This species has declined severely in parts of its range and overall it is suspected to have undergone a very rapid decline owing to habitat loss and conversion to agro-pastoral systems, declines in wild ungulate populations, hunting for trade, persecution, collisions and poisoning. These declines are likely to continue into the future. Recently published data suggests these declines are even more serious than previously thought. For this reason it has been uplisted to Critically Endangered.
del Hoyo, J.; Collar, N. J.; Christie, D. A.; Elliott, A.; Fishpool, L. D. C. 2014. HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.
Distribution and population
94 cm. A medium-sized vulture. Brownish to cream coloured as an adult. Contrastingly dark tail and flight feathers, especially from below. White rump patch and ruff. Dark neck and paler head with an all dark bill. Juvenile birds are darker. Similar spp. Within its range most likely to be confused with G. rueppellii or G. fulvus. Both of these species have a pale outer half to their bill and do not show such a marked contrast between the underwing-coverts and flight feathers from below.
This species is the most widespread and common vulture in Africa, although it is now undergoing rapid declines. It occurs from Senegal, Gambia
in the west, throughout the Sahel region to Ethiopia
in the east, through East Africa into Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia
and South Africa
in the south. Its global population has been estimated at 270,000 individuals. Consistent with other vulture species, it has declined by over 90% in West Africa (
J. M. Thiollay in litt.
, and it has largely disappeared from Ghana
apart from Mole National Park (F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt.
(no records away from W National Park since 1997, J. Brouwer in litt.
2012) and Nigeria
(no sightings in 2011 in last stronghold of Yankari Game Reserve, nor anywhere else, and possibly extirpated from the country, P. Hall in ltt.
2011). The species has also declined in Sudan
and South Sudan
(Nikolaus 2006), Somalia
(A. Jama in litt.
(c.52% declines in Masai Mara over c.15 years, M. Virani in litt.
2006, Virani et al.
, but is apparently more stable in Ethiopia (Nikolaus 2006)
(D. Peterson in litt
(short-term increases [Pomeroy et al
. 2012]) and across southern Africa where an estimated 40,000 individuals remain (R. Simmons in litt.
. An ongoing study near Kimberley, South Africa, shows the number of breeding pairs has increased by 72% in 22 years (from 50 to 86 breeding pairs) (A. Anthony in litt
. 2015). However McKean et al
. (2013) suggest that if current levels of exploitation continue in South Africa, the species could become locally extinct by 2034 or sooner. Overall it is suspected to have declined very rapidly.Population justification
The species's global population has been estimated at 270,000 individuals.Trend justification
The most recently published data on this species's population suggests the species has declined extremely rapidly, with a median estimate of 90% (range: 75-95%) over three generations (55 years) (Ogada et al
. 2015). Declines have exceeded 90% in West Africa (Thiollay 2006), and have also occurred in other parts of the range including Sudan (Nikolaus 2006) and Kenya (M. Virani in litt
. 2006), but populations are apparently stable in Ethiopia (Nikolaus 2006) and Tanzania (D. Peterson in litt.
2006). Virani et al
. (2011) documented an apparent decline of c. 52% over c.15 years in the numbers of Gyps
vultures present in the Masai Mara (Kenya) during the ungulate migration season, while in central Kenya an apparent decline of 69% was noted in the numbers of Gyps
vultures between 2001 and 2003 (Ogada and Keesing 2010). As these are visiting individuals from a wide-ranging population, declines observed in the Masai Mara study may be representative of declines in Gyps
populations ranging across East Africa from Southern Ethiopia to Southern Tanzania (C. Kendall in litt.
Primarily a lowland species of open wooded savanna, particularly areas of Acacia
. It requires tall trees for nesting. However it has also been recorded nesting on electricity pylons in South Africa (de Swardt 2013). A gregarious species congregating at carcasses, in thermals and at roost sites. It nests in loose colonies. Threats
The species faces similar threats to other African vultures, being susceptible to habitat conversion to agro-pastoral systems, loss of wild ungulates leading to a reduced availability of carrion, hunting for trade, persecution and poisoning.
In East Africa, the primary issue is poisoning (particularly from the highly toxic pesticide carbofuran), which occurs primarily outside protected areas; the large range sizes of this and G. rueppellii
species puts them at significant risk as it means they inevitably spend considerable time outside protected areas (Ogada and Keesing 2010, Otieno et al.
2010, Kendall and Virani 2012). Recent evidence from wing-tagging and telemetry studies suggests that annual mortality, primarily from incidental poisoning, can be as high as 25% for the species (Kendall and Virani 2012). Cases in Zambia and Malawi suggest the species may be subject to deliberate and accidental poisoning respectively (Roxburgh and McDougall 2012). In the former case for witchcraft and to prevent birds from drawing attention to poaching activities. At least 144 White-backed Vultures were killed after feeding on an elephant carcass in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe in 2012 (Groom et al
The ungulate wildlife populations on which this species relies have declined precipitously throughout East Africa, even in protected areas (Western et al.
2009). In 2007, diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock, and which is fatal to Gyps
spp. when ingested at livestock carcasses, was found to be on sale at a veterinary practice in Tanzania (BirdLife International 2007)
. It was also reported that in Tanzania, a Brazilian manufacturer has been aggressively marketing the drug for veterinary purposes (C. Bowden in litt.
and exporting it to 15 African countries (BirdLife International 2007)
. In southern Africa, vultures are caught and consumed for perceived medicinal and psychological benefits (McKean and Botha 2007), and the decline and possible extirpation in Nigeria has been attributed to the trade in vulture parts for traditional juju practices (P. Hall in litt.
2011). It is recorded in trade in West and Central Africa, with an estimated 924-1,386 individuals traded over a six year period in West Africa, probably representing a significant proportion of the species's regional population (Buij et al
In South Africa, White-backed Vulture is one of the preferred vulture species in trade, according to a survey of traditional healers and traders (McKean et al
. 2013). As a result of this and environmental pressures, it is predicted that the population in Zululand could become locally extinct in 26 years, unless harvest rates have been underestimated, in which case local extinction could be 10-11 years away (McKean and Botha 2007)
. There is evidence that it is captured for international trade; for example in 2005, 13 individuals of this species being kept illegally in Italy were reportedly confiscated (F. Genero in litt.
. Electrocution on powerlines is also a problem in parts of its range, and it is vulnerable to nest harvesting or disturbance by humans (Bamford et al.
2009); perhaps more so than G. rueppellii
, as it breeds in trees rather than on inaccessible cliffs (C. Kendall in litt.
2012).Conservation and Research Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. The species occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range. A press release was circulated in July 2007 to raise awareness of the impacts of hunting for medicinal and cultural reasons in southern Africa (McKean and Botha 2007)
. In 2007, a survey began to establish the extent of diclofenac use for veterinary purposes in Tanzania (BirdLife International 2007)
, and in 2008 an awareness-raising campaign at a conference of the World Organisation for Animal Health in Senegal led to a resolution being adopted unanimously by more than 160 delegates to "request Members to consider their national situation with the aim to seek measures to find solutions to the problems caused by the administration of diclofenac in livestock" (Woodford et al.
2008, C. Bowden in litt.
2008). BirdLife Botswana have launched a campaign to tackle illegal poisoning (Anon. 2013). At the 2014 Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species, a set of guidelines to address poisoning was formally adopted (Ogada et al
. 2015). The species will be listed as nationally Endangered in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Conservation and Research Actions Proposed
Establish a monitoring network for African vultures. Establish legal protection for the species in range states and enforce legislation to prevent illegal trade. Raise awareness amongst pastoralists of the dangers of using poisons for pest control. Eliminate the veterinary use of diclofenac and other toxic drugs in Africa. Limit the hunting of game to improve the availability of carrion. Carry out education and awareness programmes, particularly targetted at farmers, to reduce persecution, unintentional poisoning and hunting for cultural reasons. A number of recommendations were produced at the 2012 Pan-Africa Vulture Summit (Botha et al
. 2012, Ogada et al
. 2015): 1) Regulate import, manufacture and sale of poisons; 2) Legislate and enforce measures to prosecute those involved in illegal killing and trade in vulture species; 3) Protect and effectively manage breeding sites; 4) Ensure new energy infrastructure is 'vulture-friendly' and modify existing unsafe infrastructure; 5) Support activities to conserve vulture populations, including research and outreach activities.
Related state of the world's birds case studies
Anderson, M.D., Piper, S.E. and Swan, G.E. 2005. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug use in South Africa and possible effects on vultures. South African Journal of Science 101(3-4): 112-114.
Anon. 2013. Birdlife Botswana launches campaign following poisoning of 1000 vultures. Available at: http://minetravel.co.bw/tourism/2013/09/05/birdlife-botswana-launches-campaign-following-poisoning-of-1000-vultures/. (Accessed: 24/09/2015).
Bamford, A. J.; Monadjem, A.; Hardy, I. C. W. 2009. Nesting habitat preference of the African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus and the effects of anthopogenic disturbance. Ibis 151(1): 51-62.
BirdLife International. 2008. Drugs firms told to do more to prevent vulture extinctions. Available at: #http://www.birdlife.org/news/news/2008/08/indian_drug_announcemment.html#.
Botha, A.J., Ogada, D.L. and Virani, M.Z. 2012. Proceedings of the Pan-African Vulture Summit. Endangered Wildlife Trust, Modderfontein, South Africa and The Peregrine Fund, Boise, ID.
Buij, R., Nikolaus, G., Whytock, R., Ingram, D.J. and Ogada, D. 2015. Trade of threatened vultures and other raptors for fetish and bushmeat in West and Central Africa. Oryx FirstView Article(http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0030605315000514).
de Swardt, D.H. 2013. White-backed Vultures nesting on electricity pylons in the Boshof area, Free State, South Africa. Vulture News 65: 48.
Groom, R.J., Gandiwa, E. and van der Westhuizen, H.J. 2013. A mass poisoning of White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures in Gonarezhou National Park. Honeyguide 59(1): 5-9.
IUCN. 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Available at: www.iucnredlist.org. (Accessed: 19 November 2015).
Kendall, C. and Virani, M. 2012. Assessing mortality of african vultures using wing tags and GSM-GPS transmitters. Journal of Raptor Research.
McKean, S., Mander, M., Diederichs, N., Ntuli, L., Mavundla, K., Williams, V. and Wakelin, J. 2013. The impact of traditional use on vultures in South Africa. Vulture News 65: 15-36.
McKean, S.; Botha, A. 2007. Traditional medicine demand threatens vultures in Southern Africa.
Mundy, P.; Butchart, D.; Ledger, J.; Piper, S. 1992. The vultures of Africa. Academic Press, London.
Nikolaus, G. 2006. Commentary: where have the African vultures gone? Vulture News: 65-67.
Ogada, D., Shaw, P., Beyers, R.L., Buij, R., Murn, C., Thiollay, J.M., Beale, C.M., Holdo, R.M., Pomeroy, D., Baker, N., Krüger, S.C., Botha, A., Virani, M.Z., Monadjem, A. and Sinclair, A.R.E. 2015. Another Continental Vulture Crisis: Africa's Vultures Collapsing toward Extinction. Conservation Letters: 1-9.
Otieno, P. O.; Lalah, J. O.; Virani, M., Jondiko, I. O.; Schramm, K. 2010. Carbofuran and its toxic metabolites provide forensic evidence for Furadan exposure in vultures (Gyps africanus) in Kenya. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 84: 536-544.
Pomeroy, D., Kaphub, G., Nalwangac, D., Ssemmandad, R., Lotukb, B., Opetob, A. and Matsikob, M. 2012. Counting vultures at provisioned carcasses in Uganda. Vulture News 62: 25-32.
Roxburgh, L. and McDougall, R. 2012. Vulture poisoning incidents and the status of vultures in Zambia and Malawi. Vulture News 62: 33-39.
Thiollay, J.-M. 2006. Severe declines of large birds in the northern Sahel of West Africa: a long-term assessment. Bird Conservation International 16(4): 353-365.
Virani, M.; Kendall, C.; Njoroge, P.; Thomsett, S. 2011. Major declines in the abundance of vultures and other scavenging raptors in and around the Masai Mara ecosystem, Kenya. Biological Conservation 144: 746-752.
Western, D.; Russell, S.; Cuthill, I. 2009. The Status of Wildlife in Protected Areas Compared to Non-Protected Areas of Kenya. PLoS One 4(7): e6140.
Woodford, M. H.; Bowden, C. G. R., Shah, N. 2008. Diclofenac in Asia and Africa - repeating the same mistake? Harmonisation and improvement of registration and quality control of Veterinary Medicinal Products in Africa - OIE World Organisation for Animal Health.
Further web sources of information
Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species
View photos and videos and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection
Text account compilers
Bird, J., Butchart, S., Ekstrom, J., Harding, M., Symes, A., Taylor, J. & Ashpole, J
Baker, N., Barlow, C., Bowden, C., Genero, F., Hancock, P., Millington, L., Ndang'ang'a, P., Peterson, D., Pomeroy, D., Simmons, R., Thiollay, J., Thomsett, S., Virani, M., Scott, M., Buij, R., Ogada, D., Jama, A., Roxburgh, L., Dowsett-Lemaire, F., Hall, P., Scott, A., Kendall, C., Brouwer, J., Anthony, A., Mhlanga, W., Goodwin, W., Rainey, H. & Mundy, P.
IUCN Red List evaluators
BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Gyps africanus. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 29/11/2015.
Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2015) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 29/11/2015.
This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000)
Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004)
Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.
To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife
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Additional resources for this species