Red-headed Vulture – a critically endangered species in Asia

The Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus) is a medium-sized, rather bulky and mostly black Old World Vulture of the Sarcogyps genus. The adult bird shows a bare red head and legs. Other names attributed to this vulture are Asian Black Vulture, King Vulture or Pondicherry Vulture. This vulture is one of the severely endangered species in South Asia.

As an Indomalayan species this vulture is native to most of the Indian subcontinent, India, Pakistan, Himalayan foothills, Nepal, parts of Burma and southeast Asia. Once this species used to be endemic to India, nowadays it is close to extinction.

red-headed vulture sarcogyps calvus south asia endangered species
Severely endangered species in South Asia: the Red-headed Vulture – Source: ePhotocorp/Agency iStock

Distribution and Population Status of the Red-headed Vulture

Once upon a time the Red-headed Vulture was endemic in India, together with the White-rumped Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture and the Long-billed Vulture. Unfortunately these are bygone times. Beginning in the 1990s, a strong population of about 10-11 million individuals was almost completely wiped out over a short period of 10-15 years. Initially it was completely unclear what might had caused this mass dying of a species.

Even studies run over years could not shed any light on the matter. It was only by sheer chance that the reason was found to be the agent diclofenac. Then this agent was used successfully in veterinary medicine. Actually no-one could have imagined what side effect this agent could have on wild living creatures.

We know this pharmaceutical from human medicine where it is most helpful to people suffering from orthopaedic ailments. Consumption of residual remnants of this agent by vultures led to acute organ failure. A dramatic effect, considering that vultures can consume any sort of corps poison without suffering any harm. 

Dramatic Effects on Population numbers

The dramatic effect on vultures was soon realised and the agent was banned from use in veterinary medicine, however almost too late. The Red-headed Vulture was close to extinction and still is an extremely endangered species. We sould bear in mind that species with reproduction rates <1 cannont compensate individual losses that exceed the reproduction rate.

Introdution of Conservation Programmes in India and Pakistan

Anyway, in order to help the vultures survive the governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan agreed on conservation programmes which help maintain the population with a special breeding programme.

Near Extinction of the Red-headed Vulture in Asia

The loss in population with the Red-headed Vulture was a dramatic dicline by 90%, the other two Gyps species suffered declines by 97-99%. Currently, the population of the Red-headed Vulture is estimated at about 3,500-15,000 individuals. Status: “critically endangered”.

Characteristics of the Red-headed Vulture


Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Sarcogyps
Species: Red-headed Vulture

Scientific Name: Sarcogyps calvus

Names and Synonyms of the Red-headed Vulture

German: Kahlkopfgeier or Lappengeier
French: Vautour royal
Dutch: Indische Oorgier
Italian: Avvoltoio calvo
Spanish: Buitre Cabecirrojo
Finnish: Kalmokorppikotka
Danish: Rødhovedet Grib
Swedish: Rödhuvad gam
Polish: Sęp łysy
Russian: Индийский ушастый гриф
Chinese: 黑兀鹫gam
Chinese (traditional): 黑兀鷲
Bengali: রাজ শকুন
Malaysian: Burung Hereng Kepala Merah
Nepali: सुन गिद्ध
Name in Thai: พญาแร้ง

Distribution – Movements – Habitat – Behaviour

Distribution: Indomalayan. Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, southwest China, Thailand, Malaysia, parts of Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam. Despite the vast distribution area, the local status is from still widespread to rare to absent.

Distribution Status in South Asia:
Nepal: still wide-spread but diclining significantly
India: sparsely
Bangladesh: rare
Bhutan, Myanmar: rare
China: possibly in Tibet
Laos: only occasionally
Viet Nam only occasionally
Cambodia: rare and restricted to northern and eastern plains
Malaysia: absent
Singapore: absent

Movements: Mostly nomadic movements of the immatures.

Habitat: dry forest, dense deciduous woodland, wooded savannah, open plains, cultivation, semi-desserts, lowlands and foothills, river valleys; vicinity of villages. Settles in areas from sea level and up to altitudes of 1,500 m , locally even upt to 2,500-3,000 m.

Behaviour: Solitary and also mixing with other vulture species. In groups no more than 20-30 individuals.

Field Characteristics of the Red-headed Vulture

The Red-headed Vulture basically is a medium-sized vulture. Most obvious is the naked had which can be deep orange to orange in the adult plumage and a paler red in the juvenile to immature. The body is black with a ruff. This bird is more brownish on the lower back. There are white patches on the chest and upper thighs. In the adult a light band appears a the base of the secondaries.

Eyes: yellow to red
Cere: yellow-red
Legs: flesh-white to dull red

Measurement of the Red-headed Vulture

Size: 76-86 cm
Tail: 23-26 cm
Weight: 4,700 (♂) – 5,400 (♀) g
Wingspan: 199-227 cm
Wing: 570-608 mm


Sexually mature: Most probably not before 3rd to 4th year.

Mating: Coincides with nest building, prior to start of breeding

Clutches per breeding season1 clutch

Breeding: In India from late January mostly lasting to mid April.

Nest: Large platform on high trees, tendency to take over nests from other birds of prey. Nest mostly in woods, on the edge of djungle, also close to settlements; on bushes in semi-desserts in heights of 1-3 m.

Clutch: 1 egg

Eggs: white egg with limited amount of speckles

Egg Measurements and Weights
Length x Width: 85.9×52.5 mm;
Weight: ≈ ??? g, no recorded data available

Recurrent clutches: probably on when loss of clutch happens in the early stages of incubation.

Incubation: ≃ 45-50 days

Fledging: Chicken is fed by both parents. Fledging after c. 80-90 days.

Dependency: It must be assumed that the young vultures are dependent on their parents for several weeks for feeding and education.


Food: All sorts of carrion, also likes to chase other vultures for their prey, the Egyptian Vulture is likely to fall victim to such attacks (Kleptoparasitism).

Longevity: unknown.

Mortality: unknown.

Threats: As critically endangered as is the case with the other Indian vultures. The use of the painkiller Diclofenac in veterenary medicin led to a catastrophic decline of the population by 90% in early 2000.


Bauer, Hans-Günther, Bezzel, Einhard et. al. (HG), Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band 1+2, Sonderausgabe 2012, Aula Verlag, Wiebelsheim
Bauer, Hans-Günther, Bezzel, Einhard et. al. (HG), Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Band 3, Literatur und Anhang, Aula Verlag Wiebelsheim, 2. vollständig überarbeitete Auflage 1993

Baumgart, Wolfgang, Europas Geier, Flugriesen im Aufwind, AULA-Verlag Wiebelsheim, 2001

Bezzel, Einhard, Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Non-Passeriformes, Band 1, AULA-Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985

Bruun/Singer/König/Der Kosmos Vogelführer, Franck’sche Verlagshandlung Stuttgart, 5. Auflage 1982

Ferguson-Lees, James and Christie, David A., Raptors of the World, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston New York, 2001
Ferguson-Lees, James and Christie, David A., Raptors of the World A Field Guide, Christopher Helm, London, 2005

Vultures Conservation Foundation – European Vulture Protection and Conservation

The Action Plan for Vulture Conservation in India 2020-2025 click here for pdf file

Asian Species Action Partnership: access website
Article: Now, another veterinary painkiller is accelerating extinction of vultures in India

Image Credits

Featured Image of the Red-headed Vulture – source: ePhotocorp/agency iStock
Post image of the Red-headed Vulture – source: ePhotocorp/agency iStock

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Published by Raymond Loyal Photography

Bird, Nature, Art and Architecture Photographer, Traveller, Blogger.

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