A tribute to a beloved pack member – Dr Peter Mundy

Pioneering African Vulture Conservationist: 1941-2023

Dr John Ledger

Peter Mundy cradles a baby Palm-nut Vulture hatched at Vulpro. 24 September 2021. Photo: John Ledger.

While numerous tributes to Peter have poured in following his death on 3 February, it is regrettable that he did not get to write his own story, which would have been a fascinating autobiography. This is but a brief tribute to his full and exceptional life.

Born in  London, Peter showed early signs of leadership and self-motivation. In 1957 he became a Queen’s Scout and attended the World Jamboree. In 1960 he was a member of the British Schools Exploring Society expedition to Iceland, and in that year, he finished his schooling at the Royal Liberty School in Essex, winning a State Scholarship to Worcester College at Oxford University, where he ostensibly studied Zoology for a year.

But, in his own words, “he was not yet ready for such training”, and instead of zoology textbooks, he read Dostoevsky, learnt to play the saxophone, and had a fully wild time. Oxford divested itself of his continued presence. Thereafter followed time at the University of Life, where Peter undertook diverse types of work (including grave-digging) until he became a blues musician in the outfit called ‘Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages’. The band toured in Europe, and Peter’s stories of those days were hilarious and unforgettable. But after a few years, he tired of the frenetic but jaded life of an itinerant musician and managed to get back into university, this time at King’s College, London, whence he emerged with a BSc (Hons) in Zoology in 1969. He started birding with his university friend Clive Slater (“when we were on a rather boring entomology field course”).

Then followed nearly three years in northern Nigeria, where he was a secondary school teacher (biology and mathematics) at the Government College in Sokoto. Here he became interested in vultures and, with another friend (Allan Cook), studied the Hooded Vultures that were abundant in the heart of the city and had developed a symbiotic relationship with the humans of Sokoto. After that, he became a junior research fellow at the University of Rhodesia in 1972 to pursue a doctoral study on the ‘Comparative Biology of Southern African Vultures’.

He researched vultures in the north-east of Rhodesia in the Chirisa and Chizarira Game Reserves and the south-east in the Gonarezhou Game Reserve. With his young assistant Gabriel Ruguma, he worked for three years in wild areas full of large and dangerous animals, armed with only a Swiss army knife. His tales about their escapades in the bush were entertaining, to say the least! To fulfil the broad scope of his research, Peter had to include the Cape Vulture (or Cape Griffon as he liked to call it) in his studies, and that brought him to South Africa, the stronghold of the species,  where we met in 1972 and became close friends for fifty years. I had been involved with ringing Cape Vultures with the Witwatersrand Bird Club when I was a student at Wits and a member of the university Mountain Club.

The following year Peter joined our annual expedition to ring Cape Griffon nestlings at Roberts Farm in the Magaliesberg, and with his sharp wit, combative world views, and vigorous usage of strong expletives, had a powerful impact on the young students of the Wits Mountain Club who had never encountered such an unusual character! Over the next few years, ringing efforts were extended to several Cape Griffon breeding colonies at Manoutsa, Colleywobbles (then Transkei), Zastron (Free State), and Botswana.

Peter also had a galvanising effect on several local vulture enthusiasts. Many people were attracted to work for vultures with the enthusiasm that he generated about the hidden charms and unique features of the big birds. The core of the Vulture Study Group (VST) comprised Mundy, Ledger, Russel Friedman (fundraising), Steven Piper (academic/statistician), Duncan Butchart (artist)  and Marilyn Blignaut (secretary). We funded the work of the VSG mainly by selling T-shirts at shopping centres, organised by our entrepreneurial ‘cousin’ Russel, and attracting the inquisitive crowds with a real live vulture called ‘Bonaparte (because of his crippled wing).

In 1976 we started reading about Clive Walker and the Endangered Wildlife Trust in various newspapers, and Mundy said he sounded like ‘the sort of bloke who might give us some money’. Clive was taken on a heart-stopping climb up the face of the Magaliesberg to see the vultures. He persuaded the Board that these young lunatics deserved support, and I was subsequently appointed as an EWT Trustee in 1976 with a brief to make sure the Vulture Study Group was run with business-like discipline, and it became the first ‘Working Group’ of the EWT.

At the South African Ornithological Society (SAOS) Symposium on African Predatory Birds. Peter Mundy, John Ledger, Dr Leslie Brown, Dr Ian Newton, Russel Friedman, Dr Alan Kemp; seated: Steven Piper and ‘Timofy Vulcha’. Photographed on the steps of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria by John Cooper, August 1977.

At a South African Ornithological Society (SAOS) symposium on ‘African Predatory Birds’ at the Transvaal Museum in August 1977, we interacted with an audience that included leading specialists like Dr Leslie Brown from Kenya and Dr Ian Newton from Oxford University. Two years later, in 1979, Peter, Russel, and I attended and made presentations at the first International Conference on the Vultures, held in Santa Barbara, California. Our participation put the Vulture Study Group on the international map and resulted in us working with the California Condor Rescue Programme in 1981 and attending a Bird of Prey conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1982.

Peter graduated with a D Phil from the University of Zimbabwe in 1981 and was employed by the EWT as its first Scientific Officer. He later joined the Department of National Parks and Wildlife in Zimbabwe as their Ornithologist and also represented his country at various international meetings such as CITES. Peter and I attended several vulture conferences around the world and met regularly on his visits to South Africa.

He was subsequently appointed Professor of Forestry and Wildlife at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, where he played a major role in training young Zimbabweans, many of whom went on to remarkable achievements at the tertiary level and employment in the fields of biology and conservation. He was an excellent and prolific writer and published numerous popular and scientific articles. The ultimate milestone was the publication of The Vultures of Africa in 1992, authored by Peter Mundy, Duncan Butchart, John Ledger and Steven Piper. The citation index for this large 464-page book is remarkable and continues growing to this day.

When Peter was diagnosed with cancer, he came to Johannesburg several times for treatment, where we saw one another and also made two rather nostalgic visits to the Magaliesberg in 2021, one to the Nyoka Ridge vulture restaurant on International Vulture Awareness Day on 4 September, and another to Vulpro on  Heritage Day, 24 September. What struck me about these gatherings was how Peter Mundy’s legacy has inspired future generations of people to appreciate and treasure these great birds and go to great efforts to conserve and care for them. This is a notable achievement that will long be associated with this remarkable man and will hopefully be a solace to his wife Verity and children Matthew and Emily as they come to terms with their loss. I certainly miss him deeply.