The Amazing Story Of White-backed Vulture J151

5 Jun 2024

Farmer Jürgen Bergmann from the farm Springbokvley east of Windhoek gave me a call late afternoon on the 14th of April 2024 and informed me that he had found a White-backed Vulture that seemed to be very sick at one of his water points. I immediately suspected poisoning and asked him to collect the bird and to try to give it charcoal. Charcoal is used in the emergency treatment of certain kinds of poisoning. It helps to prevent the poison from being absorbed from the stomach into the body. A bit later, Bergmann returned to the spot where he had left the bird and found the vulture “dead”. He called again and I informed him, after having spoken to Liz Komen from NARREC (Namibia Animal Rehabilitation, Research & Education Centre), to put the bird in a coldroom and bring it to Windhoek as soon as possible. Komen wanted to take tissue samples and have them analyzed to find out what poison could have been taken up by the bird.

J151, the young White-backed Vulture, moments after it had been ringed and tagged.


The next day farmer Bergmann phoned and said that his wife was furious when she found a live vulture looking at her in the coldroom. They took the bird outside in the sun to warm it up, managed to crush activated charcoal pills with water, and gave it to the vulture who drank a bit of the water. Two days later the White-backed Vulture ate some of the meat offered to it and seemed to be tame. Liz Komen advised to stop giving charcoal and keep on feeding the bird. A few days later Bergmann informed me that the vulture flew onto the roofs of the buildings and came down to feed when offered meat. He then told me to come to the farm to ring and mark the bird which was feeling better and getting stronger by the day.

Anke Bergmann was looking after the vulture, which seemed to be tame for more than two weeks.


On the 21st of April I went out and ringed (RA00461) and tagged (J151) the young White-backed Vulture. The following week it was gone for a day and came back to get some more meat. The last time the Bergmanns saw J151 was on the 27th and 28th of April. The next day they left to the coast because it was school holidays.

Although been poisoned and very week when found, the vulture soon started feeding on his own and getting stronger by the day. His weight was very good with just over 5kg on the day he was ringed.


On the 30th of April Isak Spangenberg, owner of the farm Aanhou-Wen, 120 km north of Upington in the Northern Cape in South Africa and 680 km from Springbokvley, was told by his staff that a vulture was perching in a camelthorn tree near the house and seemed unbothered by humans. The next day the vulture landed on the ground and followed one of the employees who was afraid of the big bird. Later a ground squirrel was shot and given to the vulture who enjoyed the free meal. They started feeding the bird with ground squirrels and warthog meat and reported the vulture with the tags J151 on the wings and metal ring RA00461 on his left leg. Spangenberg said the vulture once even landed on the rail of the hunting vehicle when they came back from a hunt.

J151 coming down from the roof of a barn to feed and to be ringed on the 21st of April 2024.


Eventually the bird was reported to EWT (Endangered Wildlife Trust) and Vulpro, who promised to fetch the bird. The bird, however, flew off on the 6th of May.

The map shows the distances the White-backed Vulture travelled. From the farm Springbokvley, 80 km east of Windhoek in Namibia, where the bird was discovered, ringed and tagged. It flew to the farm Aanhou-Wen north of Upington in South Africa. The distance between the two farms is 680 km. It then moved to the Nojoli Wind Farm which is 73 km south of Cradock and 719 km from Aanhou-Wen. J151 was then taken to a rehabilitation centre at Hartebeespoort near Johannesburg where it is doing well.


While EWT and Vulpro were still busy organizing somebody to pick up the White-backed Vulture from the farm north of Upington, another vulture with the same tag number was reported from Nojoli Wind Farm, about 73 km south of Cradock in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to Kerri Wolter from Vulpro. By the time the rescue team arrived at farm Aanhou-Wen the vulture was long gone, but had turned up on the Nojoli Wind Farm 719 km further south, where J151  had landed between wind turbines.

According to experts the curly and frayed feathers are an indication of lead poisoning.

According to Wolter, the bird came in with head twitches and had curly feathers which are symptoms indicative of lead toxicity and excessive stress whilst this bird was a nestling. The bird was “treated with Baytril for respiratory infection and EDTA which is the antidote to lead poisoning”. On the 22nd of May J151 was transported to the main rehabilitation centre at Hartebeespoort near Johannesburg. Once White-back Vulture J151 is rehabilitated and ready to be released, it will be fitted with a transmitter to be able to hopefully follow its movements for a few years. It will be interesting to see if it will come back to Namibia.

In the beginning the people on the farm Aanhou-Wen were afraid of the vulture who seemed to be tame and followed them. When coming back from a hunt the bird landed on the rails of the hunting vehicle.


Lead poisoning has become an increasing problem, especially in vulture chicks. On the 24th of April Dr Linda van den Heever, Species Conservation Programme Manager of BirdLife South Africa, gave a talk on “Lead Poisoning in southern Africa´s Cape and White-backed Vultures” at the Namibia Scientific Society. According to the expert, the main cause of lead poisoning in vulture chicks is lead ammunition.

The young White-backed Vulture J151 landed on the hunting vehicle when it returned from a hunt. Maybe he had spotted the oryx on the back of the vehicle.


The Namibian Professional Hunting Association (NAPHA) had the topic of lead poisoning through lead ammunition explained by experts at their AGM two years ago. NAPHA is now looking at the possibility of using only lead-free ammunition to hunt with.

J151 was not bothered about humans around him and the farmer was able to photograph the metal ring on his left leg.


The study on the dangers of lead poisoning through lead ammunition has resulted in stopping farmers to put out meat of hunted animals at vulture restaurants which were promoted for many years as a means of boosting dwindling vulture populations. It is possible that a lot of the meat and intestines given to vultures could be contaminated with lead particles of even microscopic size. Levels of lead then build up in vultures that repeatedly feed on contaminated meat and offal, posing a danger to their health and ultimately their survival.

Dirk Heinrich

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