If you ever get the chance to look into the eye of a Bearded vulture – through the red ring and into its soul – it’s something you’ll never forget. Whether you’re a tourist, a farmer or a hunter, it’s mesmerising. It brings you face-to-face with the spirit of the mountain.
Under the spell of the lammergeier
For José Tavares, a Christmas gift of binoculars as a young teenager triggered a lifelong passion for birds. From early sightings in the Aveiro lagoon in north Portugal, he went on to work for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and is now Director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) – Europe’s leading authority on the conservation of nature’s ultimate clean up-crew.
Much maligned for their necrophagous behaviour, vultures play a vital role in our ecosystems, cleaning up rotting carcasses, and saving hundreds of millions of Euros in carcass disposal costs.
Working together, a ‘wake’ of Europe’s four ‘old world’ vulture species can ‘recycle’ a carcass in a matter of hours – the Griffon opening it up with its strong beak, the Cinereous and the Egyptian continuing the feast, and the Bearded eating the cartilage and bones!
King of the mountains once more
From around only 40 breeding pairs in the Pyrenees, the foundation’s hugely successful reintroduction of Bearded vultures to the Alps and beyond is a good news story that’s made the bird an ‘ambassador’ for wider mountain conservation.
A young male named Adonis, released in 2014 in the Massif Central, became perhaps the most famous and most travelled bird of all. Visiting 13 countries, he even inspired a local beer company in Romania to name a brew after him, celebrating the first sighting of the species in the country for more than 80 years.
Growing investment, world class research, and the effect of the EU Birds & Habitats Directive, have brought Europe’s vultures back from the brink. Yet José’s work is never done. While the principal threats have been reduced, they have not been eradicated.
“It’s a cruel irony that the return of the wolf to more and more of Europe has stimulated illegal bait poisoning by farmers trying to protect livestock, which is terrible for vultures.”
An increase in regulation requiring unnecessary sanitisation of the environment, and removal and incineration of carcasses – a trend since ‘mad cow disease’ in the 1980s – is also a continuing threat that deprives vultures of a vital food source.
Yes we can!
Since becoming Director six years ago, José has grown VCF. Now running ten large-scale projects with partners across Europe, many supported by EU LIFE funding, it has become the go-to umbrella organisation setting the agenda for change.
“Our co-ordination of the European component of the Vulture Multi-species Action Plan for the Convention on Migratory Species, which meant building consensus between hundreds of experts, is something of which I’m particularly proud.”
And José’s hope is that the foundation’s success will inspire similar initiatives far beyond Europe.
Ours is a wonderful story in a world where hope is almost as rare as some of the animals we’re trying to save! Even though vultures in Africa and Asia are in a desperate state, there’s still a chance to turn things around – and we’re ready to help.
Find out more about how José and the Vulture Conservation Foundation are delivering MAVA’s action plan on Reducing mortality of migratory birds and vultures.