White-backed vulture

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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An endangered African white-backed vulture at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the white-backed vulture?

The white-backed vulture is the most common and widespread vulture in sub-Saharan Africa. It is recognizable by its dark-brown face, long, white neck, and of course, a white backside that can only be seen when the bird is in flight. Its wings, which are white on top and brown on the bottom, can reach a span of up to 7.5 feet. Its mostly bald head helps the white-backed vulture regulate its body temperature during hot days and cool nights, as well as stay clean while it eats because feathers can trap germs.

This large scavenger is vital to its ecosystem. It only feeds on carrion—the carcasses of dead animals—and, by eating flesh before it rots, the vulture prevents dangerous bacteria and viruses from growing on decomposing carcasses. Its stomach acids also neutralize pathogens, which limits the risk of spreading diseases to humans and other animals. By picking carcasses clean so quickly, vultures also suppress insect populations that are linked with eye diseases.

Habitat and diet

Native to Africa, the white-backed vulture lives in much of Namibia and South Africa, as well as the tropical forests of West Africa, and is found at elevations as high as 10,000 feet. It also inhabits the equatorial forests of West Africa and areas where acacia grows. This bird populates open, wooded savannas that are home to its next meal: large, grazing mammals.

The white-backed vulture circles the sky while scanning the area for freshly dead animals, such as wildebeests, zebras, and even livestock. Once a vulture detects a carcass, it signals other vultures by wheeling in the sky. It can only eat animals that have soft tissue, as its beak is unable to rip through tough skin. Upon finding food, the white-backed vulture oftentimes gorges itself to the point where it cannot fly.

Behavior and reproduction

The white-backed vulture is very sociable—it’s not uncommon for as many as a hundred birds to gather for a meal and strip a large carcass clean in approximately three minutes. Though usually silent, the vulture will make chittering and squealing noises, similar to a pig, when it approaches a carcass. It will often venturing into human settlements in search of dead livestock.

At night, the white-backed vulture will roost in groups of 10 to 12. When it comes to nesting, this vulture requires tall trees. Vultures are monogamous and breed once a year during the dry season, at which time a female will only lay one egg. Both parents take turns incubating the egg until it’s ready to hatch about two months later. At about four months old, the chick becomes a fledging and is ready to leave the nest. Nonetheless, parents spend several more months caring for their offspring.

Threats to survival

One of the greatest threats to the white-backed vulture is poisoning, which can happen in several different ways. Many livestock owners give their animals an anti-inflammatory drug that’s fatal to vultures if consumed via a carcass. Ranchers also lace cattle carcasses with poison to kill big cats in retaliation for attacking cattle. Pesticide is another issue, as are bullets—but not from being shot. Vultures that eat the meat of animals killed by hunters often die slowly from ingesting bullet lead.

Poisoning isn’t the only threat that the bird faces. Poachers kill white-backed vultures for their meat. And in southern Africa, people use the bird for traditional medicine—so much so that one study suggests this continued practice will eventually lead to local extinction. White-back vultures also face habitat loss from the expansion of agriculture, electrocution from power lines, and drowning, in farm reservoirs—if they’re not captured first for live trade. Researchers estimate that only around 270,000 white-backed vultures remain in the wild.

Conservation

Organizations like the Peregrine Fund are working to save the white-backed vulture from extinction by providing resources, such as anti-predator systems around livestock enclosures, to stop incidental poisoning, as well as monitoring of vultures to determine where they’re being exposed to poison. The white-backed vulture is also part of the Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. SAFE’s mission includes educating the public as well as rehabilitating, breeding, and releasing the white-backed vulture back to its natural habitat.