White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus)

White-backed Vulture

[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Gyps africanus | [authority] Salvadori, 1865 | [UK] White-backed Vulture | [FR] Vautour africain | [DE] Weissrucken-Geier | [ES] Buitre dorsiblanco africano | [NL] Witruggier


Genus Species subspecies Region Range
Gyps africanus AF widespread


Members of the genus Gyps are vultures varying in size from medium to large. They have an elongated head with a long and heavy beak. The head and neck are bare, but for a covering of woolly down. At the base of the neck is a ruff of long, narrow, pointed feathers. This is a social genus, usually nesting in colonies in trees or on rocky crags. There are seven species, covering much of Africa, southern Europe and into Asia. Of there, two (the African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus and the Indian White-backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis ) are arguably more logically places in a genus of their own. They differ in that they have 12 tail feathers (not the 14 that all other Gyps have), their nesting habits differ, and they have a distinctive coloration that differs significantly from the rest of the genus.

Physical charateristics

The adult White-backed Vulture is mostly black about the head and neck, with a sparse covering of yellowish down, and a sparse white ruff. It is brown over the shoulders and to the joint of the wing. Primary flight feathers are black, secondaries dark brown. The tail is also black. Most of the underparts are fulvous, except for white under-wings and a brown crop patch. The back and rump are white.
The eyes are dark brown, the bare skin of the head and neck is black, and the legs and feet are brown/black. As with most large vultures, there is no marked sexual dimorphism, either in appearance or in size.
Juveniles tend to be darker and browner than the adults, and lacking the clear white areas – mature plumage is acquired through a number of stages taking some years to develop.

wingspan min.: 215 cm wingspan max.: 225 cm
size min.: 92 cm size max.: 96 cm
incubation min.: 53 days incubation max.: 60 days
fledging min.: 120 days fledging max.: 130 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 2  


Africa : widespread. Gyps africanus is the most widespread and common vulture in Africa. It occurs from Senegal, Gambia and Mali in the west, throughout the Sahel region to Ethiopia and Somalia in the east, through East Africa into Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in the south.


Its preferred habitat is open plains and savannah. It generally avoids desert areas, except in the narrow strips on river banks


The nuptial display consists of lazy mutual circling with wing-tips almost touching, followed by mating in a tree.
Nests are built in colonies, although these are neither extensive nor rigorous. In river valleys, they will be small affairs – three feet across by one foot deep, high in an Acacia or similar. In forested areas they will be high up in the tallest trees around, and up to four feet across and five feet deep.
One egg is laid – white, sometimes with red markings. Laying dates vary across the continent, but are usually in the dry season. Incubation and brooding are the responsibility of the female, the male’s function being to collect and regurgitate food for the female and her young.
The birds are regular breeders, and the entire nesting cycle takes up to about eight months.

Feeding habits

The White-backed Vulture feeds on carrion.

Video White-backed Vulture


copyright: J. del Hoyo


This species has declined severely in parts of its range and overall it is suspected to have undergone a moderately rapid decline owing to habitat loss and conversion to agro-pastoral systems, declines in wild ungulate populations, hunting for trade, persecution, collision and poisoning. These declines are likely to continue into the future. For this reason it is listed as Near Threatened.
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 2007, Diclofenac, a non-steriodal 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. It was also reported that in Tanzania, a Brazilian manufacturer has been aggressively marketing the drug for veterinary purposes and exporting it to 15 African countries. In southern Africa, vultures are caught and consumed for perceived medicinal and psychological benefits. As a result of this and environmental pressures, it is predicted that the population of G. africanus in Zululand could be become locally extinct in 26 years, unless harvest rates have been underestimated, in which case local extinction could be 10-11 years away. 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. Electrocution on powerlines is also a problem in parts of its range.
White-backed Vulture status Near Threatened



Distribution map

White-backed Vulture distribution range map

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