Himalayan Vulture Facts

Himalayan Vulture Profile

Arguably the largest and heaviest bird patrolling the Himalayas, this creature forms a long and boxy shadow over the ground beneath with phenomenal wings and a golden shaggy, insulated coat. 

Their relatively featherless heads sport a concentrated and intelligent expression, with a hint of prehistoric ferocity. Luckily, they’re scavengers. And immense ones, at that. 

This absolutely fantastic animal is the Himalayan griffon vulture.

Himalayan Vulture Facts

Himalayan Vulture Facts Overview

Habitat: Mountain range, high altitude
Location: Central to Southeast Asia
Lifespan: 18+ years
Size: More than 3m (10 ft) wingspan
Weight: Up to 12kg (26lb)
Colour: Golden brown 
Diet: Carrion
Predators: None
Top Speed: Unknown
No. of Species: 1
Conservation Status: Near Threatened (IUCN)

The Himalayan vulture is an old world vulture, that’s native to the (you guessed it) Himalayas, and Tibetan plateau.

Himalayan griffon vultures are formidable beasts, capable of living in environments and feasting on meat that would quickly put an end to any common animal. And this toughness is the source of both its success, and its potential downfall.

These birds are opportunistic scavengers that serve a useful purpose in the ecosystem, but their habitat makes them hard to monitor, and we’re seeing rapid declines in the populations of this spectacular bird as they are affected by livestock farming practices.

Interesting Himalayan Vulture Facts

1. It’s one of the largest birds in the Himalayas

These incredible birds can have a winspan up to 3m (10ft 2) in length and weigh as much as 12kg.

They are similar size to the cinereous vulture, but is typically heavier than the himalayan vulture. For that reason, they didn’t quite make the largest flying birds in the world list, but it was incredibly close.

They nest up high on the edge of cliff faces and ledges in small groups of 5-7 birds.

Himalayan Vulture flying wingspan

2. They eat people, often

In fact, this bird species has probably eaten more people than any other. They’re well known for it. In some communities within the range of these ancient carnivores, offerings of human flesh are part and parcel of life in the village. 

Thankfully, they don’t much care for those of us among the living. “Sky burials” are commonly performed in multiple countries around the Himalayas. 

Tibet, India, Mongolia, and numerous Chinese territories are among several places in which this ancient Buddhist tradition is honoured, and it basically involved ceremoniously offering your grandmother up as bird feed. 

The two major birds that show up at this feast are the Asian griffon vultures, our friend the Himalayan vulture being one of them. 

This is considered a great honour to the dead and for good reason. Buddhist societies generally have a much more integrated existence with nature than those from Western traditions, and a lot more respect goes to our animal companions. 

It’s actually considered a very bad sign of the birds don’t want to eat you after you die. But this isn’t simply a spiritual practice, either. 1

3. This is actually a really good idea

Despite the reasonable hesitation that comes with the idea of teaching a large and powerful raptor to consider human flesh a delicacy, there is sound logic behind this tradition. 

As scavengers, vultures play a significant role in disease mitigation. Not only do they clean up a lot of the rotting mess that humans and other animals leave behind when they die, but they also have an inherent resilience to pathogens that allows them to neutralise things that would make the rest of us very sick.

Not only that, but humans make up an unfair and disproportionate amount of biomass, and simply burning that off in cremations does a lot less to recycle nutrients into the environment than simply feeding it to a carnivore, who will then convert it to useful fertiliser for the next generation of the ecological cycle. 

Himalayan Vultures

4. They have a death rattle

If all of this wasn’t ominous enough, these vultures follow the playbook of the German Stuka and descend with an alarming rattling sound. 

They also have growls, creaks, and hisses, depending on the context, and generally make the kind of sounds you’d expect from an enormous human-feeding monster. 

These vultures tend to spend most of their time either alone or in small groups, but during feeding they can amass in large and noisy groups with lots of chatter. 

While there isn’t a lot of information regarding what these sounds mean to the animal, it’s likely that they have a relatively diverse range of vocalisations as part of their limited society. 2 3

5. They can strip a carcass in 30mins

In a large party, these vultures are able to strip a sheep carcass in just 30mins. They prefer the fleshy parts of meat, and are even capable of eating it when its rotting.

On the Tibetan Plateau a large proportion of their diet is the yak, and this larger animal can take up to 120mins to consume.

6. They let gray wolves and leopards dine first

When encountering carrion, they often won’t be the only scavengers.

Due to their size, they will often dominate the meal, however they are subservient to gray wolves, snow leopards and cinereous vultures.

7. They’re sensitive to Diclofenac

NSAIDs, the common category of anti-inflammatory drugs that include ibuprofen, naproxen and diclofenac, are particularly toxic to vultures. 

Considering there aren’t many cases of the birds raiding pharmacies, you’d think this wouldn’t come up much, but sadly, their usage of diclofenac by farmers on livestock gets these toxins into the food supply, and when a grazing animal inevitably pops its clogs, the vultures end up ingesting them.

As a result of this toxicity, the Himalayan vulture is at great risk. Its Eurasian cousin is a perfect example of the damage these drugs can cause to populations, having suffered rapid declines as a result. 

More research needs to go into this topic, but it remains one of the key focuses of Asian vulture conservation. 4 5

Himalayan Vulture

8. They breed slowly

Among all the Gyps species, the Himalayan vulture has one of the longest breeding cycles. A single egg is laid in Winter, and incubated for around 50 days. 

Both the male and female will incubate it, and when hatched, the juvenile will take up precious family time for up to seven more months. 

This relatively long cycle suggests that this Near Threatened species is vulnerable to slow recovery rates, and makes the future quite bleak for the species if nothing can be done about their decreasing populations. 6

9. They’re hard to monitor

Being largely high-altitude animals, it’s not a simple matter to take a stroll into their habitat to check up on these birds. 

Himalayan vultures occupy habitats as high as 5,500 meters up in the mountains, so monitoring becomes expensive and time-consuming. 

This becomes a problem when a known toxin is affecting their fate, and it’s difficult to get any information that’s useful for their protection. 

Another factor that makes their conservation tricky is the distinct lack of sexual dimorphism in the species: both males and females look exactly alike! 

10. They have been reported to steal meat from humans

Despite being rarely seen in the area, a large group of Himalayan vultures tried to take meat from a slaughter house and nearby store in the Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya, India.

The amazing footage below shows the moment a number of vultures landed.

Himalayan Vulture Fact-File Summary

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Gyps
Species: Gyps Himalayensis

Fact Sources & References

  1. Amy Houchin (2017), “Tibetan Sky Burials”, Scholar Blogs.
  2. “Himalayan Vulture”, xeno-canto.
  3. Himachal Travel Guide (2018), “Himalayan Vulture Bird”, YouTube.
  4. Himalayan Griffon”, IUCN Red List.
  5. Omar Jimenez-Lopez (2021), “Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) and their Effect on Old World Vultures: A Scoping Review”, BioOne Digital Library.
  6. Krishna Prasad Bhusal (2021), “Population levels and productivity of the Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis) in Baitadi District, Nepal”, Science Direct.