Lions And Zoos

Detroit Zoo vultures travel to South Africa to boost conservation agenda

The scavenging vultures Mrs. Nasty and Nelly hang out at the Detroit Zoo. The couple, along with three other vultures from the Detroit Zoo, made their permanent home in South Africa to support a vulture conservation program in November.


ROYAL OAK – In November, five vultures that previously inhabited the Detroit Zoo traveled around the world to help restore South Africa‘s vulture population.

The South African conservation program, called VulPro, is a leader in vulture rehabilitation and conservation and has more than a decade of experience working with injured and un-liberable vultures to increase wild populations, according to a zoo press release.

More than 40 captive-born vultures have been released into the wild thanks to the program, the statement said.

The five vultures at the Detroit Zoo, all of whom were born in captivity, include a Laughing Vulture named Kassie and four hooded vultures named Mrs. Nasty, Nelly, Fiona, and Zeke. The plan is for the five vultures to live and breed in VulPro, and their offspring to be released back into the wild.

“Breeding vultures stay with their parents at VulPro until they have successfully fledged and are able to feed on their own carcass. Then they move into a large enclosure with other juveniles and rehabilitated wild-born vultures for a month, ”VulPro founder Kerri Wolter said in a prepared statement. “When they are strong enough to feed and move widely, they are released into the wild.”

Scott Carter, director of life sciences for the Detroit Zoological Society, called the move – the first time African vultures have returned from North America to their home continent – “monumental.”

“We are delighted to be working with VulPro on this revolutionary initiative and to help restore these endangered species,” Carter said in a prepared statement. “We will be sharing updates from VulPro on Kassie, Mrs. Nasty, Nelly, Fiona and Zeke, and we look forward to one day showing off their offspring into the wild in South Africa.”

Due to delays related to the pandemic, the extensive process to bring the vultures to South Africa – including obtaining the necessary permits from the United States and South Africa – took nearly two years, according to the communicated.

Vultures are among the most misunderstood and underrated birds in the world, the statement said, and are also among the most threatened with extinction. Because they live on a diet almost entirely made up of carrion or dead animals, scavengers have an important role in global ecosystems.

Due to human activities such as altering wild habitats and persecuting vultures, vulture populations around the world have declined dramatically. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists Endangered Eastern Vultures and Critically Endangered Hooded Vultures.

Bonnie Van Dam, associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society, checks vultures in South Africa every week and said they are “doing very well.” She said the zoo is still home to four monk vultures, which visitors can see in the American prairies.

Lappet-faced vulture Kassie lives with a group of six other Eastern Vultures, so she can choose who she dates. Van Dam said she is named after her colleague who helped her artificially incubate the egg.

“Kassie is a mature female and when she chooses an available bachelor they will be moved to an area where they can have breeding privacy,” Van Dam said. “The little hooded vultures are also doing very well. They love their food.

While hooded vultures are about the size of Michigan’s turkey vultures, Van Dam said that the orical vultures are much larger – larger than the bald eagles.

She added that Ms Nasty’s name derives from her personality, which Van Dam described as being akin to a Yorkshire terrier.

“It’s just like a little bite on the ankle. She is small, but she has a very big demeanor. She’s a bit aggressive and is always there at our ankles, ”she said. “When she’s angry, her skin turns red. It is always beet red.

Ten years ago, Van Dam said, hooded vultures were commonly found in urban areas of Africa, rummaging through garbage; now their numbers have declined and they are critically endangered.

Man-made structures, mainly power lines, pose a significant threat to vultures in Africa. Large birds fly in the wires and are injured or electrocuted.

The other threats are direct and indirect poisoning. Van Dam said poachers directly poisoned their victims, usually elephants or rhinos, with the intention of killing vultures so that authorities would not be alerted to their illegal activities by scavengers circling above. Indirect poisoning occurs when vultures are not the intended target, but instead feed on poisoned carcasses intended for predators, such as lions, to prevent them from killing livestock.

She added that South Africa has been “very heavily affected” by COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. She said Wolter told her VulPro had struggled to find volunteers, who often come from other countries to help injured or poisoned vultures.

Van Dam herself was supposed to go, but the pandemic hampered her trip. She said the number of vultures in need of care has increased while the number of human volunteers has declined.

“It’s really tough right now,” she said. “It is a wonderful and unique organization. They keep moving forward and keep doing whatever they can for these birds.

The Detroit Zoo is located at 8450 W. 10 Mile Road, west of Woodward Avenue.

For more information, visit or call (248) 541-5717.

For more information on VulPro, visit or