently held the concession of the Lunga-Luswishi Game Management Area.

  But looking more attentively at the closest circling group I could detect at least one which was noticeably bigger, It would be one of the rarer kings of the clump, a Lappet- Faced Vulture, who once it reached the kill would dominate the scrum.

There would also obviously be some of the smaller more delicate Hooded Vulture’s, mixed in with the White-backs, but from my distance the size difference was too small to distinguish amongst those in the rising circle.

 As I stood and watched the pillar closest to me moved slowly nearer. It was pushed along by the breeze making the tall dry stalks of the elephant grass at the edge of the road nod and sway in unison with its eddies. I saw how the virtual pillar was dynamic. The birds at the top peeled off out of the counterclockwise spiral of the thermal. They were replaced by others approaching from the opposite side, in a well-spaced almost direct line, where upon with a sharp left bank of their huge wings they slid and slotted into position at the bottom of the vortex, only a few hundred feet above the tree canopy.

 I understood the aerodynamics of these amazing birds. This was because I had once entertained aspirations of being an Air Force pilot, and even started studying for a private pilot’s license in preparation. But at my induction the test showed I was slightly red-green colorblind. The sergeant conducting my test said I would be a good infantryman. But, I digress in my telling of my tale.

 If one is a bird who leads a lifestyle, based on waiting until something dies and you can eat it, it means that you need to develop certain characteristics to afford yourself an advantage in your special niche. One needs to get up high in the sky, with incredibly good eyesight, and while you are up there to spend as little energy as possible, while you look around searching for things that have died. Thus, the brought big wide area of the vulture’s wing is ideally designed to maximize lift. The lift is augmented by the first five feathers of its primaries extending out in a taper, so that when the wing is extended they seem almost to be like spread fingers of a hand. But the slotting acts to create micro-vortexes which aid the lift co-efficient of each feather behind it.

 Of course, the down side is that the wide lift producing surface area of the vulture’s wing also produces high drag. Its wing is not maximized for speed. If you want that the engineers of nature must supply a long narrow wing, which needs the lift augmented by plenty of flapping. Such a wing, with its narrowness and minimal drag, can cut through the air at high speed, like the wings of the Palm Swifts that glue their eggs to the leaves of the Borassus Palm trees, a few of which I could see raising their shaggy crowns aloft along the river bank.

 But then the vulture does not need to get anywhere very fast. Its food is not going to run away. In many cases, it can spot things, while its food is still in distress, even before it dies. Or if the death is administered quickly at the hands of a Leopard or a pride of lions, the gathering vulture’s need to wait until those higher up the pecking order, so to speak, are satiated, and they can get their turn.  Just like the Japanese designers of my Land Cruiser have had to make design compromises to suite for its purpose, so also has the genius of nature designed the wing of the vulture to suit its niche. We both, the vulture’s and I, need to go places reliably and effectively, but for this to happen we need to compromise on speed.

 However, it is only when one sees these vulture’s circling overhead so effortlessly, seemingly defying gravity and spreading across space and time with apparent impunity, that one can appreciate the incredible highly evolved complexity of this special species.

  The other thing that the vulture needs is phenomenal eyesight.

 From a distance of 2 kilometers up int the sky it must be able to distinguish and detect the natural color camouflaged fur or hide of a dying animal, even if it is laying partially concealed under a canopy of leaves.  The eyes of a vulture are unsurpassed in all of nature.

 I dropped my binoculars and let them hang on the strap around my neck. Space and time and gravity. God does not play dice with the universe. But mankind does. I rolled these sentences around in my mind.

 The flight of these magnificently elegant birds, embodied all of these elements, with their back and forth, up and up, gravity defying sweeps. But it is actually a different kind of gravity that I considered. The plight of the vulture’s.  No bird in history has, or is, disappearing off the face of the earth as fast as the vulture is right now.

 I considered how many millions of years it had taken, with millions of tiny random modifications to its strands of DNA, so that each tiny change afforded its owner either an advantage or a disadvantage in life, and the ability to pass on its changes to the next generation. Each of these tiny changes has produced this species, and the differences between the Hooded, the White-backed, the Lappet Faced and the others.  It was their specialization of flight and sight which had gotten these birds into such trouble.

 While flying it was their collective trait to signal to each other that something had died, and so fly and point to all the other vulture’s to where there was food.

This trait could be used by game departments to detect when a big animal such as an elephant or a rhinoceros had been poached. Using the converging flight path of the birds as a guide to food, law enforcement and ranges can quickly detect and get to the site of a poaching kill. This meant that the authorities could also quickly mount a follow-up tracking operation to attempt to intercept the poachers.

But unfortunately the poachers have also learned what the wardens are up to, and so in many parts of Africa the poachers have begun to poison their poached carcasses in an effort to deliberately wipe out the vulture’s, so that they would not be unwitting semaphores to law enforcement.

 Luckily, so far north of the Zambezi River, there has not been much of this poisoning. This is because the minds here are predominantly for copper, and not gold as it is in the countries to the south. Up here it is hard to get the cyanide that is used in the gold refining process, and which provides the poachers with the poison to put in the carcasses.

  The second amazing trait that is unique, and so sadly increasingly fatal to these birds is their phenomenal powers of sight.  Africa is full of spiritualism, and unfortunately for the vultures, the witch doctors of Africa believe that the vulture’s site allows it to look into the future.

 Ever since the first Uhuru swept out of the Abadair forests with the Mau-Mau in Kenya, the winds of change have been blowing in Africa. As a result, with African Independence all levels of governance is now conducted by Africans.  For many Africans the religions of the West are skin deep. It is the witchcraft and ‘Muti’ of the shamans which affords the ultimate power.

 Many African politicians, starting at the most junior levels of town administrators, going right up to the highest level of state politics, now seek out some advantage with a spiritual totem.  If it is not the politicians it is also many of the businesspeople. All over Africa, hidden away in backstreet shops or warehouses, one can find the bush-meat and Muti markets, where the totems that will give good luck and benefit in almost any endeavor can be found.  Crocodile heads, leopard skins, lines teeth, pangolin scales, owls talons, hyena snouts, Jackals tales.

 And of course, there are the heads of vulture’s with the ability to look into the future of any aspiring politician.

  Ughhh… I turned and walked back towards my Land Cruiser.

 With her ghost standing next to me, what is 30 years?

For me it seemed an eternity, but in those 30years it has been mankind and not God who has been playing with the dice. All it has taken is thirty years for these gracious birds circling overhead to almost disappear from the the earth.

 I asked my ghost to help find Moses. Only he could help me with the witchcraft. Sheeesh, I was letting the bush get to me… a ghost? I would banish it from my mind.

  After all Sophia was no longer a ghost, after 30 years she had sent me email.

 

 Glossary:

 Umfana – young boy

 

 

Vulture 02

 

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