Members of the genus Gyps are vultures varying in size from medium to large. They have an elongated head with a long and heavy beak. The head and neck are bare, but for a covering of woolly down. At the base of the neck is a ruff of long, narrow, pointed feathers. This is a social genus, usually nesting in colonies in trees or on rocky crags. There are seven species, covering much of Africa, southern Europe and into Asia. Of there, two (the African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus and the Indian White-backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis ) are arguably more logically places in a genus of their own. They differ in that they have 12 tail feathers (not the 14 that all other Gyps have), their nesting habits differ, and they have a distinctive coloration that differs significantly from the rest of the genus.
The eyes are dark brown, the bare skin of the head and neck is black, and the legs and feet are brown/black. As with most large vultures, there is no marked sexual dimorphism, either in appearance or in size.
Juveniles tend to be darker and browner than the adults, and lacking the clear white areas – mature plumage is acquired through a number of stages taking some years to develop.
|wingspan min.:||215||cm||wingspan max.:||225||cm|
|size min.:||92||cm||size max.:||96||cm|
|incubation min.:||53||days||incubation max.:||60||days|
|fledging min.:||120||days||fledging max.:||130||days|
Nests are built in colonies, although these are neither extensive nor rigorous. In river valleys, they will be small affairs – three feet across by one foot deep, high in an Acacia or similar. In forested areas they will be high up in the tallest trees around, and up to four feet across and five feet deep.
One egg is laid – white, sometimes with red markings. Laying dates vary across the continent, but are usually in the dry season. Incubation and brooding are the responsibility of the female, the male’s function being to collect and regurgitate food for the female and her young.
The birds are regular breeders, and the entire nesting cycle takes up to about eight months.
Video White-backed Vulture
copyright: J. del Hoyo
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 2007, Diclofenac, a non-steriodal 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. It was also reported that in Tanzania, a Brazilian manufacturer has been aggressively marketing the drug for veterinary purposes and exporting it to 15 African countries. In southern Africa, vultures are caught and consumed for perceived medicinal and psychological benefits. As a result of this and environmental pressures, it is predicted that the population of G. africanus in Zululand could be become locally extinct in 26 years, unless harvest rates have been underestimated, in which case local extinction could be 10-11 years away. 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. Electrocution on powerlines is also a problem in parts of its range.