On 10 August, a Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) was released in Portugal after being rehabilitated from a shot on its wing. Gerês, named after the place where he was found (Gerês National Park), is the second Cinereous Vulture released in the Douro International Nature Park within the LIFE Aegypius Return project.
A fractured wing and multiple lead shots
On October 2022, Cinereous Vulture Gerês was found by the Instituto de Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas‘ (ICNF) team from the Wildlife Recovery Centre of Gerês (CRFS) with a wing fracture after being shot. The bird was transferred to the Wild Animal Recovery Centre of the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (CRAS-HVUTAD), where it underwent orthopaedic surgery and supportive treatment. X-ray examination showed the presence of several pellets in the wounded wing, thus confirming the cause of his ingress.
The vulture responded positively to the treatment, and the fracture healed in the expected time. However, “as Gerês lost some of its secondary feathers, which are essential for efficient flight, he had a prolonged stay in the recovery centre, waiting for new healthy feathers to grow in”, explained Filipa Loureiro, a veterinarian at CRAS-UTAD. The months of recovery also included physiotherapy and motor rehabilitation.
From rehabilitation to release: Cinereous Vulture Gerês flies again
Recovering from fractured wings is a long process that requires the bird to master the art of flying again. Gerês was transferred to Environmental Interpretation and Animal Recovery Centre (CIARA) in Torre de Moncorvo, which has a large flight tunnel, to practice his flying skills and recover physical shape.
Once Gerês showed signs of being fully recovered, he was fitted with a GPS transmitter to enable the monitoring team to follow his movements once he is back in the wild. Finally, on 10 August, several bird lovers, LIFE Aegypius Return project partners and all entities involved in rescuing and rehabilitating Gerês gathered at Miradouro do Carrascalinho (Freixo de Espada à Cinta) to witness his release—a fantastic viewpoint located at the heart of the Douro International Nature Park. Gerês became the second Cinereous Vulture released on this site under the project LIFE Aegypius Return, following the steps of Zimbro, a Cinereous Vulture released in March 2023.
Why are we releasing Cinereous Vultures in Douro International Nature Park?
Among the four Cinereous Vulture Portuguese colonies, the Douro holds the most fragile, with only two breeding pairs. Considered “Critically Endangered” in Portugal, the species was driven to extinction (and severely threatened in many European regions) in the 1970s. Thanks to the populational increase in Spain, Cinereous Vultures have been recolonising Portugal from the East, with the first pair settled in 2010 in Tejo International Nature Park. Two years later, a pair was formed in the Douro International Nature Park and the second in 2019.
Despite the positive results of this breeding season, with Palombar (the project partner responsible for monitoring the northeastern colony) confirming a third pair attempting to breed in the region, the small population is still vulnerable and very isolated. In the framework of the project LIFE Aegypius Return, an acclimatisation aviary will be built in the area this autumn to receive rehabilitated birds and enable a soft release strategy. This strategy, which has proven very successful in other conservation projects and the most effective in reintroducing Griffon Vultures in Sardinia, involves an extended stay in the aviary before release. Highly philopatric, the Cinereous Vultures will get used to their new environment and assume it as the place to return for breeding.
“This endangered bird was saved and given a second opportunity to return to the wild in a protected area with favourable conditions for the species. All these thanks to the joint work carried out by all the entities involved in its recovery,”Iván Gutiérrez, biologist at Palombar
Fighting wildlife crime
Unfortunately, thousands of birds throughout Europe continue to be shot to death or severely injured in recovery centres. Many never recover. Large avian species, such as the Cinereous Vulture, are frequent victims, even though they hold no hunting value, and their hunting is strictly prohibited due to their conservation status. There are some cases of criminal prosecutions for wildlife crime; in France, a man will stand trial this autumn for fatally shooting a Cinereous and a Bearded Vultures.
Empowering national authorities and technical teams in criminal investigation is thus fundamental to actively fighting wildlife crime. In Portugal, this year, 135 police officers were trained in rescuing and handling injured birds in a collective effort that involved five wildlife rescue centres across the species breeding range. Thanks to the Wildlife Crime Academy courses, the VCF, with the collaboration of many partner organisations, has increased the capacity of dozens of technicians and national authorities across several EU countries.
The importance of working with hunters
Recognising the importance of collaborating with the hunting sector, the LIFE Aegypius Return project, with the Project partner ANPC, Associação Nacional de Proprietários Rurais Gestão Cinegética e Biodiversidade, has been organising and participating in public sessions with the main aims: to showcase the significance of scavenger species in maintaining ecosystem balance and to support hunters in transitioning to lead-free ammunition.
The LIFE Aegypius Return Project
In the short term, the project aims to double the breeding population in Portugal from 40 pairs in 4 colonies to at least 80 pairs in at least five sites. Apart from all the conservation actions intended to improve nesting conditions and food availability, at least 60 Cinereous Vultures will be fitted with a GPS transmitter and released.
The LIFE Aegypius Return is a 3.7 million euro project, co-financed by the European Union’s LIFE Programme, whose success relies on the involvement of all relevant stakeholders and the extensive collaboration of the leading project partner, the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), with all local partners: Palombar – Conservação da Natureza e do Património Rural, Herdade da Contenda, Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA), Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN), Associação Transumância e Natureza (ATN), Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre (FNHY), Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) and Associação Nacional de Proprietários Rurais Gestão Cinegética e Biodiversidade (APNC).