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Vultures

Magnus Elander / Wild Wonders of Europe

Vultures

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.

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 20 years.”

Stoycho Stoychev
Team leader of the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area

Vultures in Rewilding Europe’s operational areas

Four species of vulture are found in Europe (griffon, cinereous, Egyptian and bearded). Three of these species are found in five of the rewilding areas where we work. The griffon vulture breeds in the Greater Côa Valley, Central Apennines and Rhodope Mountains, while it regularly visits the Velebit Mountains from a nearby colony. The cinereous vulture only breeds in the Rhodope Mountains, while it also frequents the Greater Côa Valley, coming from nearby Spanish populations. The Egyptian vulture still breeds in good numbers in the Greater Côa Valley and in the Rhodope Mountains, although these populations are struggling to remain stable.

Interestingly, in 2017 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, 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 ().

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 areas, as a flagship species of healthy food chains and functioning ecosystems.

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

Supporting vulture watching and photography in dedicated hides, to support local enterprises that earn income from this activity. The European Safari Company also offers experiences in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria (which include vulture watching); these provide valuable income and jobs to local communities and help to support rewilding.

Supporting anti-poisoning units with trained dogs in Bulgaria.

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

Encouraging cinereous vultures to start breeding again in the Bulgarian Rhodopes through artificial nest building, and preparing an actual reintroduction of the species.

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

Svetoslav Spasov

 

LIFE Vultures project

Starting in 2016 and supported by 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 are 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.

Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

Restoring a unique food chain

Thanks to the conservation efforts that began in the 1990s, the Rhodope Mountains is now home to a steadily increasing population of griffon vultures, centred around the Arda Valley. The comeback of the species is a success story, with the population growing from a low point of 10 pairs to around 100 today. Every year sees the addition of three to five new breeding pairs. Rewilding Europe’s efforts on vulture conservation, which began in 2016, is building on this success. Together with a range of partners, it is supporting the further recovery of the griffon vulture through a range of measures.

The griffon vultures act as a “poster child” for the restoration of a unique food web in this region. More than 400 fallow deer and 50 red deer have been released over the last five years by the local rewilding team in the Rhodope Mountains, in cooperation with the local hunting associations of Kardzhali, Harmanli and Krumovgrad. This is increasing the availability of carrion for vultures to feed on and thereby strengthening the so-called “Circle of Life“.

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 effort of boosting populations of cinereous 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 kill 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.

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 Bucharest 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.

A mechanism for recolonisation

In 2017, an immature griffon vulture called Helena covered more than 2,200 kilometres during a 13-day journey through Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria. Having been tagged with a GPS collar she flew over the Southern Carpathians rewilding area. Helena’s journey is a really good example of how immature birds can explore a region and cover large distances, which is something quite common in vultures. 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 Carpathian Mountains in Romania could be recolonised by the species 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

A reintroduction programme for cinereous vultures is currently underway in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area in Bulgaria. A grant from cosmetics retailer Lush is being used to fund the first stage of the programme, which aims to establish a breeding colony here. The Rewilding Rhodopes team and local partners are aiming to reintroduce the birds, which are coming from Spain, sometime in late 2020 or early 2021.

Establishing a new breeding colony of cinereous vultures in Bulgaria will bolster the Balkan population of the bird. 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.

Our main achievements

Researching cinereous and griffon vultures

In the last couple of years, a total of 23 cinereous vultures and 18 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 power lines mortality and identifying new resting and feeding areas.

Griffon vultures have also been tagged in the Greater Côa Valley 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 Programme – which is seeing Rewilding Europe (through Rewilding Portugal) and local partners develop a 120,000-hectare wildlife corridor in the valley.

Feeding stations

In the Greater Côa Valley and Rhodope Mountains rewilding areas, vultures are provided with supplementary food in feeding stations. The three local vulture species (Egyptian, griffon and cinereous) visit these stations on a regular basis, taking advantage of the food provided. The feeding sites 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.

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 economies. In the Greater Côa Valley, hides are built in the Faia Brava Reserve and 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, the 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 wolf, jackal and other mammals. The hides provide new business opportunities in the region.

Encouraging cinereous vultures to start breeding in Bulgaria

The GPS data from tagged cinereous vultures breeding in Dadia National Park in Greece has shown that the birds regularly visit the Bulgarian side of the Rhodope Mountains. While the cinereous vulture is now sadly extinct as a breeding bird in Bulgaria, in Dadia the colony is stable (around 20 to 30 pairs). Through the building of artificial nests in the locations that are frequented by the birds on the Bulgarian side, we are trying to encourage 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.

Educational activities

The Rhodope Mountains rewilding area 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. Photo exhibitions and nature camps were held. A first-ever live webcam was placed on one of the griffon vulture nests early 2018, and we hope that this nest will be occupied again in the future so that everybody can 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.

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