Scientific Name:

Gyps rueppelli

Population Status:

Critically Endangered

Body Length:

33 to 41 in (85 to 103 cm)

Wingspan:

7.4 to 8.5 ft (2.26 to 2.6 m),

Weight:

15-20 lbs (6.4 to 9 kg)

What makes a raptor a raptor?

Research Resources

Did you know?

  • One Rüppell's Vulture holds the record for the highest flying bird in the world, reaching heights of 11,300 metres (37,100 ft) to be exact. However, there is still some debate about whether this was a one-time “accident” or if this vulture chooses to fly at these heights on occasion.
  • The Rüppell's Vulture is thought to live up to 40 or 50 years!
  • The Rüppell's Vulture was named after a German explorer and biologist named Eduard Rüppell.

The Peregrine Fund has been studying vultures in Kenya and other African nations since the early 1990s. Our initial efforts focused on scientific field studies, including placing radio transmitters on vultures to better understand their movement patterns related to where they travel and where they are most exposed to poisoning.

We conduct environmental education programs in the countries in which we work to help teach people about the importance of protecting birds of prey and their habitats, and we provide hands-on training to students and local biologists. In 2013, we implemented the Maasai Mentor program, in which Maasai adults selected a few children to "take under their wings" and teach them about Maasai tradition and conservation. The goal of the project was to build a long-term vulture monitoring and conservation program through community-driven efforts and create a network of young people inspired to prevent wildlife poisoning, enhance vulture populations and make a positive difference in the lives of Maasai youth.

In addition, we also installed anti-predator systems around Maasai livestock enclosures, called bomas, and evaluated their efficiency as a means to stop livestock depredation and subsequently deliberate wildlife poisoning.

We are now focusing our conservation efforts on Rapid Response to Poisoning trainings.

Watch Munir Virani's TED talk about "Why I Love Vultures."

The Rüppell's Vulture is found within the region of Africa known as the Sahel Region, the area between the Sahara in the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. Its range crosses through a number of countries and regions including Southwestern Mauritania and southern Arabia, Zimbabwe, South Africa. Senegal, Gambia and Mali, Sudan, and Ethiopia. They can also be found through the savanna in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. As a vagrant, it has also shown up in Spain and other northern areas with increasing frequency in recent years.

As you may have guessed, this large vulture doesn't spend much time in dense forests. Imagine, instead, a dark silhouette soaring over open savannas and semi-arid country as it searches for food. It would certainly be a sight to see!

After a long day of flying, soaring and foraging, the Rüppell's Vulture will need to find a place to rest - or roost. Most often, it picks a cozy spot on a cliff, but it also may choose to roost in large trees.

Like vultures everywhere, the Rüppell's Vulture is one good-looking bird. Though at first glance, you might focus only on its mostly featherless head and neck, if you take a closer look - and learn more about its behavior - you will almost surely come to realize just how beautiful it actually is. Both the males and females have very similar plumage colors. Overall they are dark brown or black with a lighter colored belly. They have long, elegant necks draped with a collar of fluffy snow-white feathers. Their piercing eyes range in color from a lovely yellow to a golden amber. They have smooth, pale-colored, powerful beaks.

Like many vulture species, the Rüppell's Vulture is the king of long-distance travel. It often covers great distances in search of food. They have been known to spend as many as 7 hours or more in the sky, without stopping. Young birds (<5 yrs) travel over even larger areas, probably because they are not tied anywhere for breeding.

Though this might seem like an impossible feat - one managed only by superheroes or a character in a J.K. Rowling novel, the truth is, vultures are skilled at saving a ton of energy by soaring, rather than continuously flapping their wings. Like many other raptor species, vultures use thermals - currents of warm air - to help them glide almost effortlessly for long periods of time, alternating between soaring and slow flapping of their wings.

While most vultures are known to fly far and wide, the Rüppell's Vulture, like the Himalayan Vulture, is also reported to fly to extreme heights. Sadly, scientists made this discovery when one individual got sucked into a plane's engine while it was flying at over 37,000 feet. However, this high-flying act has not been documented in other Rüppel’s Vultures and biologists studying this species feel that it was likely an anomaly – meaning something out of the ordinary happened that caused this bird to fly so high. For example, it might have got caught up in a wind current or something along those lines. But, even so, how did this bird survive at this altitude, even if it did get that high by mistake? If you have ever been in an airplane, you know the airplane must be pressurized to help counter the very thin air found at high altitudes. If it wasn't pressurized, all the passengers (and the pilots, too!) would pass out due to lack of oxygen. So, what about the Rüppell’s Vulture? Scientists have discovered that because of its unique hemoglobin, Rüppell's Vulture, and some other high-flying birds, are able to use oxygen more efficiently.

When the Rüppell's Vulture isn't flying and searching for food, it spends a large amount of time eating. It is a very gregarious, or sociable, species and often can be found in large numbers at kills, usually mixing with other vulture species. Because many vultures congregate together at a carcass, as well as other scavengers from eagles to storks to jackals and hyenas, you can probably imagine that there is a lot of competition for food. To survive, individual vultures need to communicate with each other and sometimes even need to battle for a chance to eat. If you were to observe a vulture feeding frenzy, you might hear them hiss and grunt at each other and even chase each other away for a spot at the dinner table.

In Africa, vulture numbers are dropping dramatically due poisoning from many different types of poisons including a carbamate pesticide called Carbofuran or Furadan. This pesticide is being misused by livestock owners and some pastoralists to poison predators like lions and hyenas that attack their livestock. When Furadan is sprinkled on a dead cow that is then eaten by other animals, they die too. This affects not only lions and hyenas, but also jackals, vultures, Tawny Eagles, Bateleurs, and even storks! Populations of Rüppell's Vultures, White-backed Vultures, and Hooded Vultures have been so badly affected by these poisonings that they are threatened with extinction.

To make matters worse, some poachers are using pesticides to poison vultures for another reason. When a poacher kills an elephant or a rhino or any other animal illegally, they don't want the authorities to know about it. For example, if they kill an elephant to take its tusks, leaving the rest of the carcass behind, vultures will soon come to feed. If park rangers see vultures circling in the sky, they know that something has died and may investigate. To cover up their crimes, poachers lace the carcass of the animal with a pesticide. When vultures come down to feed, they get sick and die and, since dead vultures are less likely to be spotted than live ones, this terrible crime allows the poachers to escape before anyone learns what they have done.

Despite the fact that it is banned in Europe, Canada and for most uses in the U.S. it is still widely available (and legal) in Africa.

Strictly a carrion feeder, the Rüppell's Vulture has been known to follow game herds on their seasonal migrations and feeds in large numbers at carcasses, usually with other vulture species. Individuals defending their space are often very aggressive.

Unlike the Turkey Vulture that has a strong sense of smell, the Rüppell's Vulture and other Old World vultures rely solely on eyesight to locate their dinner. Once it spots something it would like to eat, it glides down to the ground and approaches the carcass on foot. Though it might take advantage of the remains of an animal killed by a lion, or other large predator, it can also feed on animals that have died from injuries, disease, or old age. Though they prefer freshly-killed meat, they can eat older carcasses without a problem.

Humans, of course, would get extremely sick, if we tried to eat meat that was even slightly rotten. Old meat can harbor bacteria that would surely give us food poisoning or maybe even anthrax! But vultures are able to eat old meat without ever falling ill. If that weren't amazing enough, many vulture species access the meat, not by tearing into the tough hides (or skins) of the dead animals, but rather by entering through the softer parts of an animal's body, most often through the anus! That means that vultures are probably ingesting at least some feces as an appetizer - if you will! And they still don't get sick. They are truly amazing, wonderful birds.

But, how are they able to eat all of these things, and remain healthy? Vultures not only tolerate this diet, but are in fact, adapted to eat this way. First, they have very acidic stomachs, which helps to kill off any harmful bacteria. Scientists also believe they have developed immunity to certain bacteria, so they are unaffected by it.

Let's face it - we owe a big thanks to vultures for doing the very dirty job of cleaning up rotting carcasses and ridding our landscapes of certain diseases and, let's face it, some pretty disgusting smells.

The Rüppell's Vulture is considered to be monogamous - meaning the same male and the same female will breed together for life. Both the male and the female also work together to build their nest. They use twigs, leaves, and even grass as construction materials. Scientists have observed the female actually taking sticks from other nests, rather than collecting them directly from trees or other vegetation. While she is out scavenging nesting materials, the male will work on shaping the overall structure of the nest.

Rüppell's Vultures most often build their nests on cliffs, but will also occasionally use trees as nesting sites. Though some biologists didn't believe the species nested in trees, other scientists were able to document this behavior, in West Africa. This species nests in very large breeding colonies - sharing space with hundreds of other breeding pairs of vultures. Can you imagine the sight, sounds and odors of hundreds and hundreds of vultures all living, nesting and raising young together? It would be quite a wonderful thing to see (and hear and smell!)

During breeding season, the female will lay one egg and both parents will help incubate the egg for almost 2 months before the young is ready to hatch. Once the chick hatches, both parents will feed it and help to keep it safe. Unlike an eagle or a falcon, which rip off small pieces of fresh meat, which they carefully feed to their nestlings, vultures have a very different way of feeding their young. A nestling vulture's diet is composed entirely of regurgitated food until it is old enough to feed itself. Now you might be wondering how this all works. Well, the adults will eat what they can and then fly back to their nests. Once there, they will actually throw up - or regurgitate - the semi-digested food into their nestlings’ mouths, which the young birds happily and greedily eat. Though it might seem gross to us, it is actually a very efficient and safe way for vultures to bring food to their young.

After weeks of care and lots of food, the young will grow quickly and be ready to fledge, or fly for the first time, at about 150 days of age. However, just because the young bird can fly, doesn't mean it isn't reliant on its parents. In fact, the young vulture will stay with the adults for almost a year as it learns to find food and successfully compete with other vultures for its fair share.

The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including California Condors and a Turkey Vulture. Come for a visit, where our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Rüppells Vultures or other birds of prey.


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