Back to the wild: the comeback of vultures in Europe

The Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), which MAVA has been supporting for many years, tells us how international collaboration and commitment has enabled the reintroduction of vultures in Europe

Hunted and poisoned to extinction, vultures faced a dramatic decline over the 20th century as they disappeared from several European regions. In the Alps, the last Bearded Vulture was shot in 1913, but the species has made a spectacular comeback in the last few decades.

Bearded Vulture (c) Hansruedi Weyrich

A collaborative effort began in the 1970s to reintroduce the species back to the Alps based on captive-breeding. This marked the beginning of the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) and an ongoing international partnership dedicated to the preservation and restoration of Europe’s four vulture species. The project released hundreds of Bearded Vultures in the Alps, and today the species has a healthy population in the region of 55+ breeding pairs and about 300 individuals!

The success of this project is based on captive-breeding and effective collaboration and was key in the development and implementation of future vulture reintroduction projects elsewhere in Europe. The VCF currently manages two Bearded Vulture captive-breeding centres and coordinates the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network (EEP) with over 40 partners from across Europe and beyond that breed the species in captivity for conservation purposes.

This year, despite the COVID-19 difficulties, the VCF quickly adapted to the challenges, and the Bearded Vulture EEP managed to produce 25 Bearded Vultures successfully! Out of these young birds, the VCF and its partners released at least 20 birds across six different regions in Spain, France and the Alps to reintroduce or restock the species to the wild! Following successful reintroduction in the Alps, the species is now also breeding in the wild in Andalusia again.

The success of the restoration of Bearded Vultures in the Alps was just the beginning for the VCF. Now, it is the leading organisation for the conservation and protection of Europe’s four vulture species. Another milestone vulture conservation project is the reintroduction of the Cinereous Vulture in Bulgaria as part of the Vultures Back to LIFE project, led by the Bulgarian NGO Green Balkans.

Transport 15 cinereous vultures 2020 (c) Jovan Andevski_VCF

The species went extinct in the 20th century in Bulgaria, and today there is only one Cinereous Vulture breeding colony remaining in the whole of the Balkans, at Dadia-Lefkimi-Forest in northeast Greece. This historic project aims to restore the species back to the Balkans. The project releases both wild-hatched and captive-bred birds in key areas in Bulgaria. Since 2018, the VCF has been securing and transporting young Cinereous Vultures from rehabilitation centres in Spain to Bulgaria. In 2020, the VCF transported by land a total of 15 Spanish Cinereous Vultures, donated by the Junta Extremadura, from the AMUS wildlife rehabilitation centre to Bulgaria (over 4,000 km). Once in Bulgaria, the birds were placed in aviaries to get acclimatised to their new Balkan environment until they are ready to soar the Bulgarian skies. Until today, the VCF has secured 34 Spanish Cinereous Vultures for the project, of which 18 have already been released. Additionally, seven more captive-bred birds, coming from different European zoos, have also been released in Bulgaria.

After many years of diligence, dedication and collaboration, another Cinereous Vulture reintroduction project is coming to an end in 2020. The Cinereous Vulture went extinct in France in the middle of the 20th Century, and a reintroduction project began in 1988 in the Grands Causses, with the release of 53 individuals. Two other release sites were also used in the pre-Alps: 49 birds were released in Baronnies, and 41 in the Verdon. The VCF collaborated on these projects, led by the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) and Vautours en Baronnies, from the very beginning. This year marked the last time Spanish Cinereous Vultures will be provided to the French reintroduction project since the population is now self-sustaining – there are about 35 breeding pairs!

To follow the comeback of vultures in Europe stay tuned with the VCF.

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