Vultures

Lords of the sky

Back from the brink

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 vultures, bearded vultures, black vultures and griffon vultures were among the most common breeding bird species in central and southern Europe. Yet the decreasing availability of food, coupled with habitat loss, persecution and poisoning, then 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 black vultures left in Spain.

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

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 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 chains is therefor 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 15 years.”

Stoycho Stoychev
Team leader of the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area

Vultures in our rewilding areas

Three species of vultures are occurring in five of the rewilding areas where we work. The griffon vulture breeds in Western Iberia, Central Apennines and Rhodope Mountains, while it regularly visits Velebit Mountains from a nearby colony. The black vulture only breeds in the Rhodope Mountains, while it frequents the Portuguese Côa Valley in Western Iberia, coming from nearby Spanish populations.

Interestingly, in 2017 a GPS-tagged black vulture from Rhodope Mountains (Dadia National Park) was found to fly over our bison reintroduction area in the Southern Carpathians, indicating that dispersal movements are occurring more often than we might think. Egyptian vulture still breeds in good numbers in both Western Iberia and in Rhodope Mountains, although their populations are struggling to remain stable.

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 black and Egyptian vulture. However, it will take a long time and protection measures before these species could come back, or even be reintroduced.

The bearded vulture has disappeared from the Rhodope Mountains not so long ago, and like the Central Apennines this could be a potential area for future reintroductions. It might be a vagrant in Western Iberia. Velebit Mountains has potential for the return of both griffon and Egyptian vulture, however conditions for both species don’t seem to be very favorable yet, for a number of reasons.

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

What we are doing

We are working in various ways, and with a range of partner organisations, to support the recovery of vulture populations in our areas, as a flagship species of healthy food chains and functioning ecosystems.

Improving the prey-base for wolves in our areas, which results in a better natural food source for vultures (and other scavengers).

Supporting vulture watching and photography in dedicated hides, to support local enterprises that earn income from this activity.

Supporting anti-poisoning units with trained dogs in both Bulgaria and Greece.

Research on movements of black and griffon vultures, through putting GPS collars on the species to inform protection measures.

Attracting black vultures to start a new breeding location in the Bulgarian part of the Rhodopes.

Education of school children through organisation of field camps and events focusing on vultures, in particular in Rhodope Mountains and Western Iberia.

LIFE Vultures project

With the support of the European Commission through LIFE Nature programme, in 2016 we started a five-year initiative on the recovery of the black and griffon vulture in the Rhodope Mountains in the Bulgarian-Greek border area. In this project, called LIFE Vultures, Rewilding Europe works with the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB/BirdLife Bulgaria), Rewilding Rhodopes Foundation, the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS/BirdLife Greece) and the Vulture Conservation Foundation. The project focuses on the recovery and further expansion of the black and griffon vulture populations in this part of the Balkan region, mainly by improving natural prey availability and reducing mortality factors such as poaching, poisoning and impact of power lines.

Restoring a unique food chain

Thanks to the conservation efforts that began in the 1990s, the Eastern Rhodopes is now home to a steadily increasing population of griffon vultures, centred around the Arda Valley in Bulgaria. The comeback of the species is a success story, growing from a low point population of 10 pairs to around 85. Every year sees the addition of three to five new breeding pairs. Rewilding Europe’s LIFE Vultures project, which began in 2016, is now building on this success. Together with a range of partners it will support the further recovery of the griffon vulture through a range of measures.

The vultures act as the ‘poster child’ of restoring a unique food chain in this region. Groups of fallow and red deer are released into the area, increasing the availability of wolf kills for vultures to feed on.

Reducing poisoning

In 2016 the first anti-poison dog unit – comprising a highly trained dog and handler – began patrolling the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area in Bulgaria. As part of the ongoing, EU-funded LIFE Vultures project, which aims to boost populations of black and griffon vultures in Bulgaria and Greece, the main aim of the unit is to help establish poison-free areas by controlling and removing poisoned baits before they can negatively impact local wildlife.

Despite being illegal, such baits and carcasses are frequently put out by local people with the aim of killing foxes, jackals, wolves and other animals that are seen as a threat to livestock. This can have a disastrous effect on vultures, which forage widely for such carrion.

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.

Black vulture connects two LIFE projects

Helena, an immature black vulture was tagged with a GPS collar in the Dadia National Park in Greece on 18 October 2016. On 23 April 2017, the then three-year old bird decided to start exploring the region. She headed west soaring the Rhodope Mountain chain and took a north curve to pass west of Sofia already two days later. She moved on in northwesterly direction to enter into Serbia and cross the Danube river on 26 of April. From there she started to follow the Carpathian Mountain chain and crossed Tarcu Mountains the next day.

Detailed flight path shows she soared exactly over Armeniș, where we have our main release site of the European bison in the LIFE bison project. She moved on in easterly direction, crossing the Fagaras Mountains to fly into the Transylvanian Alps, clearly following the high mountain chain. She then decided to not move further north and started her return flight straight southwest crossing the lowlands, passing just west of Bucharest on the first of May. She moved on south and crossed 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 4th of May.

A mechanism for recolonization

Helena covered some 2,233 km during this 13-day journey through Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria. Being tagged with the GPS collar in the framework of the LIFE Vultures project, she wasn’t aware she ‘connected’ these two LIFE projects through her journey. Helena’s journey is a really nice example of how immature birds can explore a region and cover large distances, something that is quite common in vultures. It resembles to similar northward trips that groups of griffon vultures make from Spain and southern France into into the Netherlands and Germany during favorable weather conditions, to then return back to their breeding grounds a few weeks later.

These wandering birds can also be seen as an indication that the Carpathian Mountains could be recolonized by the species in the future, assuming more birds will discover the area, suitable nesting areas can be found and that birds can be protected well.

Our main achievements

Researching black and griffon vultures

Within the LIFE Vultures project, so far a total number of 23 black vultures and 18 griffon vultures have been tagged with a GPS collar. Early 2018 20 back vultures and 15 griffon vulture GPS collars were operational, while the other collards had technical problems or the birds didn’t survive. We follow the birds on a real-time basis, learning about their movements, behaviour and dispersal. This has already provided a wealth of data, informing conservation measures to be taken within the framework of the project, such as poisoning incidents, power line mortality, new resting and feeding areas and many more.

Feeding stations

Both in Western Iberia and Rhodope Mountains, vultures are provided with food in special feeding places. All three species visit these feeding stations on a very regular basis, taking advantage of the food provided. The feeding sites need to meet specific requirements set by authorities, one being that they have to be fenced to not allow stray dogs and other species to go in. This also keeps out foxes, wolves and other predators and scavengers except birds.

Vulture hides

Combined with feeding stations, vulture hides have been built by local entrepreneurs to have guests and clients who like to see or photograph the vultures at a close range. In Portugal, the hides are built in Faia Brava reserve and operated by Wildlife Portugal, a local company offering nature tours. In Bulgaria, the hides are run by Marin Kurtev, a local entrepreneur. Currently there are three hides here, and as some of these are not fenced in, there is also a chance to see wolf, jackal and other mammals from this hide. The hides provide new business opportunities in the region; for the hides in Faia Brave a loan through Rewilding Europe Capital was provided to the local entrepreneur.

Attracting black vultures to start breeding in Bulgaria

The GPS data of the black vultures from the colony in Dadia National Park in Greece have shown that the birds very regularly visit the Bulgarian side of the Rhodope Mountains. The black vulture is now sadly extinct as a breeding bird in Bulgaria, and in Dadia de colony is stable around 20 to 30 pairs. Through the building of artificial nests in the locations that are frequented by the black vultures on the Bulgarian side, we try to attract them to start a second colony here. This is a proven concept in Spain. So far, ten artificial nests have been built by the end of 2017, and we are keeping our fingers crossed for the black vultures to occupy the in the 2018 breeding season.

Educational activities

In particular in the Madzharovo area in Bulgaria, a lot of educational activities have taken place during the past few years. The visitors center, where vultures play a key role, has been renewed and refurbished in 2016 and 2017. Photo exhibitions were held in Kardzhali and the yearly Kartali Nature Camp welcomed more than 60 young participants in June 2017. A first-ever live-webcam has been placed on one of the griffon vulture nests early 2018, and we hope that this nest will be occupied in 2018 so that everybody can follow the vulture family throughout their breeding season.

Anti-poison dog units at work

Unfortunately, the outcome of poison-related incidents isn’t always so benign, with the need for anti-poison dog units in both Greece and Bulgaria made evident by a number of other highly regrettable incidents. Last year saw several instances of poisoning in the Bulgarian Rhodopes, with the local unit heavily involved in detection. In early December 2017, in another suspected case of poisoning, two dead black vultures were discovered by the WWF Greece anti-poison team. An earlier poisoning case here was discovered before victims were made thanks to timely intervention be the team. Working with vets, hunting organisations, the local police and the vulture researchers, the anti-poison dog units have started to be crucial to combat this devastating behaviour.

Reducing mortality through power lines

Again through the GPS information, we know where the most dangerous (sections of) powerlines are situated, and where vulture collisions and mortality is highest. In these places, together with the 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.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.