The lesser vulture
The Egyptian vulture – a sacred bird with the profile of a Native American, is the smallest of all four European vultures, and the only one that migrates. With a wingspan of just 180 cm and body length of 60–70 cm, it is also known as “lesser vulture” in Bulgarian. Adults have white plumage with black flight feathers, and a bare-skin yellow face; young birds have brown plumage and the skin on their face is blue. The crest of projecting pointed feathers on the Egyptian vulture’s head give it its typical, memorable appearance.
From Ancient Egypt to the Eastern Rhodope Mountains
The Egyptian vulture lives in the immediate vicinity of man since ancient times. It features in many tales and legends, and many civilizations held it sacred. The Ancient Egyptians regarded it as sacred and used its image as a hieroglyph. It was considered a symbol of the goddess of fertility, motherhood and magic – Isis.
Elderly Muslims from the villages in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains still remember the legend of ak baba, ‘the white father’, that saved Muhammad from the talons of the golden eagle. To express his gratitude, the Prophet gifted the bird with eternal life and white plumage that symbolizes chastity and bravery. Thus the ‘white wise man’ found a nest in the hearts of many peoples in different parts of the world.
5000 km in the air
Egyptian vultures are typical long-distance migrants. In September young and adult birds leave their summer territories and set off on a long journey towards their wintering grounds in Africa. They migrate in small groups, mainly above land, avoiding too big expanses of open sea. They fly over Turkey, following the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and they enter Africa. Large gatherings of Egyptian vultures are observed at locations with abundant food resources along the migration route, such as refuse dumpsites and supplementary feeding sites. The migration of the birds from the Balkans is the hardest as they need to cover over 5000 km to their wintering grounds, passing through a series of important migration hotspots, or the so-called migration bottlenecks. Hundreds of thousands of migrant birds pass through these hotspots on their way between Europe, Asia and Africa. The first autumn migration is among the most serious challenges for the young, unexperienced birds; sometimes they need more than 50 days to reach their wintering grounds, while the adults can cover the same distance in just 14 days.
In autumn, the long migration of the Egyptian vultures ends in Africa. They spend there the winter months when the weather conditions in Bulgaria are too harsh; they start preparing for the way back in early spring. In Africa, Egyptian vultures are surprisingly trustful to people and they often feed in the villages and towns. The birds roost in groups on rocks, cliffs and electricity pylons.
The Egyptian vultures from the Balkan Peninsula winter across the entirety of the Sahel zone in Africa – from Niger and Nigeria to Ethiopia. Young Egyptians usually spend the first years of their lives in Africa, where they wander around looking for food. They return to their ‘native’ lands at 2–3 years of age. Due to this behaviour and the long migration Egyptian vultures actually spend half of their life away from their breeding grounds.
Fight against poisons
The use of poisons and poisoned baits is still one of the major threats for Egyptian vultures and other birds of prey on the Balkans. As a result of the use of poisons in Bulgaria in the period 1960–1980, the populations of birds of prey were almost completely destroyed. Most often people turn to the illegal use of poisons to solve human-predator or human-human conflicts, following material losses. Unfortunately, due to their scavenger nature, vultures fall as collateral victims to this vile practice. Therefore in many European states, including in several states on the Balkan Peninsula, strategies to fight the use of poisons have been developed. Even though Bulgaria is one of the countries with highest biodiversity in Europe, it is still an exception in this respect: such an operational strategic instrument does not exist here yet. This prompted the BSPB to initiate the process of planning a strategy on the national level.
Our work for the conservation of the Egyptian vulture in Bulgaria and in Greece revealed the need of implementing measures for its conservation all along its migration route, including the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa. Today a great effort is invested in the conservation of the Eastern European population of the Egyptian vulture through the implementation of urgent conservation measures to eliminate the most serious established threats to the species in its breeding territories, along its migration routes, and in its wintering grounds too. The measures for the conservation of the Egyptian vulture conform with the most recent strategic document: the Flyway Action Plan for the Conservation of the Balkan and the Central Asian Populations of the Egyptian Vulture (EVFAP), a key component of the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP).
Strengthening the Balkan population of the Egyptian vulture
The negative population trend of the Egyptian vulture, together with the unabated threats to the species, such as the use of poisoned baits, illegal killing, electrocution and wind-turbine collisions, makes it harder and harder for Egyptian vultures to survive. Therefore, we aim to strengthen the Balkan population of the Egyptian vulture via alternative methods: raising birds in captivity and releasing them in the wild in the hope that they will form pairs and will start to breed successfully. This restocking programme is implemented in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains, and three different methodologies are tested: hacking, fostering and delayed release. The programme is realized in partnership with the Green Balkans NGO and several European zoos.
Safe electricity pylons and poles
The fight against this threat on the Balkans and along the migration route of Egyptian vultures in its entirety has several important aspects. The most popular is the installation of insulation on potentially dangerous electricity pylons with the purpose of protecting the birds from electrocution upon perching or taking off from the pylon. So far, more than 65 000 dangerous pylons have been identified on the Balkans, in the Middle East and in Africa, and steps are taken both for a prioritized insulation of the most dangerous among them, as well as for a change in the planning policies so that newly installed pylons are of designs that are safe for the birds.
For 12 years more than 70 people from Bulgaria and abroad have taken part in the guarding of Egyptian vulture nests, including volunteers from Canada, Romania, Lithuania, Germany, England, Belgium, France and USA. The mission of the guards is to monitor the young in the beginning of August when they leave the nest. In this period young Egyptian vultures are still inexperienced and there is a high risk of accidents. Therefore our volunteers monitor the nests every day and they are ready to respond, should a young bird fail in its first attempts at flying. So far 5 young have been saved and more than 100 birds have successfully left their nest thanks to the indispensable help of our volunteers.
Illegal killing and trafficking
The motives for such crimes are collectors’ demands, taxidermy and export, as well as the use of parts of the vulture’s body in traditional medicine, and as charms against witches and evil spirits; this latter practice is spread in some countries in Africa and is one of the main causes for the decline in the population of the species there.
The education of children and young people on the Balkans, as well as along the migration route of the Egyptian vulture, is one of the priorities in our work. We believe that if we introduce the species, its ecological function and the ecosystem services that it participates in to the younger generation we will help forming the basis of the sustainable conservation of the Egyptian vulture in the future! Besides planning educational programmes for school students on all three continents, our team works devotedly for providing a comfortable learning environment for children in the African countries where this has not been fully achieved yet. By supplying electricity, drinkable water and internet access we give the teachers the opportunity to provide a modern, adequate education process, and we give the children a chance to broaden their horizons and to realize their potential.
Besides our work with children we take an active part in the building of expert capacity in other non-governmental organizations, national park teams and institutions.
Parallel with the conservation and education activities that we realize, we work hard to improve the legislation in those aspects that could have a negative impact on the status of the Egyptian vulture. In that respect we monitor the legislation processes concerning the use of poisons and poisonous baits, the import, storage and regulation of plant protection products, the use of veterinary medical products and many more, in order to improve them and to suggest measures for reducing the negative impact of such products and processes on the Egyptian vulture on the Balkans, as well as along its migration route.