Bio Facts: Vulture, African White-backed
African White-backed Vulture
In Africa from Mauritania, east to Ethiopia, and south through East Africa to South Africa
Open savanna and wooded country with game animals and livestock, up to 9,843’ (3,000 m) above sea level
A typical vulture, the African white-backed vulture has only down feathers on the head and neck, very broad wings and short tail feathers. It has a white neck ruff. The adult’s whitish back contrasts with the otherwise dark plumage. Juveniles are largely dark. This is a medium-sized vulture; its body mass is 9.3–16 lbs. (4.2 – 7.2 kg), it is 37” (94 cm) long and has an 86” (218 cm) wingspan.
In captivity up to 40 years
Five to six years to reach sexual maturity
In the wild it feeds on carrion; in the Zoo it is fed a scientifically developed, commercially available bird of prey diet, rats and knuckle bones.
IUCN – Near Threatened
White-backed vultures are scavengers, feeding on the soft muscle, organ tissue and bone fragments of large carcasses. With their large, broad wings they can soar and circle for hours as they search for carrion, sometimes following elephant, zebra, antelope and wildebeest as they undertake their regular migrations. Their excellent eyesight enables them to spot food from high in the air, and they also keep an eye on other vultures, quickly following if they see another making a sudden descent. Up to 200 white-backed vultures can gather at a carcass; an enormous elephant carcass may even attract a thousand. With so many birds trying to feed, fights are inevitable. Accompanied with grunts and goose-like hisses and cackles, vultures can be seen inserting their long, bare necks under the skin of the carcass or crawling into the ribcage as they feed on the dead remains. After gorging themselves, the vultures may bath together with other species at a favorite site, or rest with their wings spread and backs to the sun.
This is primarily a lowland species found in open wooded savanna, particularly in areas of Acacia. It requires tall trees for nesting. It is a gregarious species congregating at carcasses, in thermals and at roost sites. White-backed vultures breed at the start of the dry season, nesting in loose colonies of 2 to 13 birds. The nest is a platform of sticks, lined with grass and green leaves, situated in the crown or fork of a large tree. Generally a single egg is laid, which is incubated for 56 days. The pale grey chick is fed by both parents until they fledge at 120 to 130 days of age.
Vultures have developed incredible eyesight in order to spot their food. A soaring vulture can spot a 3-foot animal carcass from up to 4 miles away.
African white-backed vultures lack sizeable feathers on the long neck. This helps the birds dig deep into a carcass without getting soiled. Pieces of decaying meat and skin are less apt to stick to bare heads and necks than to a thick mat of feathers. When vultures bask after meals, the heat of the sun dries any potentially bacteria-ridden bits of food that easily fall off, helping them remain healthy.
Vulture stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive (pH 0), allowing them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with Botulinum toxin, hog cholera, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to others. This also enables them to use their reeking, corrosive vomit as a defensive projectile when threatened.
A group of vultures may be called a wake or a committee. On the ground they are called a venue; in the air they are called a kettle.
Vultures are classified into two groups: Old World vultures and New World vultures. The similarities between the two different groups are due to convergent evolution; both groups have acquired the same biological traits despite being unrelated to one another. The Old World vultures found in Africa, Asia, and Europe belong to the family Accipitridae, while the New World vultures and condors found in warm and temperate areas of the Americas belong to the family Cathartidae.
In southern Africa, vultures are caught and consumed for perceived medicinal and psychological benefits. Sangomas in Africa are seen as a type of Shaman, a link between dead ancestors and the living. They are also seen as traditional healers, with around 80% of the local indigenous people consulting with a sangoma before consulting a Western trained practitioner. Vulture parts are prescribed for various ailments including headaches and are also supposed to be effective for providing clairvoyant powers, foresight and increased intelligence. By eating the brain of the vulture, the sangoma is said to receive greater powers to communicate with the dead. The foot of a vulture is believed to bring good luck in gambling. Vulture parts are consumed or ground into medicine (muti) which is smoked, drunk, inhaled, smeared on the body, given as an enema or rubbed into an incision.
Vultures play a prominent role in African folklore. Their ability to show up wherever there is a carcass leads many to believe they dream the location of food or use telepathy.
The white-backed vulture has been impacted by a number of threats, resulting in a decline in numbers in recent years. Consequently, in 2007 the IUCN Red List uplisted the species from Least Concern to Near Threatened. These population declines have been caused by a combination of factors: the loss and conversion of the vulture’s habitat for agriculture, declines in wild ungulate populations reducing the availability of carrion, hunting for use in traditional medicine, capture for the illegal live trade, electrocution on electricity pylons, drowning in farm reservoirs, persecution and poisoning. In 2007, Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock and 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.
A number of protected areas in Africa hold populations of white-backed vultures, including Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site. Yet the recent declines are worrying and further action is clearly required. Recommended measures include establishing legal protection for the species in all range countries, establishing a vulture monitoring network, eliminating the veterinary use of Diclofenac and other toxic drugs in Africa, limiting the hunting of game to improve the availability of carrion, carrying out education and awareness programs, particularly targeted at farmers, to reduce persecution, unintentional poisoning and hunting for cultural reasons, and determining the most significant threats and seeking solutions.
Jacksonville Zoo History:
African white-backed vultures were new to our collection in 2006.
Green: Records of existence at country level
Tan: No distribution records at country level