In the last few days of 2013, a 7 year old male called Tono was observed mating with a female deep inside the Sierra de Cazorla (see photo below)– this was the first ever such observation in the wild since the species went extinct there in the 80s. It is now hoped that the species may restart to breed in Andalucia soon.
The bearded vulture reintroduction project in Andalusia (Sierras de Cazorla, Segura, Castril and Las Villas), led by the Junta de Andalucia, in collaboration with the VCF, started in 1996, and but releases of birds have only been happening since 2006 – so far a total of 28 birds have been released there, including 5 last summer. The oldest individuals flying are thus now 7 years old, and starting to come into breeding age – normally this species starts to reproduce in the wild at 8 or 9 years old.
The bearded vulture was widespread in the mountains of southern Spain until the 40s, but intense human persecution and widespread poisoning cause it to disappear from southern Iberia. The last confirmed breeding took place in Cazorla in 1983, and in 1986 the last adult also disappeared.
The first movements for a reintroduction happened as far back as 1991, when the Junta de Andalusia led a feasibility study for a reintroduction project. In 1996 an agreement was then signed between the Junta and the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture (the precursor of the VCF) to establish a specialized captive breeding centre in Guadalentin (Sierra de Cazorla), with birds provided by the FCBV (see photo below).
This center has been working ever since within the bearded vulture European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), managed by the VCF, and currently houses 21 birds, and six breeding pairs.
Releases in Andalusia started in 2006, after the Junta, and Fundacion Gypaetus, established locally to manage the project, started an ambitious conservation programme, mainly focussed on minimizing the endemic tradition of poisoning the sierras to control predators. The number of poisoning incidents in Andalusia as a whole, and the Sierras de Cazorla/Segura/Castril in particular, decreased spectacularly, so releases could start. Unfortunately in 2011 two bearded vultures were found poisoned, so releases were temporarily halted that year to reinforce the antipoisoning work – there has been no mortality since 2012.
All released birds so far have been marked with GPS transmitters. Nine of the 28 have been found dead (poisoned, with lead intoxication or because of unknown cases), but 14 are known to be alive and well. Most have dispersed at some point, travelling far and wide across the peninsula, visiting the far away Pyrenees, Picos de Europa and locally Sierra Nevada, but then flew back to the release area and are well established there.
Tono, the male, is a regular at Cazorla. He has done several trips to the Pyrenees, and once spent a whole summer there, but is now seen flying often above the captive breeding center in Guadalentin. The female observed mating with him is probably Malena, a 4 year old born in Tierpark Berlin in 2009, and released the same year in Cazorla.
The project team is now anxiously waiting for first breeding – a milestone in such a reintroduction project. In the Alps, first breeding happened in 1997, 11 years after the first releases. The VCF would like to thank all the staff of Fundacion Gypaetus, and the Junta de Andalucia, for their unwavering commitment and effort to make this project successful. We are getting closer to another dream – restore the bearded vulture in southern Iberia!