The Lappet-faced vulture is the largest vulture in Africa and dominates other vultures during feeding. It is powerful enough to drive off a jackal. This imposing, broad-winged bird has a large, powerful beak which is capable of tearing the hides, tendons and any other coarse tissue from its prey, which may be too tough for other scavengers. This species is easily recognized due its large size, bare pink head and the fleshy folds of skin, called lappets, on each side of its neck, which give the bird its common name.
The Lappet-faced vulture lives throughout Africa and the Middle East, from the southern Sahara down to the Sahel, through east Africa to the centre of the country, and as far as northern South Africa. In much of its range, this vulture occurs in dry savannah, desert or semi-arid areas that have only short grass, thorn bushes and scattered trees, and also on open mountain slopes as high as 4,500 m above sea level. Open habitat is the ideal foraging environment but trees are also critically important to this species for nesting and roosting, the thorny species of acacia, terminalia and balanites being preferred.
Lappet-faced vultures are one of the most solitary and shiest of Old World vultures - aside from during feeding time. Usually living in pairs, they gather in flocks of as many as 50 vultures and other raptors around carrion or near water. They dominate all the other birds of prey near the source of food, carrying out some displays like bounding attacks, but spend more time doing these displays than feeding, returning later to the carcass. These birds use their strong bills to tear up tough skin and tendons. They will also steal food from other raptors that are feeding nearby. Often they feed first, being the best adapted to tearing up the skin to start the feeding. This vulture is normally silent, but when at a feeding site, it grunts, hisses, growls, and yelps. It does not migrate, except for populations in West Africa, which move north during the rainy season, and south during the dry period.
Lappet-faced vultures are monogamous breeders and pairs mate for life. They are solitary nesters, preferring to be far distant from other pairs that are nesting. Intensive defense of the nest, courtship-feeding and mate-guarding make up the mating rituals. The time of the breeding season is different, depending on the location. In East Africa Lappet-faced vultures breed throughout the year, but in southern Africa breeding is probably from May until mid-summer when fledging takes place, and those in the very north of the range breed from November until July (sometimes to September). A pair builds a large, bulky, flat nest out of small sticks, lined with dry grasses, at the top of a thorny tree. One egg is laid and incubation is by both parents for around 7 to 8 weeks. The newborn chick is covered in white down, except for a gray head and neck. Its second layer of down is gray. The chick fledges when it is 125 to 135 days old and is dependent on its parents for quite some time. They usually do not breed until they are about 6 years old.
The remaining small and decreasing populations of Lappet-faced vultures are suffering from a number of threats throughout their range. The largest threat is from humans. Many vultures die of poisoning, either accidental or intentional. Another threat is the steady decline in the available carcasses which they can eat, due to agriculture, pollution, hunting and urbanization.
The IUCN Red List records that the total population size of Lappet-faced vultures is about 8,500 individuals, approximately equivalent to 5,700 mature birds. This includes at least 8,000 individuals in Africa and there may be 500 individuals in the Middle East. Currently lappet-faced vultures are classified as Endangered (EN) and their numbers today are decreasing.
As other vultures, these birds play a major role in the ecosystem because they utilized most of the available carrion from ungulate mortality.