White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus


Justification of Red List Category
This species has declined severely in parts of its range and overall it is suspected to have undergone a very rapid decline owing to habitat loss and conversion to agro-pastoral systems, declines in wild ungulate populations, hunting for trade, persecution, collisions and poisoning. These declines are likely to continue into the future. Recently published data suggests these declines are even more serious than previously thought. For this reason it has been uplisted to Critically Endangered.

Population justification
The species's global population has been estimated at 270,000 individuals.

Trend justification
The most recently published data on this species's population suggests the species has declined extremely rapidly, with a median estimate of 90% (range: 75-95%) over three generations (55 years) (Ogada et al. 2016). Declines have exceeded 90% in West Africa (Thiollay 2006), and have also occurred in other parts of the range including Sudan (Nikolaus 2006) and Kenya (M. Virani in litt. 2006), but populations are apparently stable in Ethiopia (Nikolaus 2006) and Tanzania (D. Peterson in litt. 2006). Virani et al. (2011) documented an apparent decline of c. 52% over c.15 years in the numbers of Gyps vultures present in the Masai Mara (Kenya) during the ungulate migration season, while in central Kenya an apparent decline of 69% was noted in the numbers of Gyps vultures between 2001 and 2003 (Ogada and Keesing 2010). As these are visiting individuals from a wide-ranging population, declines observed in the Masai Mara study may be representative of declines in Gyps populations ranging across East Africa from Southern Ethiopia to Southern Tanzania (C. Kendall in litt. 2012).

Distribution and population

This species is the most widespread and common vulture in Africa, although it is now undergoing rapid declines. It occurs from Senegal, Gambia and Mali in the west, throughout the Sahel region to Ethiopia and Somalia in the east, through East Africa into Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa in the south. Its global population has been estimated at 270,000 individuals. Consistent with other vulture species, it has declined by over 90% in West Africa (J. M. Thiollay in litt. 2006), and it has largely disappeared from northern Cameroon (P. Hall in litt. 2016), Ghana apart from Mole National Park (F. Dowsett-Lemaire in litt. 2011), Niger (no records away from W National Park since 1997, J. Brouwer in litt. 2012) and Nigeria (in recent years there have been no sightings in last stronghold of Yankari Game Reserve, nor anywhere else, and probably extirpated from the country, P. Hall in ltt. 2016). The species has also declined in Sudan and South Sudan (Nikolaus 2006), Somalia (A. Jama in litt. 2011) and Kenya (c.52% declines in Masai Mara over c.15 years, M. Virani in litt. 2006, Virani et al. 2011), but is apparently more stable in Ethiopia (Nikolaus 2006), Tanzania (D. Peterson in litt. 2006), Uganda (short-term increases [Pomeroy et al. 2012]) and across southern Africa where an estimated 40,000 individuals remain (R. Simmons in litt. 2006; W. Goodwin in litt. 2016). An ongoing study near Kimberley, South Africa, shows the number of breeding pairs has increased by 72% in 22 years (from 50 to 86 breeding pairs) (A. Anthony in litt. 2015). However McKean et al. (2013) suggest that if current levels of exploitation continue in South Africa, the species could become locally extinct by 2034 or sooner. Overall it is suspected to have declined very rapidly.


Primarily a lowland species of open wooded savanna, particularly areas of Acacia. It requires tall trees for nesting. However it has also been recorded nesting on electricity pylons in South Africa (de Swardt 2013). A gregarious species congregating at carcasses, in thermals and at roost sites. It nests in loose colonies.


The species faces similar threats to other African vultures, being susceptible to habitat conversion to agro-pastoral systems, loss of wild ungulates leading to a reduced availability of carrion, hunting for trade, persecution and poisoning. 

In East Africa, the primary issue is poisoning (particularly from the highly toxic pesticide carbofuran), which occurs primarily outside protected areas; the large range sizes of this and G. rueppellii species puts them at significant risk as it means they inevitably spend considerable time outside protected areas (Ogada and Keesing 2010, Otieno et al. 2010, Kendall and Virani 2012). Recent evidence from wing-tagging and telemetry studies suggests that annual mortality, primarily from incidental poisoning, can be as high as 25% for the species (Kendall and Virani 2012). Cases across Africa suggest the species may be subject to deliberate and accidental poisoning respectively (Roxburgh and McDougall 2012, Ogada et al. 2015). In the former case for witchcraft and to prevent birds from drawing attention to poaching activities. At least 144 White-backed Vultures were killed after feeding on an elephant carcass in Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe in 2012 (Groom et al. 2013). 

The ungulate wildlife populations on which this species relies have declined precipitously throughout East Africa, even in protected areas (Western et al. 2009). In 2007, diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock, and which is fatal to Gyps spp. when ingested at livestock carcasses, was found to be on sale at a veterinary practice in Tanzania (BirdLife International 2007). It was also 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 2007). However, given that livestock carrion is not generally left out for scavenger consumption, this is likely to have less of an impact than it has in south-east Asia (C. Kendall in litt. 2016). In southern Africa, vultures are caught and consumed for perceived medicinal and psychological benefits (McKean and Botha 2007), and the decline and possible extirpation in Nigeria has been attributed to the trade in vulture parts for traditional juju practices (P. Hall in litt. 2011). It is recorded in trade in West and Central Africa, with an estimated 924-1,386 individuals traded over a six year period in West Africa, probably representing a significant proportion of the species's regional population (Buij et al. 2015).

In South Africa, White-backed Vulture is one of the preferred vulture species in trade, according to a survey of traditional healers and traders (McKean et al. 2013). As a result of this and environmental pressures, it is predicted that the population in Zululand could become locally extinct in 26 years, unless harvest rates have been underestimated, in which case local extinction could be 10-11 years away (McKean and Botha 2007). There is evidence that it is captured for international trade; for example in 2005, 13 individuals of this species being kept illegally in Italy were reportedly confiscated (F. Genero in litt. 2005). Electrocution on powerlines is also a problem in parts of its range, and it is vulnerable to nest harvesting or disturbance by humans (Bamford et al. 2009); perhaps more so than G. rueppellii, as it breeds in trees rather than on inaccessible cliffs (C. Kendall in litt. 2012). There is a minor threat from road traffic, with individuals occasionally killed by vehicles (BirdLife Botswana 2008).

Conservation actions

Conservation and Research Actions Underway
CITES Appendix II. The species occurs in a number of protected areas throughout its range. 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). In 2007, a survey began to establish the extent of diclofenac use for veterinary purposes in Tanzania (BirdLife International 2007), and in 2008 an awareness-raising campaign at a conference of the World Organisation for Animal Health in Senegal led to a resolution being adopted unanimously by more than 160 delegates to request Members to consider their national situation with the aim to seek measures to find solutions to the problems caused by the administration of diclofenac in livestock (Woodford et al. 2008, C. Bowden in litt. 2008). BirdLife Botswana have launched a campaign to tackle illegal poisoning (Anon. 2013). At the 2014 Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Migratory Species, a set of guidelines to address poisoning was formally adopted (Ogada et al. 2016). The Hawk Conservancy along with the Endangered Wildlife Trust are currently working on 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). The production of a Multi-species Action plan for the conservation of Africa-Eurasian vultures is underway. The species is listed as nationally Critically Endangered in the Eskom Red Data Book of Birds of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland (Allan 2015), and Endangered in Uganda and Namibia (WCS 2016, Brown and Simmons 2015). Ongoing monitoring efforts are underway in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Ethiopia, and Botswana with plans to extend these to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique in 2016 (BirdLife Botswana 2008, C. Kendall in litt. 2016).

and Research Actions Proposed
Establish a monitoring network for African vultures. Establish legal protection for the species in range states and enforce legislation to prevent illegal trade. Raise awareness amongst pastoralists of the dangers of using poisons for pest control. Eliminate the veterinary use of diclofenac and other toxic drugs in Africa. Limit the hunting of game to improve the availability of carrion and reduce potential lead exposure. Reduce human-wildlife conflict to limit incentives for poisoning carrion sources (C. Kendall in litt. 2016). Carry out education and awareness programmes, particularly targetted at farmers, to reduce persecution, unintentional poisoning and hunting for cultural reasons. 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. 


94 cm. A medium-sized vulture. Brownish to cream coloured as an adult. Contrastingly dark tail and flight feathers, especially from below. White rump patch and ruff. Dark neck and paler head with an all dark bill. Juvenile birds are darker. Similar spp. Within its range most likely to be confused with G. rueppellii or G. fulvus. Both of these species have a pale outer half to their bill and do not show such a marked contrast between the underwing-coverts and flight feathers from below.


Text account compilers
Bird, J., Butchart, S., Ekstrom, J., Harding, M., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Ashpole, J & Westrip, J.

Baker, N., Barlow, C., Bowden, C., Genero, F., Hancock, P., Millington, L., Ndang'ang'a, P., Peterson, D., Pomeroy, D., Simmons, R., Thiollay, J., Thomsett, S., Virani, M., Scott, M., Buij, R., Ogada, D., Jama, A., Roxburgh, L., Dowsett-Lemaire, F., Hall, P., Scott, A., Kendall, C., Brouwer, J., Anthony, A., Mhlanga, W., Goodwin, W., Rainey, H., Mundy, P. & Murn, C.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2017) Species factsheet: Gyps africanus. Downloaded from on 18/10/2017. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2017) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 18/10/2017.