By Stoyan Nikolov,
Vultures may not be the prettiest of birds: They are often reviled for their looks, and are prone to illegal killing and poisoning, but it’s hard to argue against their usefulness.
The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), for example, feeds primarily on carcasses of dead animals. It is nature’s waste disposal service and plays a vital role in preventing the spread of diseases. This species of vulture is the smallest and the only migratory European vulture, listed as globally “Endangered” in 2007 due to a drop in population in most of its range.
In Europe, the species has declined by over 50% in the last 50 years, and in the Balkans, over 80% have been lost in the last 30 years.
Why is this happening
Most Egyptian Vulture populations are migratory. The eastern population of the species (breeding across the Balkans, Anatolia, Central Asia and the Middle East) travels thousands of kilometres to winter in Sahel Africa (a huge stretch of land that runs west to east across the continent, through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria and Sudan, among other countries) and Arabia.
In general, large-scale threats include: habitat degradation and food shortage through changes in land use; pastoral systems; collisions with windfarms; use of agricultural chemicals; veterinary and sanitary practices; and the control of feral dogs (in the fight against rabies in Africa). These affect vultures not only on their breeding grounds, but also along their migration routes and in wintering areas.
However, the most common cause seems to be accidental poisoning: vultures eat poisoned bait meant for predators like foxes and wolves, or consume dead poisoned predators and dead livestock treated with medicines that are harmful to them.
Electrocution is another major threat, especially in the wintering grounds in semi-desert areas, where there is a lack of places to roost, leading vultures to perch on electricity poles. A 30 kilometre-long line between Port Sudan and Red Sea coast – called the ‘killer power line’ is estimated to have electrocuted hundreds and perhaps thousands of Egyptian vultures since its construction in the 1950s.
The Port Sudan power line was considered the single most major known threat before being decommissioned last year. It was replaced by a new fully insulated and bird-safe line, thanks to the joint efforts of the UNDP/GEF Migratory Soaring Birds project, the Sudanese Wildlife Society, the BSPB (BirdLife Bulgaria), and the support of the Sudanese Government and electricity distribution and transmission companies.
A recent telemetry study in the Balkans also showed that about half of the juveniles (young vultures) die during their first migration, mainly because of sub-optimal navigation (some birds try to cross the Mediterranean sea), and in lesser extent because of direct persecution in Africa (due to their use in traditional medicine).
What is being done
The partners of the LIFE+ project to protect Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria and Greece, The Return of the Neophron – the BSPB (BirdLife’s Bulgarian partner), HOS (BirdLife’s Greek partner), WWF Greece and RSPB (BirdLife’s UK partner), in cooperation with The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) Raptors MoU (which promotes internationally coordinated actions to reverse population declines of migratory birds of prey throughout the African-Eurasian region) held a workshop this July in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Seventy conservationists, researchers and representatives from 33 countries attended to help develop an International Egyptian Vulture Flyway Action Plan. The plan will guide trans-continental cooperation and the implementation of conservation measures to ensure the survival of the Egyptian Vulture in the Balkans, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa, which shelter about 40% of the global population. In fact, in some countries like Oman and Yemen, the population is stable and even increasing.
BirdLife is also working with its partners to tackle the threats faced by African vultures, including the Egyptian. Watch this space to learn more about our African Vulture Campaign, come October.