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A disgusting day out

Aug 24 • 1262 views • 10 Comments Adventure, Africa, birds, birdwatching, Conservation, Diary of a Muzungu, East Africa, experiential tourism, Kampala, Nature Uganda, tourism experience, Travel, Uganda, UWA, wildlife

Looking for things to do around Kampala? Visiting the abattoir might not be top of every vegetarian’s wish list, but that didn’t stop Alex and I looking forward to the day out at the slaughterhouse, as part of Nature Uganda‘s annual vulture count.

A Marabou Stork sits on the roof of the slaughterhouse, Kampala

Keeping an eye out for the best titbits, a Marabou Stork sits on the roof of the slaughterhouse

Our gory tour took us to the very smelly outdoor Busega fish factory; the tidy, rustic Kyengera Abattoir and the formidable Kalerwe Abattoir, pictured, on the look-out for Hooded Vultures, Pied Crows, Brown Kites and Marabou Storks.

“I tried not to look at the blood and guts around me and looked down – and narrowly avoided stepping on a cow’s brain!” Not the most glamorous of day’s out for us ladies, tiptoeing around pools of dark red blood seeping into Kalerwe’s thick oozing mud.

My Nature Uganda friend Roger had painted a grim picture of last year's annual vulture count - but I couldn't wait to experience the horror for myself.

My Nature Uganda friend Roger had painted a grim picture of last year's annual vulture count - but I couldn't wait to experience the horror for myself.

Living in Uganda has desensitised me to the horrors of the meat trade. A vegetarian since the age of 13, it was learning about the UK’s concrete and metal ‘factory farms’ that turned me off meat, overnight. In the UK we’re as far removed from the slaughter process as could possibly be (it’s hard to reconcile the surgical cleanliness of the plastic-wrapped portions of meat in the supermarket with the reality of what happens to the animal in the slaughterhouse). Here in Uganda, it’s back to basics: blood, guts and all.

Heaps of body parts whereever we looked in Kalerwe Abattoir, Kampala

Heaps of (cow) body parts whereever we looked in Kalerwe Abattoir, Kampala - why can't the Chinese make ornaments and medicines out of this lot and leave Africa's rhino and elephants alone?

So why were we putting ourselves through this?

Vultures aren’t the world’s prettiest birds – that characteristic bald head helps keep the head clean when feeding on a carcass – but they (and the Marabou Storks) are arguably the most useful, and need to be protected.

Populations of the eleven species of African vulture have declined considerably. Threats vary, but include poisoning, loss of habitat loss, and trapping for food and witchcraft.

Vultures are nature’s most successful scavengers. Known by some as ‘Superman of the bird world,’ vultures can eat Anthrax (without dying) and quickly dispose of diseased carcasses (without catching the disease) – and no other animal will eat their carcass.

Hooded Vulture soaring above Kampala. Image Achilles Byaruhanga, Nature Uganda

Hooded Vulture soaring above Kampala. Image Achilles Byaruhanga, Nature Uganda

In the past decade, hundreds of vultures have been accidentally killed across East Africa after consuming poisoned animals set to kill lions and hyenas which had attacked livestock. Vultures are also intentionally poisoned by poachers because the presence of circling vultures alerts wildlife authorities to the location of poachers’ illegal activities.

In a recent incident, 48 vultures were poisoned near the Ishasha River on the Congo border, their bodies found scattered along a path heading back to Queen Elizabeth National Park.

In Kenya, vulture numbers in the Maasai Mara National Reserve have declined by an average of 62% since the 1970s. Vultures have some of the lowest reproductive rates among birds, making them particularly vulnerable. A decade ago none of Kenya’s eight vulture species was on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; now 6 out of 8 species are on the Red List, with populations declining at an alarming rate.

Information on Kenyan vultures edited from Summit to save Africa’s vulture populations from extinction on ‘African Raptors‘.

Nature Uganda Vulture Count 2012

Hammerkop getting in on the act! Huge numbers of Marabou Storks overseeing the fish processing near Natete, Kampala

So how is the demise of this ugly old bird linked to human health?

Following a decimation of the vulture numbers in India, there’s been an increase in disease transmission among dogs and rats. The subsequent increase in dogs and rabies is blamed for an estimated human health costs of $1.5 billion a year. If vulture numbers continue to decline in Kampala, what might be the impact on the residents of the city?

Too hot to trot!
Too hot to trot! Nothing goes to waste here …

Back at the abattoir, the authorities were suspicious of the muzungu wandering around with a camera – all except this guy:

“You take my picture”

My idea of hell - but just another day at work for this guy

My idea of hell - but just another day at work for this guy

Once beyond the understandably suspicious questions “are you from the Ministry of Health?” people seemed quite interested in what we were doing. Someone offered to feed the birds for us (for a fee). Another guy asked if we could solve the problem of the Marabous shitting on (and therefore destroying) his zinc roof!

At Kyengera, the unmistakable smell of burning flesh led us by the nose down to a shack where a whole cow’s head sat roasting on an open fire. For 500 shillings (the cost of two chapatis) I was invited to take a photo – or (just for laughs!) pose with the man stoking the fire and roasting the head – somehow that just seemed one step too far.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t take that last photo?

The species: In order of population size, Uganda has the following Vultures: White-backed, Hooded, Ruppell’s, Palm Nut, Lappet-faced, White-headed and Egyptian.

The numbers: For results of the 2012 Kampala vulture count, visit Nature Uganda or check the Diary of a Muzungu Facebook page next week.

If you like birds, check out the muzungu‘s Birds page for lots more Ugandan birding stories!

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10 Responses to A disgusting day out

  1. PA says:

    Wow Cha. That trip was almost heroic of you but totally absorbing. I have always been disgusted if not scared by vultures – ever since seeing on my first ever trip to the cinema – a film in Technicolor all about wildlife in Africa. I forget the name, but it was something of a seminal full length feature film I think and fantastic to me at the age of 8 or 9. I learned a lot from your piece and, yes, I am now feeling sorry for them. On a constructive note I did wonder if you should perhaps make it clear that the many cattle horns on view are not rhino horns or elephant tusks though? This is real down and dirty journalism isn’t it? Awesome!

    • the muzungu says:

      Pa, vultures get a bad press, I’m a big fan of them, now more than ever!
      Ma had a good suggestion: why can’t the Chinese use cow horns for medicine (rather than rhino horn, tiger’s penis, etc etc)?

  2. Nik says:

    Hey Cha, great story as ever.. and you know me love the bit about the Marabous and the zinc roof. I love the fact that meat eaters will read this and think it’s grose and vile. However, us no meat eaters will just get on with it. Humm thinking I need to come back and work in your office with you. You get to do some amazing work!

    • the muzungu says:

      Funny isn’t it, how the meat eaters are all freaked out by the abattoir sights? Us veggies have got our head around the reality I think!
      Would love you to come visit. My main ‘office’ is my spare room now (the previous one was in an uninspiring underground car park!) and I just write the blog/ volunteer for fun – or is it an obsession? Probably the latter! I’m still very lucky tho :)

  3. Dianah says:

    Hi Muzungu, this is a wonderful story. I can really feel your disgust. And the pictures, hhmmmmm. Not sure I can stand that. That is why I usually count the Kitezi rubbish dump, which is a more disgusting site but at least without blood all over the ground. The most amazing site at Kitezi is usually the line of dead dogs with bulging stomachs and the Vultures near by waiting for the first dog skin to be opened!

    • the muzungu says:

      Hi Dianah, thanks for reading (but maybe not enjoying!) this post. I know we were there to count birds, but I couldn’t help focusing on the abattoir itself. They are never nice places, wherever you go. The line of dead dogs at Kitezi sounds pretty awful (I suppose they are strays?) – I dare say I may end up there next year on the vulture count then! But at least the vultures appreciate them – just shows what a useful service these birds provide to the people of Kampala.

    • the muzungu says:

      Dianah, what happens to all the old cow horns, do you think? I know some are made into (quite beautiful) ornaments like drinks mats, jewellery, etc, but are they all (re)used?

  4. Amy says:

    I love vultures. Very interesting post. The picture of the Hamerkop cracks me up… :)

    • the muzungu says:

      That’s one cheeky little Hammerkop isn’t it? “Hey guy – we’re not here to count you!!”
      Vultures are very cool – I love your photo of the Egyptian Vultures. Great blog Amy!

  5. [...] Vultures are ugly but our health depends on them. [...]

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