|Conservation status||Critically endangered|
The white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is a bird of prey from the subfamily of the Old World vultures, Aegypiinae, and classified as critically endangered to a sharp decline in numbers.
White-backed vultures are medium-sized vultures with long wings and a short, slightly rounded tail. The species does not show any gender dimorphism regarding color, size or weight. The body length is 31 to 39 inches, the wing span is 6 to 7 feet, and the weight is 9.3–15.9 pounds.
The primary color is white, with the upper back and upper and lower wing coverts a light dirty-white with pale brownish streaks; the underside is more white with light brown strokes. The primary and secondary flight feathers are almost monochrome black-brown. The lower back is white. The skin of head and neck is black, and bears sparse whitish or cream-colored down, which is absent on the face and head. The neck ruff is white. The rather long and strong beak, the waxy skin, the unfeathered parts of the legs and the toes are blackish-gray.
Young birds are significantly darker than adult animals, and gain their adult plumage at the age of 6 to 7 years.
Range and habitat
White-backed vultures live vast parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with a range stretching from Senegal to Somalia, south to northern South Africa.
It inhabits a wide range of open and tree-covered landscapes, from open grasslands, savannas and open marshes to sparse wooded areas, riverside trees and thorn bushes; it does not live in dense tree-filled landscapes and rain forests, from sea level to over 10,000 elevation.
White-backed vultures eat carrion, especially from large mammals. The animals eat mainly the internal organs and the softer meat. The food search begins two to three hours after sunrise, with white-backed vultures circling in the thermals up to 1,500 feet high; they find a carcass either by sight or by observing the actions of other vultures or scavengers on the ground. White-backed vultures are usually the most common vulture on the carcass, which could be dozens or more on a single animal. The frenzy is such that a small mammal such as an impala can be completely consumed in less than 10 minutes. The species is not strong enough to tear up thick skin; the slender beak, the narrow head, and the long neck, however, are very well suited to penetrate into the animal body through openings made by stronger predators.
The species breeds in loose colonies of about 5-20 pairs in neighboring trees, or several in the same tree; a pair may nest isolated from a group. The breeding season varies depending on the geographical spread, falling mainly in the period from October to June in northern Africa, and mainly in April/May to December or January in southeastern and southern Africa; it is year-round in the equatorial Uganda and Kenya. The relatively small nest is built on the crown of a large tree, consisting of branches padded with grass and green leaves. One to three eggs are incubated for 56–58 days. The nesting time lasts 120–130 days.
The species is the most common vulture in sub-Saharan Africa, the world population estimated at 270,000 individuals in the early 1990s. However, the population has collapsed by over 90%, similar to other vultures.
The main causes of the decline are the destruction of habitat due to agricultural use; a reduction in numbers of large mammals; human persecution under the belief that vultures reveal the location of illegal poaching kills; deliberate or incidental poisoning; and collision with power lines.
- Ferguson-Lees, Christie; pp 122, 426
- Ferguson-Lees, Christie; pg. 426.
- Ferguson-Lees, James, and Christie, David A.: Raptors of the World; Christopher Helm, London, 2001