This species has suffered an extremely rapid population reduction in the recent past which is likely to continue into the near future, probably largely as a result of feeding on carcasses of animals treated with the veterinary drug diclofenac, perhaps in combination with other causes. For this reason it is classified as Critically Endangered.
Sibley, C. G.; Monroe, B. L. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.
Distribution and populationSarcogyps calvus
76-86 cm. Medium-sized bulky vulture. Mainly black except for bare red head, neck and legs; also white thigh-patches and ruff. Juveniles have paler more mottled plumage. Similar spp. No real confusion species within its range.
occurs in Pakistan (previously regular, now a rare straggler with two in Tharparker in 2002 the first record since 1980 [Nadeem et al.
(sparsely distributed and declining, now rare or absent from some areas, e.g. parts of Gujarat and the north-eastern states, but still fairly common in the west Himalayan foothills), Bangladesh
(rare in the north-west), Bhutan, Myanmar
(rare resident; recent records come mainly from Mount Victoria [G. Chunkino in litt.
2006, Hla et al.
2011], with up to 11 in Shan state in 2003 - the first recent documented records in the east of the country [Bezuijen et al.
(unrecorded in Yunnan since the late 1960s
[S. Chan in litt.
2006]; possibly occurs in south-east Tibet), Thailand
(near extinct in the country [P. Round in litt.
(previously widespread and common, but now only occasional wanderers from the Cambodian population), Vietnam
(previously regular in central regions, but now only occasional wanderers from the Cambodian population), Cambodia
(previously common, now rare and restricted to the northern and eastern plains), peninsular Malaysia
(previously locally common in north, now absent), Singapore
(formerly occurred, apparently now absent) (Ferguson-Lees et al.
2001). Historical reports indicate that it was widespread and generally abundant, but it has undergone a population and range decline in recent decades. Recent information indicates that in India the species started undergoing a rapid decline (41% per year) in about 1999, and declined by 91% between the early 1990s and 2003 (Cuthbert et al.
. Declines in the Indian Subcontinent have followed widely reported and well-researched declines in Gyps
vultures owing to mortality following ingestion of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) diclofenac, used to treat livestock, and it is hypothesised that this same drug has been responsible for the observed trends in Red-headed Vulture. Census results from Cambodia suggest that the population there has been stable since 2004 at least (Eames 2007b). Given the lack of intensive agriculture and associated chemical use in South-East Asia, and the continued presence of large areas of suitable habitat for the species, the primary reason behind its decline in the region is thought to be the demise of large ungulate populations and improvements in animal husbandry resulting in a lack of available carcasses for vultures (Anon 2003,
. Given its rarity in South-East Asia, it is unlikely that more than a few hundred individuals remain there, while the total population seems unlikely to exceed 10,000 mature individuals given the patchiness of its distribution across India and the apparently catastrophic very recent declines. Population justification
Given its rarity in South-East Asia, it is unlikely that more than a few hundred individuals remain, while the total population seems unlikely to exceed 10,000 mature individuals given the patchiness of its distribution across India and the apparently catastrophic very recent declines. In light of this it is placed in the band 2,500-9,999 mature individuals. This equates to 3,750-14,999 individuals in total, here rounded to 3,500-15,000 individuals.Trend justification
Cuthbert et al.
(2006) calculate a decline in excess of 90% within 10 years in India. Similar declines are expected throughout the Indian Subcontinent. Ecology
It frequents open country usually away from human habitation, well-wooded hills and dry deciduous forest with rivers, usually below 2,500 m. Nesting has been recorded in tall trees. It occurs at lower density than Gyps
vultures owing to its predominantly territorial behaviour, and movements are poorly known. Vultures play a key role in the wider landscape as providers of ecosystem services, and were previously heavily relied upon to help dispose of animal and human remains in India. Threats
The disappearance of vultures from Asia is linked to a suite of factors: notably the demise of wild ungulates (Anon 2003)
, the intensification of agriculture, increased sophistication of waste disposal techniques, direct persecution and disease. However, rapid declines since the turn of the 21st century are believed to have been driven by the pharmaceutical NSAID diclofenac used to treat livestock, which has proven highly toxic to vultures, causing mortality from renal failure that results in visceral gout (Cuthbert et al.
. It seems plausible that this species previously had less exposure to the toxin owing to competitive exclusion from carcasses by Gyps
spp. vultures (Cuthbert et al.
. Surveys in Myanmar in late 2006 and early 2007 found no evidence that diclofenac was being used in livestock (Eames 2007a) and it is not in use in Cambodia (Mahood in litt
. 2012). In Cambodia at least it experiences some incidental mortality through the widespread use of poisons to catch fish or waterbirds at trapeangs
(waterholes). Conservation actions underway
CITES Appendix II. CMS Appendix II. It has been reported from many protected areas across its range.
The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan passed legislation in 2006 banning the manufacture and importation of diclofenac as a veterinary drug, with India passing further legislation in 2008 banning the manufacture, sale, distribution or use of veterinary diclofenac. A letter from the Drug Controller General of India in 2008 warned more than 70 drugs firms not to sell the veterinary form of diclofenac, and to mark human diclofenac containers 'not for veterinary use'
(BirdLife International 2008). In October 2010, the government of Bangladesh banned the production of diclofenac for use in cattle, and the distribution and sale of the drug were due to be outlawed during the first half of 2011 (M. M. H. Khan in litt
. 2010). While these bans have been introduced and have led to a reduction of diclofenac within ungulate carcasses (the principal food source for vultures in South Asia) levels of diclofenac contamination still remain high and human forms of the drug are still sold for veterinary use (Cuthbert et al.
2011a,b ). Efforts to replace diclofenac with a suitable alternative are on-going and are showing signs of success with evidence for a decrease in diclofenac and an increase in the safe alternative (Cuthbert et al 2011c ). An alternative drug, meloxicam, which is out of patent and manufactured in Asia has been tested on Gyps vultures with no ill-effects (Swan et al
. 2006, Swarup et al
. 2007 ). Monitoring of vultures has been conducted in a number of protected areas in India, and monitoring of vulture populations combined with supplementary feeding is underway in the northern and eastern plains of Cambodia. There are currently seven vulture restaurants in Cambodia, which are run by The Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project, a partnership between the Royal Cambodian Government and national and international NGOs (e.g. Masphal and Vorsak 2007, H. Rainey in litt.
2008). Advocacy to reduce the use of poisons and poisoned bait to catch fish and waterfowl has succeeded in reducing the number of vultures being poisoned accidentally (S. Mahood in litt.
2012). A five-year captive breeding and reintroduction scheme to be run by the Zoological Park Associatin and Kasetsart University was due to begin in 2007 in Uthai Thani, Thailand (Anon 2007), but captive breeding efforts are not as advanced as they are for Critically Endangered Gyps
vultures and these are urgently needed. Surveys utilising vulture restaurants were carried out in Myanmar in late 2006 and early 2007, accompanied by research into the locations of nesting colonies, causes of vulture deaths and potential that diclofenac was being used in livestock (Eames 2007a). Further research on the causes of decline in this species was being proposed in 2011 (R. Cuthbert in litt
. 2011).Conservation actions proposed
Identify the location and number of remaining individuals and identify action required to prevent extinction. Measure the frequency of diclofenac treated carcasses available to vultures. Support the ban on the veterinary use of diclofenac, and support species management or restoration, as needed. Continue to carry out public awareness and public support programmes. Monitor remaining populations, in particular replicate conservation and research activities that have been implemented in Cambodia in Myanmar. Provide supplementary food sources where necessary for food-limited populations in South-East Asia. Support captive breeding efforts at a number of separate centres. Promote the immediate adoption of meloxicam as an alternatives to diclofenac. Test other NSAIDs to identify additional safe alternative drugs to diclofenac and also other toxic ones.
Related state of the world's birds case studies
Ferguson-Lees, J.; Christie, D. A. 2001. Raptors of the world. Christopher Helm, London.
Nadeem, M. S.; Asif, M.; Mahmood, T.; Mujtaba, G. 2007. Reappearance of Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus in Tharparker, Southeast Pakistan. Podoces 2(2): 146-147.
Gautam, R.; Tamang, B.;Baral, N. 2003. Ecological studies on White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis in Rampur valley, Palpa, Nepal.
Swan, G.; Naidoo, V.; Cuthbert, R.; Green, R.E.; Pain, D.J.; Swarup, D.; Prakash, V.; Taggart, M.; Bekker, L.; Das, D.; Diekmann, J.; Diekmann, M.; Killian, E.; Meharg, A.; Patra, R.C.; Saini, M.; Wolter, K. 2006. Removing the threat of diclofenac to critically endangered Asian vultures. PLoS Biology: e66.
Swan, G.E.; Cuthbert, R.; Quevedo, M.; Green, R.E.; Pain, D.J.; Bartels, P.; Cunningham, A. A.; Duncan, N.; Meharg, A. A.; Oaks, J. L.; Parry-Jones, J.; Taggart, M. A.; Verdoorn, G.; Wolter, K. 2006. Toxicity of diclofenac to Gyps vultures. Biology Letters: 279-282.
Cuthbert, R.; Green, R.E.; Ranade, S.; Saravanan, S.; Pain, D.J.; Prakash, V.; Cunningham, A. A. 2006. Rapid population declines of Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) in India. Animal Conservation 9(3): 349-354.
Gilbert, M.; Watson, R. T.; Virani, M. Z.; Oaks, J. L.; Ahmed, S.; Chaudhry, M. J. I.; Arshad, M.; Mahmood, S.; Ali, A.; Khan, A. A. 2006. Rapid population declines and mortality clusters in three Oriental White-backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis colonies in Pakistan due to diclofenac poisoning. Oryx 40(4): 388-399.
Swarup, D.; Patra, R. C.; Prakash, V.; Cuthbert, R.; Das, D.; Avari, P.; Pain, D. J.; Green, R. E.; Sharma, A. K.; Saini, M.; Das, D.; Taggart, M. 2007. Safety of meloxicam to critically endangered Gyps vultures and other scavenging birds in India. Animal Conservation 10(2): 192-198.
Eames, J. C. 2007. Cambodian national vulture census 2007. The Babbler: BirdLife in Indochina: 33-34.
Eames, J. C. 2007. Mega transect counts vultures across Myanmar. The Babbler: BirdLife in Indochina: 30.
Anon. 2007. Red-headed Vulture breeding programme launched. Vulture News: 79-80.
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.
Cuthbert, R., Taggart, M. A., Prakash, V., Saini, M., Swarup, D., Mateo, R., Chakraborty, S. S., Deori, P. and Green, R. 2011. Effectiveness of Action in India to Reduce Exposure of Gyps Vultures to the Toxic Veterinary Drug Diclofenac. PLoS One 6(5): e19069. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0019069.
Cuthbert, R. J., Dave, R., Chakraborty, S. S., Kumar, S., Prakash, S., Ranade, S. P. and Prakash, V. 2011. Assessing the ongoing threat from veterinary NSAIDs to critically endangered Gyps vultures in India. 45: 420-426.
Cuthbert R. J., Prakash, V., Saini, M., Upreti, S., Swarup, D., Sharma, A. K., Das, A., Green, R. E. and Taggart, M. 2011. Are conservation actions reducing the threat to India’s vulture populations? Current Science 101: 1480-1481.
Hla, H., Shwe, N. M., Htun, T. W., Zaw, S. M., Mahood, S., Eames, J. C. and Pilgrim, J. D. 2011. Historical and current status of vultures in Myanmar. Bird Conservation International 21: 376-387.
Further web sources of information
Cambodia Vulture Conservation Action Plan
Detailed species accounts from the Threatened birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book (BirdLife International 2001).
View photos and videos, and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection
Text account compilers
Allinson, T, Benstead, P., Bird, J., Butchart, S., Symes, A., Taylor, J.
Chan, S., Chunkino, G., Cuthbert, R., Eames, J., Htin Hla, T., Khan, M., Mahood, S., Rainey, H., Round, P.
IUCN Red List evaluators
Butchart, S., Symes, A.
BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Sarcogyps calvus. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 24/05/2013.
Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2013) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 24/05/2013.
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