Cape Griffon Vulture

The Cape griffon is not only aesthetically striking, but it is also particularly intelligent

South Africa BirdlifeThe Cape Griffon Vulture {Gyps coprotheres}

The Cape griffon is not only aesthetically striking, but it is also particularly intelligent. It is commonly called either the Cape vulture or the Cape griffon and is the third-largest Old World vulture. It is also the largest raptor in South Africa and classified as vulnerable by the IUCN, making it one of the most exciting species to spot.

Most of the bird is a creamy dark brown colour. The flight and tail feathers are dark, while the wing coverts are pale. In fact, from a distance, the underneath of the wings may look a silvery white. There are patches of bare skin at the base of the neck (possibly temperature sensors). The exposed throat skin has a distinctive blue hue, the eye is a warm amber colour, and the beak is black.

They are the heaviest of all the vultures in southern Africa, at an average of nine kilograms. They have a massive amount of character, as their curiosity couples with their intelligence to create a dynamic bird that loves learning. They are also the highest flying vulture, favouring a flying height of 8 000 metres. To be able to hunt at this height means that their eyesight has to be outstanding. They can see with 20 times better resolution than human beings, and eight times further. In fact, their sight is so superior that they are able to see thermals, visually perceiving the movement of air molecules.

These vultures are clean, and can often be seen preening and washing themselves at clean water sources.

Quick Facts


Range mass: 7 – 11kg
Range length: 96 – 115cm
Range wingspan: 2.2 – 2.6m.


The griffon vulture favours nests on the faces of cliffs, with colonies of up to 1 000 other breeding pairs. It can also be found in open savannahs and shrubby landscapes.


South Africa is currently home to around 8 000 Cape vultures. There are large colonies of these majestic birds in the Magaliesberg Mountain Range, Sterkfontein Dam (Free State Province), Drakensberg Mountain Range, De Hoop Nature Reserve (near Cape Town), and the Marakele National Park (near Pretoria). It is also found in Mozambique and Botswana, and there are non-breeding populations in Namibia and Zimbabwe.


This vulture is known for its massive capacity for carrion (dead and decaying flesh), managing to eat an astounding kilogram or more in just a few minutes of dining. They may have to fly long distances to get to a viable carcass, and will cover a vast area when searching for a meal.


The griffon vulture is a gregarious, social bird that enjoys living and scavenging in large groups. At any one carcass, there may be a very large group of vultures vying for food. In these cases, there is sometimes aggressive displays and fighting amongst the birds. Some of these vultures may put their entire head and neck under the skin of the dead animal, or climb into its body cavity to lay claim to the meat.

When around human beings, they are entertaining and mischievous.


The Cape vulture has a loud voice, which it uses in a variety of hisses, grunts and cackles to communicate with others in its colony.


The large breeding colonies tend to build stick platforms along the ledges of the cliff, using soft grasses to line the nests. The breeding season extends from April to July, and the female lays one egg during this time. Both of the parents will incubate the egg.

Once the chick is born, both the male and female will continue to care for it until it can feed and protect itself. Chicks fledge at about 140 days old. Only about one-fifth of chicks survive into adulthood.


Incubation is about 55 days

Life Expectancy

30 years or more.


As a vulnerable species, the threats facing the griffon vulture are of particular interest. At present, their greatest threats are collisions with power lines and vehicles as they soar in search of food, as well as poisoning. When an animal on a farm dies, the farmer may choose to poison the carcass to get rid of unwanted predators on the farm (such as jackals or leopards). These poisons are indiscriminate, though, and kill everything that feeds on the meat. Sadly, this vulture is also hunted for muti (or traditional medicines that are part of a witchcraft culture).

Some farmers have been involved in protecting these vultures and improving their chances of survival by creating “restaurants” for the birds. When one of their cattle dies, for example, the farmer will take the carcass to the “restaurant” and leave it there for the vultures to dine on in peace.


ARKive; BirdLife; Rest Africa.


Cape Griffon Vulture
Conservation Status

  • Vulnerable

Did you know?

Vultures are caught and used for apparent medicinal and psychological benefits – every year as many as 160 vultures are thought to be sold and used for consumption in eastern South Africa. If this level of consumption continues the vulture will become locally extinct within 45 to 53 years.

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