The African white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) is the most widespread and common vulture in Africa. In its sub-Saharan habitat, it performs a critical role in the ecosystem: cleanup and recycling.

Vultures survive on carrion. They circle and soar through the sky, keeping a keen eye out for signs of a meal—a dead zebra, wildebeest, or another large ungulate. They swoop in, usually in large numbers, and rapidly devour dead animals before they have time to rot.

Though not a glamorous job, it’s an important one. Decaying animals are a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria and diseases. The vultures’ powerful stomach acids neutralize pathogens, such as rabies and anthrax, and ensure they are not passed on to people, livestock, or other wild animals.

In the past few decades, though, the once robust population of African white-backed vultures has dropped dramatically, declining by 90 percent. This is likely due to a number of factors: habitat loss, fewer food sources, and hunting for use in traditional African medicine.

The most significant factor, however, may be poisoning. Frustrated livestock owners use toxic pesticides to poison lions, hyenas, and other predators that attack their livestock. When vultures and other scavengers feed on the contaminated carcass, they too are poisoned.

Poachers also poison vultures. When they illegally kill an elephant or rhino for its ivory tusks, poachers typically leave the carcass behind. Vultures flock to it, sometimes in the hundreds, signaling park rangers to come investigate. To prevent this, poachers lace the carcass with a deadly pesticide. Such practices can wipe out hundreds of vultures at a time.

Multiple efforts are underway to stop the rapid decline of this bird now listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They include a campaign to stop illegal poisoning and raising awareness of the negative impacts of hunting for medicinal and cultural reasons.  

  1. How quickly does the African white-backed vulture eat?

    • Answer

      One hundred African white-backed vultures can strip a 45-kilogram (100-pound) carcass clean in about three minutes!

  2.  How is a bald head helpful for vulture species?

    • Answer

      Without a mass of head feathers, a vulture putting its head into carrion to feed can stay cleaner than if it had a head cover that trapped germs and bacteria. Researchers are also finding that a bare head allows vultures to regulate their body heat, which is needed in places where temperatures can move from daytime heat to very cool at night.

  3. What are the major threats to African vulture species?

    • Answer

      Roughly 90 percent of the decline in African vulture populations is linked to people poisoning them and hunting them for use in traditional medicines. Another threat is the elimination of their food sources as wild ungulate populations decline.

      A biological challenge for the species is that the rate of reproduction is low. Females usually are five to seven years old before they can reproduce. Also, they will produce one chick every one or two years, and most (90 percent) of their young die in the first year of life. This rate makes bouncing back from human threats even harder.

anthrax
Noun

infectious, transmissible disease caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis that affects both animals and humans.

carcass
Noun

framework of a decaying structure.

carrion
Noun

flesh of a dead animal.

critically endangered
Noun

level of conservation between "endangered" and "extinct in the wild."

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

livestock
noun, plural noun

animals raised for sale and profit.

neutralize
Verb

to counteract and make ineffective.

pathogen
Noun

organism that causes a disease, such as a virus.

pesticide
Noun

natural or manufactured substance used to kill organisms that threaten agriculture or are undesirable. Pesticides can be fungicides (which kill harmful fungi), insecticides (which kill harmful insects), herbicides (which kill harmful plants), or rodenticides (which kill harmful rodents.)

poacher
Noun

person who hunts or fishes illegally.

poison
Noun

substance that harms health.

robust
Adjective

healthy and strong.

toxic
Adjective

poisonous.

ungulate
Noun

mammal with hooves, usually divided into even-toed ungulates (cattle, camels, deer) and odd-toed ungulates (horses, zebras, rhinoceroses).