Our patrol flights do not only provide valuable data on large species such as rhino and elephant, but also other threatened and vulnerable species such as vultures and large raptors. Over the past year we have picked up an increasing trend in white-headed vulture activity in the region.

White-headed vulture pair on their nest seen overhead from the Savannah Aircraft

This is very exciting news as these birds are considered vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, and we now have three known active nests in our areas of operation.

With its bare, pink face and bright, orange-red bill with a peacock-blue base, this is one of Africa’s most colourful vultures. The white-headed vulture gets its name from the downy, white feathers on its head, which give it an angular appearance. The bright facial colours contrast sharply with the black body, tail, wings, and high ruff around its neck. The belly and thighs are white and its legs are pale pink. Like other vultures, the white-headed vulture has a number of adaptations for feeding on the carcasses of large animals, but is also capable of killing small prey. The strong bill is capable of tearing flesh and the sharp, curved talons can grasp and pierce prey. Their large, broad wings can carry them for hours as they search for food.

Assessed as vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN, the white-headed vulture is threatened by the loss of suitable habitat, and reductions in populations of medium-sized mammals and wild ungulates, on whose carcasses they feed. As a result, populations have been declining rapidly in West Africa since the early 1940s, and in southern Africa it now only generally occurs within protected areas. Like other vultures, some are accidentally killed after eating poisoned bait, set out by farmers to kill jackals suspected of taking their livestock, and human disturbance can cause adult white-headed vultures to abandon their nests during breeding. The species is also susceptible to capture for trade and traditional medicine.

An extrapolated estimate of the global population suggested that there were 2600 to 4700 breeding pairs of white-headed vultures (7000 to 12 500 mature individuals remaining); however, new data suggests the population is much smaller at just 5500 individuals. South Africa is estimated to have approximately 50 nests (mostly concentrated within the Greater Kruger protected areas) but this species is likely to disappear from the country in the near future should current levels of exploitation and other pressures continue.

The white-headed vulture is an early riser and flies out from its roost earlier in the day than other vultures. It is often the first vulture to arrive at a kill made by carnivores during the previous night, and will feed on carrion and bone fragments in peace for a while before other vultures arrive, whereupon the white-headed vulture generally retreats. White-headed vultures can, however, be very aggressive at a carcass and will rush in to a group of vultures to grab a scrap of food that is then taken away. This vulture species generally feeds alone or in pairs, and even at a large carcass, rarely more than a handful of white-headed vultures will gather. They are considered to be an ‘aloof’ vulture, generally remaining on the fringe of a large group of feeding vultures. The diet of the white-headed vulture also includes termites, locusts, and sometimes stranded fish, when they are available.

White-headed vultures lay a single egg at a time, usually in the dry season into a nest they have constructed high up in a thorny acacia or baobab tree. The egg is incubated for 55 to 56 days. Initially white, the chick will have mostly brown plumage not long after it fledges at an age of 115 to 120 days.

Certainly an interesting species, which without our support and intervention, is sadly facing a terminal future.