White-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)

Also known as: African white-backed vulture
French: Gyps africain, Vautoir africain
GenusGyps (1)
SizeLength: 94 cm (2)
Wingspan: 218 cm (2)
Weight4150 – 7200 g (2)

The white-backed vulture is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Africa’s most common large vulture (4), the white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is an accomplished scavenger that feeds on the carcasses of Africa’s large animals. Its plumage is dark brown with black skin on the neck and head, making the white lower-back, for which it is named, even more prominent (2). The white-backed vulture has black eyes and a strong, slightly hooked black bill, contrasting with its pale crown and hindneck (4). As they age, the plumage of white-backed vultures becomes paler and plainer, especially the female’s; conversely, juveniles are darker, with lighter brown streaks on their feathers (2).

The white-backed vulture ranges from Mauritania, east to Ethiopia, and south through East Africa to South Africa (2)

The white-backed vulture inhabits open savanna and wooded country with game animals and livestock, up to 3,000 metres above sea level (2) (5).

White-backed vultures are scavengers, feeding on the soft muscle, organ tissue and bone fragments of large carcasses (2). With their large, broad wings they can soar and circle for hours as they search for carrion (6), sometimes following ungulates as they undertake their regular migrations (5). Their excellent eyesight enables them to spot food from high in the air, and they also keep an eye on other vultures, quickly following if they see another making a sudden descent (6). Up to 200 white-backed vultures can gather at a carcass; an enormous elephant carcass may even attract a thousand (2). With so many birds trying to feed, fights are inevitable (4). Accompanied with grunts and goose-like hisses and cackles (4), the scrum of vultures can be seen inserting their long, bare necks under the skin of the carcass or crawling into the ribcage as they feed on the dead remains (2). After gorging themselves, the vultures may bathe together with other species at a favourite site, or rest with their wings spread and backs to the sun (4).

White-backed vultures breed at the start of the dry season, nesting in loose colonies of 2 to 13 birds. The nest is a platform of sticks, lined with grass and green leaves, situated in the crown or fork of a large tree. Generally a single egg is laid, which is incubated for 56 days. The pale grey chick is fed by both parents until they fledge at 120 to 130 days of age (2).

The white-backed vulture has been impacted by a number of threats, resulting in a decline in numbers in recent years. Consequently, in 2012 the IUCN Red List uplisted the species from Near Threatened to Endangered (1). These population declines have been caused by a combination of factors: the loss and conversion of the vulture’s habitat for agriculture, declines in wild ungulate populations reducing the availability of carrion, hunting for use in traditional medicine, capture for the illegal live trade (7), electrocution on electricity pylons, drowning in farm reservoirs (8), persecution and poisoning (7).

A number of protected areas in Africa hold populations of white-backed vultures, including Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site (9). Yet the recent declines are worrying and further action is clearly required. Recommended measures include establishing legal protection for the species in all range countries, establishing a vulture monitoring network, and determining the most significant threats and seeking solutions (7).

Find out more about the white-backed vulture and its conservation:

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 (August, 2012)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. CITES (December, 2007)
  4. Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBride, B. (1996) Collins Guide to African Wildlife. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  5. Britton, P.L. (1980) Birds of East Africa: their Habitat, Status and Distribution. East Africa National History Society, Nairobi.
  6. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  7. BirdLife International (December, 2007)
  8. Anderson, M. (2008) Pers. comm.
  9. UNEP-WCMC: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (December, 2007)