Rüppell's vultures are big vultures ranging across a good part of central Africa. Their name comes from the 19th century German zoologist and explorer Eduard Rüppell. Being social birds, they nest in colonies of about 100 pairs in a mountainous habitat. They are scavengers, eating only carcasses and the remains of other dead animals. Their lack of hunting is not laziness or weakness - these birds can soar to incredible heights, searching for carrion, holding the record for flying higher than any other bird. An aircraft has collided with one of them at 37,000 feet.
The Rüppell’s vulture inhabits the Sahel region in central Africa (Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Chad and others), living in sub-Saharan grassland and woodland. It often roots and breeds around cliffs and gorges.
Rüppell's vultures are diurnal and very social birds, roosting, nesting, and feeding in large flocks. Like most vultures, they are silent, except when at their nesting ground or foraging around a carcass. They spend much of their time flying, gliding with wings held level or using slow, powerful wing beats. They often fly at great altitudes, using strong winds or thermals for more efficient soaring. These vultures locate food by sight only, and once they see a carcass they swoop down, land a little way off, then bound forward with wings spread and their long neck outstretched. Fights with other vultures are common as the birds struggle to get their meal, their necks often turning deep red from aggression as they hiss, grunt, and chatter at their opponent.
Rüppell’s vultures are monogamous and form strong lifelong pair bonds. In vulture courtship, a pair will circle close together near to cliffs. Pairs perch next to each other for a long time, and together form colonies of as many as 1,000 breeding pairs. They build their large nests out of sticks and line them with grass and leaves. Females often steal sticks from other nests for the males to arrange. Depending upon the nesting site’s location, it may be used year on year or just once. Both parents take part in incubation, brooding, and feeding the chicks. A single egg is laid each year. Incubation is for 55 days. When the chick hatches, both its parents will feed it and look after it until it is about 150 days old, when it fledges. After fledging a chick remains dependent on its parents, reaching independence when the next breeding season comes. Until then, they learn how to seek and compete for food.
This formerly abundant species has suffered rapid decline over much of its range, especially in West Africa, and is now mostly confined to protected areas. Despite being less studied than other vultures, it is known that these declines are due to the impact of agriculture on their habitat, persecution and large-scale incidental poisoning. In West Africa, these birds have been greatly used in black magic practices.
The IUCN Red List reports the Rüppell’s vulture total population size as 22,000 mature individuals, with perhaps about 30,000 individuals at the beginning of the 1990s. Specific populations have been estimated in these areas: 3,000 pairs in Tanzania; 2,000 pairs in Kenya; 2,000 pairs in Ethiopia; 2,000 pairs in Sudan and 2,000 pairs in West Africa. Overall, currently Rüppell’s vultures are classified as Critically Endangered (CR) and their numbers today are decreasing.