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White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis
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This species has been uplisted to Critically Endangered. Recent data suggests the already small population is declining at an extremely rapid rate owing to a variety of threats including poisoning, persecution and ecosystem alterations. The species has a very small population which constitutes a single metapopulation as there is presumed to be movement of individuals within its large range. Local extinctions may be accelerated by major poisoning events in isolated localised subpopulations.

Taxonomic source(s)
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.

Mid-sized, chunky vulture with predominantly blackish and white plumage as an adult. Strong colourful bill and rear-peaked head. Ruffed white legs and belly separated from downy white head by its striking black breast. Black ruff.

Distribution and population
This species has an extremely large range in sub-Saharan Africa (from Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau disjunctly east to Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, and south to easternmost South Africa and Swaziland), where it is uncommon to locally common, but generally widespread outside forested regions (Harrison et al. 1997). It has declined rapidly in parts of West Africa since the early 1940s (P. Hall in litt. 1999, J. M. Thiollay in litt. 2006, 2012), is declining in East Africa (Virani et al. 2011) and in southern Africa is now largely confined to protected areas. New data suggests the regional populations are now much smaller than was previously thought: 721 nests in East Africa; 548 nests in Central Africa; 468 nests in Southern Africa and 156 nests in West Africa (Murn et al. in prep.). In Botswana only four nests were located during gyrocopter surveys of three Important Bird Areas during 2008 and the species has the lowest relative abundance of the vulture species recorded (Hancock 2008), while in Niger there are only four records since 1995, all in the Gadabeji area (J. Brouwer in litt. 2012). The species has probably declined in central Mozambique (Parker 2005a), where the population is estimated at 200 pairs (Parker 2005b). The species is likely to disappear from South Africa in the near future should current levels of exploitation and other pressures continue (McKean et al. 2013). An extrapolated estimate of the global population suggested there were 2,600-4,700 pairs (7,000-12,500 mature individuals) (Mundy et al. 1992) however new data suggests the population is much smaller, at just 5,500 individuals (Murn et al. in prep.).

Population justification
An estimate of 7,000-12,500 mature individuals was extrapolated from a number of regional estimates. This equates to 10,500-18,750 individuals in total. However, a new estimate of the global population suggests the population is much smaller, consisting of just 5,500 individuals (Murn et al. in prep.). This equates to just 3,685 mature individuals here placed in the band 2,500-9,999 mature individuals.

Trend justification
The species is thought to be declining at an extremely rapid rate. Ogada et al. (2015) estimate a median decline of 96% (range: 73-98%) over three generations (45 years). The species has shown severe declines throughout its West African range (F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt. 2006, J.M. Thiollay in litt. 2006) and also across southern Africa (Ferguson-Lees et al. 2001).

It prefers mixed, dry woodland at low altitudes, avoiding semi-arid thornbelt areas (Mundy et al. 1992). It also occurs up to 4,000 m in Ethiopia, and perhaps 3,000 m in Kenya, and ranges across the thorny Acacia-dominated landscape of Botswana (Mundy et al. 1992). It generally avoids human habitation (Mundy et al. 1992). The species is thought to be a long-lived resident that maintains a territory (del Hoyo et al. 1994). It may generally fly lower than other vultures, and is often the first vulture species to arrive at carcasses (Mundy et al. 1992). While it is often found on the periphery of vulture congregations at large carcasses, it is also often found at small carcasses and is probably an occasional predator (Mundy et al. 1992, F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt. 2006). It nests and roosts in trees, most nests being in Acacia spp. or baobabs (Mundy et al. 1992). Clutch size is one, the egg being laid a couple of months after rains have finished and the dry season is underway (Mundy et al. 1992). Pairs that breed have a success rate of 65-75%, however, up to 61% of pairs do not attempt to breed each year (Mundy et al. 1992, del Hoyo et al. 1994).

Reductions in populations of medium-sized mammals and wild ungulates, as well as habitat conversion throughout its range best explain the current decline (Mundy et al. 1992, P. Hall in litt. 1999, R. Davies in litt. 2006). Additional threats include indirect poisoning (R. Davies in litt. 2006) at baits set to kill jackals in small-stock farming areas, and in East Africa at poisoned baits set for larger mammalian carnivores such as lions and hyenas (C. Kendall in litt. 2012), and, particularly in East Africa, secondary poisoning from carbofuran (Otieno et al. 2010), although this species may be less susceptible than other vultures owing to its broad diet. Deliberate poisoning to prevent vultures drawing attention to poaching activities has also been documented (Roxburgh and McDougall 2012). Exploitation for the international trade in raptors (N. Baker in litt. 2006) also poses a threat. In 2005, 30 individuals of this species were confiscated by the Italian authorities (F. Genero in litt. 2005).

The species is recorded in trade in West and Central Africa (Buij et al. 2015). In South Africa, this species is captured for use in traditional medicines (R. E. Simmons and C. J. Brown in litt. 2006) and in Zambia White-headed Vultures have apparently been intentionally killed for use in witchcraft (Roxburgh and McDougall 2012). Breeding birds may readily desert nests in areas of high human disturbance (R. E. Simmons and C. J. Brown in litt. 2006). The species is highly sensitive to land-use and is highly concentrated in protected areas (Hancock 2008). Potential introduction of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, which is fatal to Gyps spp. when ingested at livestock carcasses may represent a potential future threat to the species.

Conservation and Research Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. This species currently occurs throughout much of southern and East Africa's protected areas network (F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt. 2006). It is classified as vulnerable in Namibia and South Africa (R. E. Simmons and C. J. Brown in litt. 2006). Individuals were marked with patagial tags in Fouta Djallon vulture sanctuary, Guinea, in 2007 to monitor movements and for a toxicological assessment of the vulture population of the park (Rondeau 2008). 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). 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.

 and Research Actions Proposed
Carry out co-ordinated surveys throughout the range of this species to clarify its population size and trends. Raise awareness about the impact of poisoning on this species (R. E. Simmons and C. J. Brown in litt. 2006). Enforce anti-poisoning legislation (R. E. Simmons and C. J. Brown in litt. 2006). Minimise disturbance at nests (C. Kendall in litt. 2012). 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 targeted at farmers, to reduce persecution, unintentional poisoning and hunting for cultural reasons. Promote measures to join up isolated protected areas and where suitable consider translocating birds to expand the range of the species (Murn et al. in prep.). 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

BirdLife International. 2008. Drugs firms told to do more to prevent vulture extinctions. Available at: #

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(

del Hoyo, J.; Elliott, A.; Sargatal, J. 1994. Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. 2001. Raptors of the world. Christopher Helm, London.

Harrison, J. A.; Allan, D. G.; Underhill, L. G.; Herremans, M.; Tree, A. J.; Parker, V.; Brown, C. J. 1997. The atlas of southern African birds. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.

IUCN. 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2015).

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.

Mundy, P.; Butchart, D.; Ledger, J.; Piper, S. 1992. The vultures of Africa. Academic Press, London.

Murn, C., Mundy, P., Virani, M.Z., Borello, W.D., Holloway, G.J. and Thiollay, J.M. in prep. Can Africa's protected area network conserve the White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis? Evidence from a revised global population estimate.

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.

Parker, V. 2005. The atlas of the birds of central Mozambique. Avian Demography Unit and Endangered Wildlife Trust, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Parker, V. 2005. Endangered Wildlife Trust and Avian Demography Unit, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Rondeau, G. 2008. Tagged vultures in Fouta Djallon, Guinea. Vulture News: 56.

Roxburgh, L. and McDougall, R. 2012. Vulture poisoning incidents and the status of vultures in Zambia and Malawi. Vulture News 62: 33-39.

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.

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

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Text account compilers
Bird, J., Butchart, S., Ekstrom, J., Evans, M., Harding, M., Martin, R, Pilgrim, J., Taylor, J., Symes, A. & Ashpole, J

Baker, N., Barlow, C., Bowden, C., Brown, C., Davies, R., Dowsett, R., Dowsett-Lemaire, F., Genero, F., Hall, P., Ndang'ang'a, P., Pomeroy, D., Simmons, R., Thiollay, J., Wolstencroft, J., Brouwer, J., Kendall, C., Mundy, P., Rainey, H., Goodwin, W. & Mhlanga, W.

IUCN Red List evaluators
Symes, A.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2016) Species factsheet: Trigonoceps occipitalis. Downloaded from on 24/10/2016. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2016) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 24/10/2016.

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

To contribute to discussions on the evaluation of the IUCN Red List status of Globally Threatened Birds, please visit BirdLife's Globally Threatened Bird Forums.

Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Critically Endangered
Family Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles)
Species name author (Burchell, 1824)
Population size 2500-9999 mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 6,910,000 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species
- Projected distributions under climate change