Magnus Elander / Wild Wonders of Europe


Europe's lords of the skies take to the air once again

Bruno D'Amicis / Rewilding Europe

An ongoing recovery

Vultures are perhaps the most iconic examples of European scavengers; the sight of these majestic birds soaring overhead on thermals or feeding at a carcass can be truly captivating.

Two centuries ago, Egyptian, bearded, cinereous and griffon vultures were among the most common breeding bird species in central and southern Europe. Yet a decreasing availability of food, coupled with habitat loss, persecution and poisoning, saw vultures disappear from most European countries (Portugal, France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovakia and Romania). At their lowest point, in the 1960s, there were only 2,000 pairs of griffon vultures and 200 pairs of cinereous vultures left in Spain.

Thanks to reintroductions and species protection, European vulture populations are now slowly but steadily recovering. In many regions, the spectacular sight of vultures soaring through the sky has once again become a common sight.

Markus Varesvuo / Wild Wonders of Europe

Essential role

Vultures perform an essential role in nature. As the only land-based vertebrates that can thrive solely on scavenging, vultures are crucial in maintaining nature’s balance, rapidly cleaning up and recycling the bodies of dead animals. Because they can quickly devour large amounts of flesh and their stomach acids neutralise pathogens, they may help limit the spread of bacteria and diseases such as anthrax and rabies.

Over the last decade, Rewilding Europe and its partners have worked hard to restore the Circle of Life, an essential element of wild nature. This has boosted populations of wild and semi-wild herbivores and supported the gradual recovery of European vulture populations. Read more about our efforts in the Impact Story ‘Circle of Life’.

Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Natural versus artificial

Yet as the occurrence of wild herbivore carcasses has declined, so these magnificent birds have become increasingly dependent on the carcasses of domesticated animals. But stricter veterinary regulations mean this food source has also become increasingly unreliable. Since the 1970s, so-called supplementary feeding stations have been set up in southern Europe to ensure the vultures have an adequate supply of carrion. These stations now contribute to the survival of many vulture populations and have been important in the reintroduction of vultures (for example in the Grands Causes, French Alps and the Pyrenees).

As a means to an end, such so-called “vulture restaurants” are useful. Yet they still interfere with nature and cannot completely replace natural, randomly available carrion that would otherwise support a far more diverse range of species. In an ideal world, scavengers are entirely supported by natural prey and carcasses. Restoring these food webs is therefore essential.

“Vultures are simply majestic. These natural-born paragliders are perfectly adapted to life on the wing.
It’s been an honour to devote myself to their conservation over the last 25 years.”

Stoycho Stoychev
Conservation director, Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds

Vultures in Rewilding Europe’s rewilding landscapes

Four species of vulture are found in Europe (griffon, cinereous, Egyptian and bearded). Three of these species are found in six of the rewilding landscapes where we work. The griffon vulture breeds in the Greater Côa Valley, Central Apennines, Iberian Highlands and Rhodope Mountains, while it regularly visits the Velebit Mountains from a nearby colony. The Rewilding Romania team are planning to reintroduce the species to the Southern Carpathians, following a 60-year absence in Romania.

The cinereous vulture breeds in the Rhodope Mountains and the Greater Côa Valley. The Rewilding Spain team are supporting its comeback in the Iberian Highlands with reintroductions, which are also planned in the Central Apennines. The Egyptian vulture still breeds in good numbers in the Greater Côa Valley, Iberian Highlands, and Rhodope Mountains, although these populations are struggling to remain stable.

Interestingly, a GPS-tagged cinereous vulture from the Greek section of the Rhodope Mountains (Dadia National Park) flew over our bison reintroduction area in the Southern Carpathians in Romania in 2017, indicating that dispersal movements are occurring more often than we might think.

It is clear that vulture species still need to (further) recover in all our areas; the Southern Carpathians is now devoid of breeding vultures but seems to have suitable habitat for at least cinereous and Egyptian vultures. But it will be many years and require enhanced protection measures before these species return naturally, or can even be reintroduced.

The cinereous vulture does not currently breed in the Bulgarian part of the Rhodope Mountains and will be the focus of our attention for the next few years through a planned reintroduction. Velebit Mountains could potentially see the return of both griffon and Egyptian vultures, and we are partnering with local specialists to make this a reality.

Markus Varesvuo; Wild Wonders of Europe

The table shows which species are present in each area, and if they are a breeding species (), only occur regularly () or occacionally ().

Neil Aldridge

Scaling up vulture comeback

Grants from Rewilding Europe’s European Wildlife Comeback Fund have supported vulture reintroductions by several members of the European Rewilding Network. In central Spain, we have supported GREFA in the release of cinereous vultures in the Sierra de la Demanda. In Italy, we have supported the release of griffon vultures and Egyptian vultures in northern Sicily (Madonie). And in France, we have supported the release of bearded vultures in the Baronnies, in the Dauphiné Alps in southeast France.

How are we supporting vultures?

Rewilding Europe is working in various ways, and with a range of partner organisations, to support the recovery of vulture populations in our landscapes, as a flagship species of healthy food webs and resilient, functioning ecosystems.

Improving the prey base for predators in our landscapes, which results in a better natural food source for vultures and other scavenger species.

Supporting vulture watching and photography in dedicated hides, which enables local enterprises to generate income and create jobs. This benefits local communities and builds further support for rewilding.

Supporting anti-poisoning units with trained dogs in Bulgaria.

Researching the movement of cinereous and griffon vultures tagged with GPS transmitters. This will strengthen conservation measures going forwards.

Encouraging cinereous vultures to start breeding again in Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains reintroductions and artificial nest building.

Educating school children by organising field camps and events focused on vultures, in particularly in the Rhodope Mountains and Greater Côa Valley rewilding landscapes.

Support the vultures

Vultures are perhaps the most iconic examples of European scavengers; the sight of these majestic birds soaring overhead on thermals or feeding at a carcass can be truly captivating.


Staffan Widstrand; Wild Wonders of Europe
Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Restoring a unique food web

The Rhodope Mountains rewilding team have been supporting the comeback of griffon vultures in the Bulgarian Rhodopes since 2016, mainly by improving the availability of natural prey, and by working to reduce mortality caused by factors such as poaching, poisoning, and collisions with power lines. By 1986, these threats had seen the Bulgarian population decline to just three breeding pairs – all in the Rhodopes.

The beneficial impact of these efforts is reflected in the ongoing growth of the local griffon vulture population. In early 2024, a team from the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds identified 138 occupied nests along the Arda River, in the heart of the Rhodope Mountains rewilding landscape. Of these, 100 pairs were engaged in breeding, while the rest were still building their nests and defending them from rivals.

The griffon vultures act as a poster child for the restoration of a unique food web in this region. In collaboration with local hunting associations, more than 600 fallow deer and 50 red deer have now been reintroduced and restocked in the Bulgarian Rhodopes since 2015, creating several increasing sub-populations of the two species. This is increasing the availability of carrion for vultures to feed on and thereby strengthening the so-called “Circle of Life”. Today, populations of fallow and red deer in the Rhodope Mountains now total 3500 and 350 respectively.

Reducing poisoning

Populations of vultures and other raptors in the Balkans still face a range of threats, with illegal poisoning top of the list. Since 2016, anti-poison dog units have patrolled the Rhodope Mountains rewilding landscape, helping to establish poison-free areas by controlling and removing poisoned baits, which can have a disastrous impact on vultures and other wildlife.

Across the Bulgarian border, in the Greek section of the Rhodope Mountains, two other anti-poison dog units have also been playing a critical role in vulture conservation. Since 2014, patrols organised by WWF Greece and the Hellenic Ornithological Society have been working hard to protect local populations of vultures, with a main focus on the last Egyptian vultures remaining in Greece.

Fantastic flights

Helena, an immature cinereous vulture, was tagged with a GPS collar in Dadia National Park in eastern Greece on October 2016. On 23 April 2017, the three-year-old bird decided to explore the region. First, she headed west, soaring across the Rhodope Mountains, then curved north to pass west of Bulgarian capital Sofia two days later. She then flew northwest, entering Serbia and crossing the Danube River on 26 April. From there she followed the Carpathian Mountains and crossed the Țarcu Mountains (part of the Southern Carpathians) the next day.

Helena’s detailed flight path reveals that she flew directly over Armeniș, Rewilding Europe’s main reintroduction site for European bison. She moved on in an easterly direction, crossing the Fagaras Mountains and into the Transylvanian Alps, clearly following the high mountain chains. She then started her return flight directly southwest, passing just west of Hungarian capital Budapest on 1 May. She then flew southward, recrossing the Danube River to arrive in the Central Balkans National Park, just east of Sofia. From there she flew southeast to arrive back in Dadia National Park on the 4 May. An incredible journey!

A mechanism for recolonisation

Helena’s journey is a really good example of how some vultures can cover huge distances as they explore the European continent and beyond. It echoes similar northward trips that groups of griffon vultures make from Spain and southern France into the Netherlands and Germany during favourable weather conditions, with the birds returning to their breeding grounds a few weeks later.

These vulture wanderings indicate that the Southern Carpathians in Romania could be recolonised by cinereous vultures in the future, assuming more birds will discover the area, suitable nesting areas can be found, and that birds are well protected.

Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo / Rewilding Europe

Cinereous vulture reintroduction

Overseen by the Rewilding Rhodopes team and local partners, a reintroduction programme for cinereous vultures is currently underway in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding landscape in Bulgaria. Establishing a new breeding colony of cinereous vultures in Bulgaria will bolster the Balkan population of the bird.

It is important to ensure that as many of the cinereous vultures released through the reintroduction programme as possible settle in the Rhodope Mountains. Human contact is kept to a minimum, the birds are sustained on food they are likely to find locally after their release, and ten nesting platforms have been constructed on trees within sight of the pre-release acclimatisation aviary. The rewilding team operate a number of artificial feeding stations, where the carcasses of livestock supplied by local farmers are regularly deposited. These are checked to ensure they are free from all veterinary drugs that could poison vultures that feed on them.

All the released vultures will be tagged and fitted with GPS transmitters, enabling the rewilding team to keep track of their health and movement in real time, and to learn more about their life in the local landscape and beyond. Almost all the birds from the second release have stayed close to the release site, although some have made periodic journeys to other mountainous regions in Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece.

Our main achievements

Researching cinereous and griffon vultures

In recent years, a number of cinereous and griffon vultures have been tagged with GPS transmitters. We track the birds in real-time, learning about their movements, behaviour and dispersal. This has already provided a wealth of data, informing a range of conservation measures taken, such as mitigating poisoning incidents, preventing mortality from collisions with power lines, and identifying new resting and feeding areas.

Griffon vultures have also been tagged in the Greater Côa Valley rewilding landscape in northern Portugal, in order to understand more about the birds’ foraging behaviour. The tagging was carried out as part of an effort to scale up rewilding in the area – funded by a generous grant from the Endangered Landscapes and Seascapes Programme – which is seeing Rewilding Europe (through Rewilding Portugal) and local partners reinforce a 120,000-hectare wildlife corridor in the valley.

Feeding stations

In an ideal world, vultures across Europe would feed exclusively on the carcasses of wild animals. However, a decline in wildlife populations means livestock carcasses are often a critical source of food. In the Greater Côa Valley and Rhodope Mountains rewilding landscapes, vultures are provided with supplementary food in feeding stations (also called “vulture restaurants”).

The three local vulture species (Egyptian, griffon, and cinereous) visit these stations on a regular basis, taking advantage of the food provided. These feeding stations need to meet specific requirements set out by authorities – this means that they have to be fenced to keep out stray dogs, foxes, wolves, and other large predators and scavengers.

In 2024, the Rewilding Apennines team began operating a supplementary feeding station for griffon vultures in the Monte Velino Nature Reserve.

Vulture hides

Combined with feeding stations, vulture hides have been built by local entrepreneurs to host people who want to see or photograph vultures at close range, thereby boosting local nature-based economies. In the Greater Côa Valley, hides are operated by Wildlife Portugal, a local company offering nature tours and who received a loan through Rewilding Europe Capital to develop the business. In the Rhodope Mountains, hides are run by Marin Kurtev, a local entrepreneur. Currently, there are three hides here – as some of these are not fenced in, there is also a chance to see wolves, jackal, and other mammals.

Encouraging cinereous vultures to start breeding in Bulgaria

A reintroduction programme for cinereous vultures is currently underway in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding landscape in Bulgaria. Cinereous vultures were once common across the region, but factors such as poisoning, a lack of food, and collision with power lines mean they are now clinging on in Greece as a breeding species. Cinereous vultures have also been reintroduced in Bulgaria’s Stara Planina (Balkan) Mountains, to the north of the landscape.

Educational activities

The Rhodope Mountains rewilding landscape in Bulgaria has seen many educational activities taken place over the past few years. The visitor centre, where vultures play a key role, was renewed and refurbished in 2016 and 2017, while regular photo exhibitions and nature camps are organised. A first-ever live webcam was placed on one of the griffon vulture nests in early 2018 so that everybody could follow the vulture family throughout their breeding season.

Reducing mortality through power lines

Information from GPS tagging has helped us to identify where the most dangerous power lines are situated, and where vulture collisions and mortality is highest. In collaboration with electricity companies, we will take measures to attach signs on the lines, where we are exploring new techniques to use special drones for putting these on the power lines. This should reduce mortality for the vultures and other bird species – mainly larger raptors.


LIFE Vultures initiative

Starting in 2016 with support from the European Commission’s LIFE programme, the five-year LIFE Vultures initiative was developed by Rewilding Europe, in collaboration with the Rewilding Rhodopes Foundation, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB/BirdLife Bulgaria), and a range of other partners. As outlined in Europe’s New Wild (“The Scavengers Return”), rewilding efforts were focused on supporting the recovery and further expansion of the griffon and cinereous vulture populations in the Bulgarian-Greek border area of the Rhodope Mountains, mainly by improving the availability of natural prey, and by reducing mortality through factors such as poaching, poisoning and collisions with power lines.

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