Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos)

Also known as: Nubian vulture
Synonyms: Aegypius tracheliotus, Torgos tracheliotus
  
French: Vautour oricou
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyAccipitridae
GenusTorgos (1)
SizeLength: 78 - 115 cm (2)
Wingspan: c. 280 cm (3)
Weight4,400 - 8,500 g (3)
Top facts

The lappet-faced vulture is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (4) and Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (2).

The largest vulture in Africa (2), the lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotus) dominates other vultures when feeding and is even powerful enough to fend off a jackal (5). This impressive, broad-winged bird is armed with a large and powerful beak (6), capable of tearing off the hides, tendons and other coarse tissue of its scavenged prey, which are too tough for smaller scavengers (7). The lappet-faced vulture is easily recognised by its conspicuous size, bare, pink-skinned head and distinctive fleshy folds of skin, known as lappets, on the sides of its neck, for which it earns its common name (7) (8).

There are two subspecies of lappet-faced vulture. The African subspecies, Torgos tracheliotus tracheliotus,has mostly dark brown to black feathers (8), which contrast starkly with the white thighs and white bar running across the leading edge of the underwing, clearly visible in flight (2). The north-east African subspecies, Torgos tracheliotus negevensis, is altogether browner, including partially brown thighs, with only some individuals showing white on the underwing, and those individuals formerly found in Israel also having pure white feathers on their backs (9).

The lappet-faced vulture is distributed across the Middle East and Africa, where it is found from the southern Sahara to the Sahel (9), down through east Africa to central and northern South Africa. In Africa, this vulture breeds in Egypt, possibly Libya, Senegal, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa (2). Breeding populations have been extinct in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia since the 1930s (2), and it may also no longer breed in Swaziland (10). In the Middle East, the lappet-faced vulture breeds in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen (2). This species no longer breeds in Israel, but it is known to sometimes travel up to 150 kilometres away from its breeding areas to forage, and thus individuals that are thought to breed in Saudi Arabia can be found in Israel (2) (9).

Over much of its range, the lappet-faced vulture inhabits dry savannah, semi-arid or desert areas with only scattered trees, thorn bushes and short grass, as well as open mountain slopes up to 4,500 metres above sea level (2) (9). Although open habitat is ideal for foraging, trees are also of critical importance to the lappet-faced vulture because they are used for roosting and nesting, with thorny species of Acacia, Balanites and Terminalia preferred (9).

The lappet-faced vulture is primarily a scavenger, preferring to feed on the carcasses of smaller animals such as gazelles and hares (2) (7). Unusually for vultures, however, this species also occasionally hunts and kills live prey, including small mammals and birds such as flamingos, in addition to feeding opportunistically on eggs, and possibly termites and locusts (6) (11). Although normally found alone or in pairs, lappet-faced vultures will sometimes congregate around large food sources or water holes, with up to 50 individuals seen in exceptional cases, although groups do not usually exceed ten (9). Being much more powerful and aggressive than other vulture species, and of dominating size, the lappet-faced vulture will often scare off or steal from smaller vultures (7) (9).

Pairs of lappet-faced vultures often build only one nest, although it is also common to have one to three nests that are used alternately, and these nests are used year after year. The breeding season varies across this bird’s extensive range. Generally, lappet-faced vultures in East Africa breed throughout the year (9), while those in southern Africa probably mate in May, and breed from May until mid-summer when the chicks fledge (10), and those in the extreme north of the range mate from November to July (sometimes to September). One egg per clutch is usual, which is then incubated for 54 to 56 days, by both adults (9). Although the chick fledges at 125 to 135 days, it continues to remain dependent on the adults for quite some time (5) (9). Young lappet-faced vultures do not usually breed until about six years of age (9).

The remaining small and declining population of lappet-faced vultures is suffering from a variety of threats across its range, but owes its demise particularly to poisoning and persecution. Widespread accidental poisoning has occurred through these vultures feeding on bait treated with strychnine and other poisons that are intended for mammalian predators, left out by farmers in order to protect their livestock. However, the lappet-faced vulture has also often been mistakenly accused of preying on livestock itself, and is consequently persecuted by farmers. One particularly devastating deliberate poisoning incident killed 86 lappet-faced vultures in Namibia (2).

A rising scarcity of large carcasses on which to feed may also be a problem for the lappet-faced vulture (9). Additionally, this species is particularly sensitive to nest disturbance, which may sadly be growing with increasing road construction and recreational use of off-road vehicles (2). Like other bird species, this vulture has been known to fall victim to electrocution by high-voltage pylons and power lines (5). As a result of such threats, many local populations are gradually becoming extinct.

The lappet-faced vulture breeds in a number of protected areas within its extensive range, and ongoing ecological research is being conducted, particularly on the T. t. negevensis subspecies in Saudi Arabia and on T. t. tracheliotos in southern Africa. There is an urgent need to raise awareness amongst farmers of the plight of this species and the decimating effects of both persecution and accidental poisoning (2). Thus, farmer-awareness programmes are one of the key initiatives proposed in the action plan for this species, which was created in 2005, along with ongoing research and an awareness campaign to reduce nest disturbance (9). International cooperation and concerted conservation effort will be required if further localised extinctions are to be prevented, a fate sadly already realised in a number of North African countries and in Israel.

For further information on the lappet-faced vulture and its conservation see:

For information on the conservation of vultures and other raptors see:

Authenticated (11/03/08) by Mark D. Anderson, Specialist Nature Conservation Scientist (Ornithologist), Department of Tourism, Environment and Conservation, Northern Cape, South Africa.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2007)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. BirdLife International (May, 2006)
    http://www.birdlife.org/
  3. Hockey, P.A.R., Dean, W.R.J. and Ryan, P.G. (2005) Roberts Birds of Southern Africa. 7th Edition. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town.
  4. CITES (May, 2006)
    http://www.cites.org/
  5. Vultures: Nature’s Noble Caretakers - Lappet-Faced Vulture (May, 2006)
    http://www.vultures.homestead.com/LappetFaced.html
  6. Kenya Birds - Lappet-Faced Vulture (May, 2006)
    http://www.kenyabirds.org.uk/vult-lap.htm
  7. Busch Gardens- Lappet-Faced Vulture (May, 2006)
    http://www.buschgardens.org/animal-info/animal-bytes/animalia/eumetazoa/coelomates/deuterostomes/chordata/craniata/aves/falconiformes/lappet-faced-vulture.htm
  8. The Big Zoo - Lappet-faced Vulture Aegypius tracheliotus (May, 2006)
    http://www.thebigzoo.com/Animals/Lappet-faced_Vulture.asp
  9. Shimelis, A., Sande, E., Evans, S. and Mundy, P. (2005) International Species Action Plan for the Lappet-faced Vulture, Torgos tracheliotus. BirdLife International, Nairobi, Kenya and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Sandy, Bedfordshire, UK. Available at:
    http://www.birdlife.org/action/science/species/species_action_plans/africa/lappet-faced_vulture_sap.pdf
  10. Anderson, M. (2008) Pers. comm.
  11. The Hawk Conservancy Trust (May, 2006)
    http://www.hawk-conservancy.org/