Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres


Justification of Red List Category
This species is listed as Endangered as its population is declining rapidly, however, recent increases in parts of its South African range mean declines are not thought to be sufficiently strong to warrant listing as Critically Endangered. Its small population is likely to continue declining unless ongoing conservation efforts, including public awareness programmes and supplementary feeding, as well as efforts to reduce the threat from powerlines, are successful (Collar and Stuart 1985). However, if the reported increases in certain areas (Benson 2015, Benson in litt. 2015, 2016) were to spread then this species may require re-assessment in the future.

Population justification
In 2006, the total population was estimated at 8,000-10,000 individuals (M. Diekmann in litt. 2006), roughly equivalent to 5,300-6,700 mature individuals. The global population estimate has been revised with an estimate of 4,700 pairs or 9,400 mature individuals (Allan 2015).

Trend justification
The population is estimated to have declined by 10% between 1994 and 1999 (Barnes 2000), and over the period 1992-2007, the species declined by 60-70% in eastern South Africa (McKean and Botha 2007). There remains some uncertainty over the severity of population declines experienced by this species. Ogada et al. (2016) estimate a median decline of 92% (range: 87-94%) over three generations (48 years). However, according to the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds (Allan 2015), declines in South Africa since the 1960s may be between 66 and 81% (though this relies on individuals not moving between breeding colonies, which is not necessarily true [Borello and Borello 2002, P. Benson in litt. 2016]), and some populations in South Africa are reported to be increasing (Benson 2015, P. Benson in litt. 2015).

Distribution and population

This species is found in South Africa where overall numbers were previously thought to be decreasing (Vernon 1999, Barnes 2000, Benson 2000) with a minimum of 630 pairs at 143 colonies and 2000 individuals in the Eastern Cape and 39% of colonies recorded between 1987-1992 now inactive (Boshoff et al. 2009), however, more recent data from the northern provinces suggests that the number of 'active' nests has increased since 2000 and a similar increase may be occurring in the Eastern Cape Province (Benson 2015, Pfeiffer et al. in review, P. Benson in litt. 2015) whilst new roosts have been recorded in Free State Province (Botha and Krüger 2012), Lesotho (c.552 pairs at c.47 colonies, with a continuing decline at some colonies [Donnay 1990]), eastern and south-eastern Botswana (c.600 pairs [Borello and Borello 2002, Borello in litt. 2003]) and Mozambique (10-15 pairs near Swaziland [Parker 1999]). It formerly bred in Swaziland (declined to extinction [Parker 1994]), central Zimbabwe (declined to extinction - an isolated roost of up to 150 non-breeding birds persists [Mundy et al. 1997]), and Namibia (over 2,000 in the 1950s, but now considered extinct as a breeding species [Wolter 2011, W. Goodwin in litt. 2015]). By 2000 there were only 6-12 birds in Namibia (Simmons et al. 1998a, R. Simmons in litt. 1999, 2000, Diekmann and Strachan 2006), with 16 birds released in October 2005 (Diekmann and Strachan 2006). Birds fitted with satellite transmitters in Namibia have been recorded making flights of up to 400 km into Angola (M. Diekmann in litt. 2006)

The total population was estimated to be 4,400 pairs in 84 colonies in 1994 (Piper 1994), and was implied to have declined to c.4,000 pairs by 1999 (Barnes 2000). 18 'core' colonies now hold 80% of the G. coprotheres population (Boshoff and Anderson 2007). In 2006, the total population was estimated at 8,000-10,000 individuals (M. Diekmann in litt. 2006). The global population estimate was revised in 2013 with an estimate of 4,700 pairs or 9,400 mature individuals (Allan 2015). The population is estimated to have declined by 10% between 1994 and 1999 (Barnes 2000), and over the period 1992-2007, the species declined by 60-70% in eastern South Africa (McKean and Botha 2007). According to the 2015 Eskom Red Data Book of Birds (Allan 2015), declines in South Africa since the 1960s may be between 66 and 81%. However, populations in some areas are now thought to be increasing, or relatively stable (Boshoff 2012, Benson 2015, Pfeiffer et al. in review, P. Benson in litt. 2015, 2016).


It is a long-lived (Oatley et al. 1998) carrion-feeder specialising on large carcasses, it flies long distances over open country, although usually found near steep terrain, where it breeds and roosts on cliffs (Mundy et al. 1992). There may be somemovement of individuals between breeding colonies (Borello and Borello 2002, P. Benson in litt. 2016), and so the lack of use of a colony site may not signify the extirpation of all individuals from that colony  (P. Benson in litt. 2016).


The species is assumed to be declining throughout much of its range in the face of a multitude of threats (Boshoff and Anderson 2007). Sixteen known or suspected mortality factors were identified and ranked at an expert workshop with a decrease in the amount of carrion (particularly during chick-rearing), inadvertent poisoning, electrocution on pylons or collision with cables, loss of foraging habitat and unsustainable harvesting for traditional uses considered the most important factors (Mundy et al. 1992, Barnes 2000, Benson 2000, Borello and Borello 2002, Boshoff and Anderson 2007). The primary threats are currently thought to be contamination of their food supply and possibly a shortage in food supply, negative interactions with human infrastructure and hunting for use in the traditional health industry (Allan 2015). Further threats include disturbance at colonies, bush encroachment and drowning (Anderson 1999, Borello and Borello 2002, Bamford et al. 2007). In southern Africa, vultures are caught and consumed for perceived medicinal and psychological benefits (McKean and Botha 2007, Anon. 2008). It is estimated that 160 vultures are sold and that there are 59,000 vulture-part consumption events in eastern South Africa each year, involving an estimated 1,250 hunters, traders and healers. At current harvest levels, the populations of this species in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho could become locally extinct within 44-53 years. Should the populations of White-backed Vultures G. africanus become depleted first, the resultant increase in hunting pressure on G. coprotheres could cause a population collapse within the subsequent 12 years (McKean and Botha 2007, Anon. 2008). Extrapolation from a limited study of traditional healers in Maseru, Lesotho, suggests that, conservatively, nearly 7% of the breeding population in that country would be lost annually for such use (Beilis and Esterhuizen 2005). A study in South Africa found that should current rates of exploitation for market trade continue then the populations in Lesotho, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape could be exhausted within 54 years (McKean et al. 2013).

The species suffers mortality from the ingestion of poison left for pests (not vultures) (Diekmann and Strachan 2006) and potentially diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock, and which is fatal to Gyps spp. when ingested at livestock carcasses (Komen 2006, BirdLife International news www.birdlife.org/news 2007). In 2007, diclofenac, was found to be on sale at a veterinary practice in Tanzania (BirdLife International news www.birdlife.org/news 2007). In addition, it was reported that in Tanzania, a Brazilian manufacturer has been aggressively marketing the drug for veterinary purposes (C. Bowden in litt. 2007) and exporting it to 15 African countries (BirdLife International news www.birdlife.org/news 2007). A single poisoning incident can kill 50-500 birds, making the species susceptible to sudden local declines (M. Diekmann in litt. 2006). The collapse of a key colony in eastern Botswana has been attributed to human disturbance, especially insensitive tourism (Borello and Borello 2002). The ongoing urbanisation around Hartbeespoort Dam and the Magaliesberg Mountains, South Africa, has limited the extent of natural areas for foraging by vultures, perhaps resulting in their reliance on supplementary food at vulture restaurants (Wolter et al. unpubl.). If such restaurants were closed, vultures might be exposed to unsafe carcasses (Wolter et al. unpubl.).

Poor grassland management in some areas has promoted bush encroachment, making finding carcasses more difficult for vultures (Schultz 2007, Bamford et al. 2009). There are records of at least 120 individuals (21 incidents) of this species drowning in small farm reservoirs in southern Africa between the early 1970s and late 1990s (Anderson et al. 1999), although modifications to many reservoirs have now been made (Boshoff et al. 2009). Raptors are thought to drown after attempting to bathe or drink, with mass vulture drownings probably due to the triggering of group behaviour by the actions of one bird (Anderson et al. 1999). In Magaliesberg a large number of fatalities have been associated with powerline collisions and electrocutions, and this is one of the main factors causing the ongoing decline of the species in South Africa (K. Wolter in litt. 2007). It is estimated that a minimum of 80 vultures are killed annually by collision with powerlines in Eastern Cape Province (Boshoff et al. 2011). Also, due to an increase in incident reporting in South Africa, it is becoming evident that this threat to the species is severe. The strategic partnership between The Endangered Wildlife Trust and South Africa’s energy supplier, Eskom, has been recording wildlife-energy infrastructure interactions since October 1996. This database has 403 incidents involving the Cape Vulture; totaling 1,022 individuals, of which 866 individuals have died as a result of electrocution incidents on power lines, while 156 have been killed colliding with overhead cables (S. Page-Nicholson and C. Hoogstad in litt. 2016).

A controversial wind farm development in Maluti-Drakensberg, Lesotho, an important site for Cape Vulture was given approval in 2014 (Anon. 2014), and even relatively small-scale wind energy developments in the Lesotho Highlands pose a threat to the species (Rushworth and Krüger 2014), especially as, even after rehabilitation, injured (or poisoned) individuals have increased mortality compared to individuals of a similar age (Monadjem et al. 2014). It is reported that a lack of adult females in the relict Namibian population may have led to four males breeding with G. africanus, although this is not thought to be a problem across southern Africa (Diekmann and Strachan 2006). Patterns in the contraction of the species's range since the 1950s imply that climate change could be an underlying factor driving its decline through changes in habitats and decreases in prey populations, though further research is required to confirm a link (Simmons and Jenkins 2007).

Conservation actions

Conservation and Research Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. CMS Appendix II. It is legally protected throughout its range. A multi-species action plan for African-Eurasian vultures is currently being produced, and a Biodiversity Management Plan is being produced by the Cape Vulture Task Force, driven by The Endangered Wildlife Trust and BirdLife South Africa (S. Page-Nicholson and C. Hoogstad in litt. 2016). Some breeding colonies lie within protected areas (Barnes 2000, Theron 2013). Non-governmental organisations have successfully raised awareness among farming communities in South Africa of the plight of this species (Barnes 2000). Many nestlings of this species were colour-ringed in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s (Botha 2006). The national electricity supplier in South Africa, in partnership with The Endangered Wildlife Trust, has replaced pylons in some regions with a design that reduces electrocution risk to large birds (Barnes 2000, S. Page-Nicholson and C. Hoogstad in litt. 2016), and breeding numbers have increased in some areas (Wolter et al. 2007, Pfeiffer et al. in review). Supplementary feeding at vulture restaurants may have helped to slow declines in some areas (Barnes 2000). The establishment of a restaurant at Nooitgedacht, South Africa, is thought to have helped promote the recolonisation of the former colony there, and another restaurant has possibly contributed the species's recovery in Magaliesberg (Wolter et al. unpubl.). Supplementary feeding is known to significantly increase the survival rate of first-year birds in the Western Cape Province of South Africa (Piper et al. 1999), and appears to have increased the number of breeding pairs at the Mzimkhulu colony in southern KwaZulu-Natal (Schabo et al. 2016), although there seems to not have been an effect on breeding success (Schabo et al. 2016). Additionally, in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, adult vultures did not appear to be dependent on vulture restaurants, but could find enough food from subsistence rural farmland (Pfeiffer et al. 2015).

Thirty-seven individuals were held in captivity in Namibia in 2011, with 7 breeding pairs from which at least 2 chicks have been hatched (Anon. 2011). The VulPro project in South Africa holds over 80 non-releasable Cape Vultures in captivity, this includes 10 breeding pairs, with the first successful hatching in September 2011 (Wolter 2011, Wolter et al. 2014). The programme aims to release captive-born chicks into the wild to supplement wild populations. In February 2015, seven birds from VulPro and three from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa were released into an open-topped enclosure so that they could eventually disperse into the wild (Hirschauer 2015). In October 2005, 16 birds from South Africa were released in Namibia and, although at least two have perished (Diekmann and Strachan 2006) and one was taken into care with a companion (Komen 2006), data on flight patterns and breeding behaviour have been recorded from two birds that were fitted with satellite transmitters (Anon. 2006). By 2006, five birds had been fitted with satellite tracking collars (Diekmann and Strachan 2006, Bamford et al. 2007). In Namibia, both communal and commercial farmers have been educated about the benefits that vultures bring and thus the disadvantages of poisoning carcasses, whilst there is also an education centre and education programme for schools (Diekmann and Strachan 2006). A conservation workshop on the species was held in March 2006 and was attended by 19 individuals (Komen 2006). The group reassessed the status of the species and the threats it faces, and decided on conservation actions. A task force was established and people were identified to manage conservation actions for each of the key colonies in southern Africa. In the East Cape, awareness programmes have led to modifications in cement reservoirs to prevent drownings as well as aiming to reduce indirect poisoning.

A press release was circulated in March 2006 raising awareness of the dangers of using diclofenac in the treatment of cattle. In 2006, the re-establishment of monitoring was expected at the species's only colony in Zimbabwe (Komen 2006). A press release was circulated in July 2007 to raise awareness of the impacts of hunting for medicinal and cultural reasons in southern Africa (McKean and Botha 2007). The threat posed by anti-inflammatory drugs in southern Africa is under investigation (K. Wolter in litt. 2007). The Hawk Conservancy and The Endangered Wildlife Trust are currently providing training and equipment for anti-poisoning teams so that field staff will have the skills and equipment to respond to a neutralise poisoned carcasses (C. Murn in litt. 2016)An expert workshop on the species's conservation was held in South Africa in March 2006 (Boshoff and Anderson 2006). Rehabilitation and release of injured vultures has become an important conservation action (Allan 2015). The species is listed as Endangered in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, and Critically Endangered in Naimbia (Allan 2015, Simmons and Brown 2015).

Conservation and Research Actions Proposed
Develop conservation plans for each of the 18 'core' colonies through the Cape Griffon Task Force (Boshoff and Anderson 2007, Jenkins 2010). Protect breeding colonies (Barnes 2000), and prevent uninhibited access by tourists to nesting sites (Borello and Borello 2002, Hancock 2008). Develop captive-breeding projects and mitigate impacts from poisoning and electrocution (Barnes 2000). Increase availability of livestock carcasses to G. coprotheres in areas where current practices do not allow this. Develop conservation partnerships with the farming community (Barnes 2000). Investigate the burgeoning exploitation for traditional medicine (Barnes 2000). Reduce hunting for medicinal and cultural reasons (McKean and Botha 2007). Monitor food availability, especially through the nestling period. Carry out a complete survey of its breeding sites (Barnes 2000). Continue population monitoring and demographic studies (Barnes 2000). Conduct research to assess the potential impact of climate change compared with other threats (Simmons and Jenkins 2007). Raise awareness amongst pastoralists of the dangers of using diclofenac for livestock (BirdLife International news www.birdlife.org/news 2007). Lobby governments to outlaw the sale of diclofenac for veterinary purposes (BirdLife International news www.birdlife.org/news 2007).

A number of recommendations were produced at the 2012 Pan-Africa Vulture Summit (Botha et al. 2012, Ogada et al. 2016): 1) Regulate import, manufacture and sale of poisons; 2) Legislate and enforce measures to prosecute those involved in illegal killing and trade in vulture species; 3) Protect and effectively manage breeding sites; 4) Ensure new energy infrastructure is 'vulture-friendly' and modify existing unsafe infrastructure; 5) Support activities to conserve vulture populations, including research and outreach activities. 


100-115 cm. Very large vulture with near-naked head and neck. Adult creamy-buff, with contrasting dark flight- and tail-feathers. Pale buff neck-ruff. Underwing in flight has pale silvery secondary feathers and black alula. Yellowish eye, black bill, bluish throat and facial skin, dark neck. Juveniles and immatures generally darker and more streaked, with brown to orange eyes and red neck. Similar spp. White-backed Vulture G. africanus is smaller and, usually, darker, with more streaking and different wing pattern. Voice Loud cackles, grunts, hisses and roars.


Text account compilers
Symes, A., Temple, H., Shutes, S., Martin, R, Westrip, J., Taylor, J., Evans, M., Pilgrim, J., Ashpole, J, Wheatley, H., Ekstrom, J.

Wolter, K., Hall, P., Simmons, R., Page-Nicholson, S., Bowden, C., Pfeiffer, M., Diekmann, M., Downs, C., Borello, W., Shaw, K., Goodwin, W., Mundy, P., Anthony, A., Rainey, H., Mhlanga, W., Benson, P., Murn, C., Hoogstad, C.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Gyps coprotheres. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 06/07/2020. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2020) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 06/07/2020.