African white-backed vulture fact file Learn more about nature’s clean-up crew...

30th August 2023

Move over cute and fuzzy, it’s time to let the underdogs slip into the limelight…

We believe there’s beauty to be found in every creature – especially the vulture, whose role in film and TV has given them a bit of a bad reputation!

Animal Friends Insurance has teamed up with the Hawk Conservancy Trust to create this (fun!) fact file all about vultures.

What are they?

African white-backed vultures are a type of carnivorous bird.

Vultures are the most threatened group of birds in the world. There are 23 species of vulture in the world, though these are split into ‘New World’ – species living in North America, South America, Canada, and the Caribbean – and ‘Old World’ – species who live in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Where are they from?

Sub-Saharan Africa and the deep forests of Africa.

What’s their average life span?

Up to 20 years in the wild!

How big are they?

African white-backed vultures have a wingspan of 1.9-2.3m – up to around 7ft, which is taller than a standard door frame!

They are 89-98cm tall – slightly taller than a Great Dane.

Their weight usually ranges between 4.1-6.2kg – which is as heavy as an average vacuum cleaner.

How fast are they?

Vultures can glide up to an incredible 60-80mph!

What do they look like?

Although their appearances vary (because they are unique individuals, like us!), white-backed vultures usually have: curious, deep-brown eyes; a long, hooked beak; a thin layer of super-soft feathers around their head and neck; paler feathers along their back that cascade into darker feathers to the tips of their wings; huge talons; and their underside is covered in white, fluffy feathers.

What do they eat?

Carrion – which means ‘dead animals’. Vultures do not kill animals for food.

White-backed vultures share their meals with other types of vulture, and they’ll all eat whatever carrion they can find; especially buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, springbok, and warthog.

Why do vultures have a bad reputation?

Throughout popular culture, films and books, vultures have commonly been seen as unpleasant and grim creatures. Their fondness for scavenging dead meat has given them a terrible reputation and have often been associated as harbingers of death. But while some may see them as ungainly, they are in fact one of nature’s unsung heroes. Read on to find out why…

Are they nocturnal?

No, vultures are not nocturnal.

Do they mate for life?

Yes, this species of vulture will mate for life and lay one egg every year typically from the age of 6 or 7 years old.

Vultures spend a long time raising their young, approximately 2.6% of their life! (Compared to a human, who spends roughly 1.3% of their time raising children.)

Do they live in groups?

African white-backed vultures roost (rest) in groups, in trees. However, these vultures usually forage in small groups or as individuals.

In fact, white-backed vultures are just like people! They hang around in groups with youngsters squabbling and showing-off, while the elders ignore them.

They’re also brilliant at networking, and there can be hundreds of different species of vulture feeding on a large carcass at once (for example, it can take 100 vultures just three minutes to completely strip a 100lbs carcass!). Although, white-backed vultures usually use their great eyesight to monitor their environment, and watch others arrive at the carcass before braving an approach themselves.

Are they intelligent?

Extremely intelligent! Here are just a few examples of how they are intelligent:

  • Vultures watch others’ behaviour for signs there’s food nearby.
  • Techniques to scare off unwanted birds don’t work on them, for example, they know they can’t be harmed by bright lights and shiny objects.
  • In captivity, they imprint on their caregivers, making it impossible to be re-released. There are even some suggestions that they also have a great sense of facial recognition.
  • Vultures, much like crows can make use of tools and can even be trained to perform complex tasks.

Why are they important?

Vultures are part of nature’s clean-up crew and basically eat things that would kill most people. By feeding on carrion, the carcasses of dead animals, and by eating fish before it rots, garbage and even excrement, the vulture helps to prevent dangerous bacteria and viruses from growing as a carcass decomposes. They also have the strongest gastric (stomach) acid in the animal kingdom, with a pH of just over zero, it’s stronger than battery acid and can kill anthrax! This mighty stomach acid neutralises pathogens (an organism that causes disease), and as a result, these birds help to limit the risk of disease spreading to humans and other animals.

How many are there?

Sadly, the white-backed vulture is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered.

In 1992, there are estimated to be 100,000 pairs, or 270,000 individuals, in the wild but there are concerns that the number is now much lower.

What is their rate of decline?

Numbers are estimated to have declined by 63-89% over the lifespan of three generations.

The status of the white-backed vulture was moved from ‘near threatened’ to ‘endangered’ in 2012, then became ‘critically endangered’ in 2015.

Why are they declining?

Sadly, vultures are being poisoned as a result of human poachers, as well as losing their habitats, and struggling with the decline of the wild mammals they eat.

Other factors affecting vulture populations include hunting for trade and collisions with infrastructure (public services and systems, e.g. roads).

What are the risks if they become extinct?

Rotting carcasses will increase the risks of bacteria and diseases contaminating water sources, infecting other animals, and harming people.

Fun facts from the Hawk Conservancy Trust:

  1. Vultures often eat so much in one sitting, that they cannot fly for a while afterwards!
  2. A group of vultures on the ground is called a ‘committee’, whereas a group of vultures in flight is called a ‘kettle’.
  3. Vultures love being clean! After feeding, they like to bathe and clean all the mess from their feathers.
  4. A vulture’s vision is eight times better than ours, spotting a 3-foot-long carcass on the ground from four miles away.

Who are the Hawk Conservancy Trust?

Hawk Conservancy Trust was founded more than 50 years ago.

The conservation of birds of prey is at the heart of the Hawk Conservancy Trust’s mission. Through their conservation projects, the Hawk Conservancy Trust works tirelessly to protect birds of prey, both in the UK and overseas.

For more information, visit the Hawk Conservancy Trust charity page.