Animal of the Month
November 2018

Name: African White-Backed Vulture (AKA African White-Backed Griffon)


Class: Aves

Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Gyps
Species: G. africanus

Size: 37 inches
Weight: 8.75 - 15 lbs

Characteristics: Long barely covered neck, large wings with very long primary feathers, covered in fluffy plumage on the head and the base of the neck.
Color(s): Wings brownish-gray on the outside and white on the inside, with black primary feathers, black tail, whitish-brown belly, neck dark brown.
Behavior: Scavenger, utilizes a pecking order when feeding.
Preferred Habitat: Open savannahs or dry woodlands. They require tall trees for nesting.
Range: Across Africa, including Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Ghana, Sudan, South Sudan Kenya, and Uganda.
Diet: Carrion.

Lifespan: Up to 19 years in the wild, N/A in captivity.


Vultures have a bad reputation because they eat the bodies of other dead animals. This may seem gross, but the fact is that these creatures are critical to the environment. Vultures, such as the African white-backed vulture, help to recycle energy and keep the savannahs clean. African white-backed vultures are found all across Africa, from as far south as South Africa to as far east as Somalia to as far west as Ghana. They prefer to soar over the savannahs where large carrion is plentiful while roosting and nesting in wooded areas.

Vultures are a type of raptor, related to eagles, hawks and falcons. African white-backed vultures are part of the griffon family of vultures, the kind of vulture that has the stereotypical long neck and bald head. It is important to note that not all vultures have this characteristic. This neck is not totally bald; rather it bears fine down feathers. The lack of thick plumage on the neck allows the vulture to slip into the deeper parts of a carcass without getting decaying flesh stuck all over it. This serves to protect the vulture from infection. White-backed vultures like to eat the corpses of deer, zebra, wildebeest, or any other large game animal they come across. They will also eat the carrion of dead livestock if it is available. A hundred white-backed vultures can strip a one hundred pound carcass in three minutes! This helps to contain the spread of disease, thereby making the environment safer for humans as well as animals.

African white-backed vultures have a poor sense of smell, but are able to locate carcasses with their sharp eyesight. They are always on the look out for concentrations of other vultures, which tells them that there is food to be eaten. Most of their time is spent in the air in search of food. They will often travel great distances to find their own territory; one vulture was documented travelling 600 miles from his parent's range! These vultures are colonial nesters, meaning they nest near other vultures. White-backs need tall trees to nest in, though sometimes they have been known to nest in power lines! The male and female will build a platform-like nest out of sticks and branches. Usually the female will lay only one egg, though sometimes she will lay two eggs. The parents will take turns tending the chick until it can forage by itself. A white-backed chick will not start to grow its adult plumage until it's about four years old.

Though the African white-backed vulture is one of the most common species of vulture in Africa, it has dropped from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered in only a few years time. The African white-backed vulture is subjected to a variety of pressures, including habitat converted for agricultural uses, the less carrion from large animals, and persecution. The vultures are also harvested for traditional medicines and consumed for supposed physiological or psychological benefits. Many of the vultures are also poisoned as the carrion of farm animals can contain anti-inflammatory medicines. Some farmers poison them in addition to a variety of other predators and scavengers to protect their livestock. Some poachers intentionally kill these vultures to hide their illegal activities, as the carcass of a dead elephant would attract many vultures and thus alert the authorities that a crime has been committed.

Vultures, including the African white-backed vulture, are all important to the cycle of life. They help to clean our environment so more life can flourish. The African white-backed vulture and many other vulture species are threatened, but fortunately there are campaigns to protect them.

Check out these awesome organizations for more information!

The Peregrine Fund; African White-Backed Vulture page-An organization dicated to protecting raptor birds worldwide.

Peregrine Fund's Global Raptor Network:

The Hawk Conservancy Trust, African White-Backed Vulture page-An organization that has campaigns to monitor, conserve and rehabilitate raptors, including the white-backed vulture.


Contact Us