• 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?

      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?

      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?

      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.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    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."

    ecosystem Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem
    habitat Noun

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

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    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


    ungulate Noun

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