If you want to learn more about African vultures, you can’t leave out the famous white-backed vulture. This is the most widespread vulture in sub-Saharan Africa as well as one facing serious threats to its conservation.
Vultures aren’t known for their beauty, but they are still such a valuable part of our environment. It is our duty to protect these carrion-feeding birds that help reduce the spread of disease.
In this guide, we’re going to cover everything you need to know about these birds, including where they live, what they eat, how to identify them, and any threats that they may face. You might end up liking these birds so much that you plan your next holiday, honeymoon trip, or weekend getaway to include seeing them.
What are White-Backed Vultures?
White-backed vultures, also known as African white-backed vultures, are an African vulture species found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The scientific name of this vulture is Gyps africanus.
These white vultures used to be the most widespread vulture in Africa. Their populations have since come under heavy fire and their numbers are declining drastically. In some areas, like Northern Cameroon, these birds have disappeared completely.
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African White-Backed Vultures Habitat
The best place to find these wonderful birds is in sub-Saharan Africa, including Mauretania, Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa. They are generally found resting in Acacia or Mopane trees or perched on power pylons, allowing them to keep a good lookout for any potential meals.
You can find African vultures throughout Southern African. High concentrations are found in Namibia, South Africa, and the equatorial forests of Western Africa. Pretty much anywhere where you can find their favorite meal – large, grazing animals. If you want to see these animals in their natural habitat, make sure to use the right African travel company to avoid disappointment.
For a while, these birds were thought to be found in Asia. This has, however, since been disproven and two species have been named. The African white-backed vulture and the Oriental white-backed vulture (white-rumped vulture) have different habitats and are not found in the same areas.
What Does The African White Backed Vulture Eat?
This African long-necked vulture only eats meat. They do not, however, kill their food and are carrion-feeding birds. This means they only eat the corpses of other animals.
These savannah vultures prefer any large grazing animal that can be found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Whenever there is a dead elephant, warthog, zebra, gazelle, or similar animal, you can be sure to find a few white-backed vultures circling above.
White-backed vultures can, however, only eat soft tissue. Their beaks are not sufficiently adapted to tear through tough skin or breakthrough bone.
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How Do You Know When The Vultures Have Found Food?
One of the easiest ways to locate dead animals in the wild is by using vultures. Vultures spend their day looking for meals from their high-up perches or by flying around following other carnivorous animals.
As soon as these birds have located their next meal, they start circling high above. This is the stereotypical picture most of us have in mind when we think of vultures. This is their signal to other vultures – and to us – that a meal has been located.
As soon as these birds are sure that they will be safe, they will swoop down to start tearing away at their prize.
What Do African White-Backed Vultures Look Like?
Identifying birds can be very difficult, especially when there are so many different types of vultures in Africa. When learning about these birds, it’s important to know more about how they look so we can properly identify them in the wild.
As their name suggests, white-backed vultures have a white back. Their white back stands out well against their otherwise dark plumage, so it is usually quite easy to spot them. The juveniles are slightly more challenging to identify because they’re mainly dark and can resemble a few other species.
These vultures also have a mostly bald head. The dark brown head is easy to distinguish and helps them regulate their body temperature in hotter climates.
How Big Do They Grow?
Vultures are very large bards, with the biggest vultures reaching up to a 2.7m wingspan. The white-backed vultures are a medium-sized vulture, with their wingspan averaging between 1.96m – 2.2m.
Don’t let the term ‘medium-sized’ fool you. These are still very large birds that can weigh up to 7.2kg. It’s no wonder that vultures are so easy to spot when they’re circling so high above the ground.
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Social Behaviour And Breeding
African Vultures are social birds and often spend time eating together in groups of up to 100 birds. At night, these birds return to their trees to sleep in groups of 10 to 20.
White-backed vultures are monogamous, which means they only have one partner at a time. Breeding is one of the main issues with the conservation of these animals because it is a very rare event.
Vultures only breed once a year, during the dry season, and female vultures will only produce one egg each time. Male and female vultures take turns incubating the egg. Eggs usually take about two months to hatch.
Vultures are excellent parents to their only child. The baby is usually ready to fly after four months, but the parents will continue to look after it a few months afterward.
Threats And Conservation
No wild animal is without threat, including the African White-Backed vulture. Even though vulture predators are not really a problem, it is mainly habitat loss, poachers, and poisoning that is drastically reducing their numbers.
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Poisoning Of Vultures
One of the biggest threats wild vultures face is poison. Poachers and farmers are both to blame for this.
One of the biggest issues with farmers is an anti-inflammatory drug that is used for their livestock. This medicine is fatal to vultures and can result in them dying if they feed on any dead cattle.
Some farmers also resort to poisoning dead cattle to deter big cats from coming in and feeding on their livestock.
Another trend that is equally concerning is the use of poison by poachers. Vultures are often used by wardens to locate dead animals – and sometimes poaches. To prevent this, poachers occasionally resort to poisoning their kills.
In a recent case in 2019, over 500 vultures were found dead after an elephant carcass was poisoned by poachers. Many of these were white-backed vultures. Considering how slow these animals breed, it’s not surprising that this mass death will have a significant effect on the animal’s population.
Poachers are not only killing vultures with poison. African vultures are often killed for their meat and for traditional medicines – known as ‘muti’. Local communities believe the vulture meat and body parts offer special psychological and physical benefits.
Habitat loss is a leading cause of population decline for African vultures. Vultures require large open spaces with grazing animals to effectively maintain their populations.
As more wildlands are being converted for agricultural purposes, there are far fewer opportunities for these birds to find a home. It is important that certain areas are protected to ensure that there is still a place for these animals to call home.
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White-Backed Vulture Bird Facts
Now that you know more about these birds, here is a list of the 10 most interesting African vulture facts.
- A group of white-backed vultures can eat all of the flesh off a large carcass in approximately 3-minutes.
- When a white-backed vulture finds a carcass, it will often eat so much that it cannot fly away. This can be dangerous and one of the few times that they are exposed to predators.
- Vultures can pick carcasses clean so quickly that it helps limit harmful insect populations – especially those linked with eye diseases.
- These birds help clear the environment by preventing dangerous bacterias and viruses from growing on decomposing caracasses. Its stomach acids help neutralize these pathogens, which limits the risk of spread to humans or other animals.
- Local communities often kill white-backed vultures for their meat and body parts. These body parts are used in traditional medicines known in some parts as ‘muti’ and in others as ‘juju’.
- The current population trend of the white-backed vulture is unknown. Conservationists are, however, concerned about the rapid decline due to human interference and poaching.
- The average lifespan of a white-backed vulture in the wild is up to 20 years.
- Vultures are carnivores that only eat the flesh of carrion.
- A group of vultures is named a committee, venue, or volt (rest) or a kettle (flight).
- White-backed vultures are classified as critically endangered.
A Complete Guide of White-Backed Vultures
If you’re out exploring the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, you are bound to come across these magnificent birds. Although they aren’t the most beautiful creatures around, their scarcity and importance to the environment make them increasingly special.
If you’re ready to see one of these birds, why not book a safari and experience the true beauty that Africa has to offer.
Although these animals have been struggling in the past few years, there are conservation efforts underway. Hopefully, these necessary animals will be able to continue cleaning our African savannahs for many years to come.