World’s only tool-using vulture risks being lost forever


© Boris Belchev

Hailed for its intelligence and majesty, the Egyptian Vulture was admired and worshipped throughout history. But decimated by poisoning, electrocution and illegal trophy hunting, the bird that was once an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph is now Endangered. Can we save it before it’s too late?

Faced with a challenge as tough as an ostrich egg, lesser scavengers may quail. Not the Egyptian Vulture. One of evolution’s great problem-solvers, this ingenious raptor will set off in search of a suitably sharp pebble. Once it has found one of the right dimensions, it will swing its neck down and fling it upon the egg. If it doesn’t work the first time, it will try again. It almost always gets its dinner.

It’s not just pebbles. The Egyptian Vulture also uses twigs to roll up wisps of wool and take them back to line its nest. Such behaviour was first recorded by astonished Victorian naturalists visiting the African continent – but the people of Africa had known it was special for a long time. In ancient Egypt, the species was sacred to the goddess Isis and hailed as a symbol of royalty, protected by law. It was so iconic and widespread that it was nicknamed the “Pharaoh’s Chicken” and even used as a hieroglyph.

If only modern humanity had the same respect for this species. Today, it is facing challenges even the great problem-solver of the bird world can’t overcome. On its 5000-kilometre migration between European breeding grounds and sub-Saharan wintering grounds, it risks being poisoned by lethal farming chemicals, electrocuted by powerlines, or illegally shot down by hunters and stuffed as macabre trophies.

The devastation has been wholesale. The European population has plummeted by 50% in the past 40 years, and worldwide, only one in seven juveniles reaches adulthood. For a long-lived species whose lifespan can stretch to 30 years, every bird killed has a profound impact on future numbers. On the Balkans the population has plummeted by more than 80% in the past 30 years.

In response, with the help of 13 other countries along the vulture’s migration route, BSPB is spearheading an ambitious new project, “Egyptian Vulture – new LIFE”. The aim of the project is to reinforce the easternmost European Egyptian Vulture population by delivering urgent conservation measures to address major known threats at breeding grounds and also along the flyway. The main efforts under the project are targeting two key components: (1) Achieving a steady increase of the population on the breeding grounds in the Balkans; and, (2) Enhancing the context for conservation along the flyway and in the wintering grounds by minimizing loss of migrating birds, particularly mature individuals.

Help the Egyptian Vulture and other migratory birds by supporting the Flight for Survival campaign.