Vulture, Lappet-faced


Torgos tracheliotos


Adult length: 37-45 in (95-115 cm); wingspan: 8-10 ft (2.5-3 m); adult male weight: 14.3-20.2 lb (6.5-9.2 kg); adult female weight: 23.1–30.6 lb (10.5-13.9 kg); appearance: easily recognized by its conspicuous size, bare, pink-skinned head and distinctive fleshy folds of skin, known as lappets, on the sides of its neck.

Family

Accipitridae

Order

Accipitriformes

Class

Aves

Range

Africa & the Middle East: Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Oman, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe; Vagrant: Algeria, Burundi, France, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Morocco, and Togo

Habitat

Dry savannah, semi-arid or desert areas with only scattered trees, thorn bushes and short grass, as well as open mountain slopes up to 4,500 m above sea level

Life Expectancy

20 – 50 years

Sexual Maturity

About 6 years

Diet

In the wild, they eat primarily carrion but will feed opportunistically on insects and small birds; in the Zoo, they are fed a scientifically developed, commercially available bird of prey ground meat diet and a variety of prey items such as chicks, thread herring fish, rats, rabbit, and chicken.

Status

IUCN – Vulnerable; CITES – Appendix II; Convention on Migratory Species – Appendix II

Behaviors

The lappet-faced vulture is a scavenging bird, feeding mostly from animal carcasses, which it finds by sight or by watching other vultures. Large carcasses, since they provide the most subsistence at a sitting, are preferred. Lappet-faced vultures, perhaps more than any other vulture, will on occasion attack young and weak living animals and raid the nests of other birds. Locally, lesser flamingoes (Phoenicopterus minor), among others, have been reported to be culled by lappet-face vultures in this way. Although open habitat is ideal for foraging, trees are also of critical importance to the lappet-faced vulture because they are used for roosting and nesting, with thorny species of Acacia, Balanites and Terminalia preferred. Although normally found alone or in pairs, lappet-faced vultures will sometimes congregate around large food sources or water holes, with up to 50 individuals seen in exceptional cases, although groups do not usually exceed ten. Being much more powerful and aggressive than other vulture species, and of dominating size, the lappet-faced vulture will often scare off or steal from smaller vultures. Pairs of lappet-faced vultures often build only one nest, although it is also common to have one to three nests that are used alternately, and these nests are used year after year. The breeding season varies across this bird’s extensive range. Generally, lappet-faced vultures in East Africa breed throughout the year, while those in southern Africa probably mate in May, and breed from May until mid-summer when the chicks fledge, and those in the extreme north of the range mate from November to July (sometimes to September). One egg per clutch is usual, which is then incubated for 54 to 56 days, by both adults. The chicks are known for playing dead if a predator makes it to the nest. Although the chick fledges at 125 to 135 days, it continues to remain dependent on the adults for quite some time. Young lappet-faced vultures do not usually breed until about six years of age.

Adaptions

Like many vultures, it has a bald head. The pink (sometimes reddish) coloration is a distinctive feature. During breeding season their head becomes a darker pink or red color. The head is bald because a feathered head would become spattered with blood and other fluids, and thus be difficult to keep clean. This bird is armed with a large and powerful beak, capable of tearing off the hides, tendons and other coarse tissue of its scavenged prey, which are too tough for smaller scavengers.

Special Interests

Lappet-faced vultures are the most powerful and aggressive of the African vultures, and other vultures will usually cede a carcass to them. This is often beneficial to the less powerful vultures because the lappet-faced vulture can tear through the tough hides and muscles of large mammals that the others cannot penetrate, although hyenas are even more efficient in this regard. There are two subspecies of lappet-faced vulture. The African subspecies, Torgos tracheliotus tracheliotus, has mostly dark brown to black feathers, which contrast starkly with the white thighs and white bar running across the leading edge of the underwing, clearly visible in flight. The north-east African subspecies, Torgos tracheliotus negevensis, is altogether browner, including partially brown thighs, with only some individuals showing white on the underwing, and those individuals formerly found in Israel also having pure white feathers on their backs. Lappet-faced vultures are able to strip a small antelope carcass to the bone within 20 minutes.

Folklore

An African tribe known as The Hausas has a legend based on the lappet faced vulture. The legend pertains to a large man eating bird known as the Jipillima whose droppings were known for healing illnesses. A woman ventures out and collects their droppings then feeds them to the ailing prince that was cursed by a witch who placed deadly thorns inside his body. Due to the woman’s bravery she is married to the prince and becomes the princess.

Conservation

This species is classified as Vulnerable since only a small, declining population remains, owing primarily to poisoning and persecution, as well as ecosystem alterations. It is regionally extinct in Israel, Jordan, and Western Sahara. Major threats include: Widespread accidental poisoning, largely due to strychnine used by many farmers for predator control; it is often mistakenly persecuted as a livestock predator: one major deliberate poisoning incident killed 86 individuals in Namibia. Increasing use of agricultural pesticides may also be a problem. Nest disturbance, to which it is extremely sensitive, may be growing with the increasing recreational use of off-road vehicles. A rising scarcity of large carcasses on which to feed may also be a problem for the lappet-faced vulture as well as falling victim to electrocution by high-voltage pylons and power lines.

Jacksonville Zoo History

Lappet-faced vultures have been part of the Jacksonville Zoo’s animal collection since 1995. We have hatched one chick although it did not survive.

Exhibit

Plains of East Africa