New milestone for Bearded Vulture conservation in Europe

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The 2022/2023 season marked an unprecedented milestone within the Bearded Vulture Captive-Breeding Network (Bearded Vulture EEP), with 35 offspring successfully hatched in captivity – the highest number of hatchlings ever recorded – and 21 nestlings released in the wild.

In addition, an incident with a wild-fledged Pyrenean juvenile who fell in a river pool had a happy ending. The Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) was rescued, checked and transferred to Andalusia, where it spent some weeks in the same acclimatisation aviary where captive-bred birds had previously stayed. It was the last bird fledging this season, elevating the count of released birds to 22.

Bearded Vulture released in Melchsee-Frutt, 2023 © Massimo Prati

New milestone for Bearded Vulture conservation in Europe

Breeding Bearded Vultures in captivity and releasing them in the wild to bolster endangered populations requires the dedication of numerous professionals and organisations within the Bearded Vulture EEP. Our partners contribute significantly to this endeavour – by housing birds, nurturing foster parents, overseeing their care throughout the rearing process, assisting with expenses related to transportation, releasing the hatchlings, and monitoring them as they venture into the wild.

35 Bearded Vultures produced, 21 released in conservation projects across Europe, is the result of a detailed, continuous and well-planned programme that includes a myriad of aspects – from husbandry and behavioural observations to transportation of eggs and chicks across Europe, advice and exchange of information, etc.

What makes me especially motivated when going through the nitty-gritty details of operating this programme is that, in the end, it contributes significantly to what matters – the restoration of this iconic species across Europe!

José Tavares, Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF) Director

Captive-bred Bearded Vultures were released in five areas this season

The first captive-bred birds were released in the Alps in 1986, a pioneering project to bring the species back from extinction. Once a frequent sight across the entire Alpine range (and many other European regions), several colonies were extirpated in the early 20s due to direct human persecution, illegal wildlife poisoning, and habitat and prey availability changes. Since then, the reintroduction project has expanded to other Alpine regions to increase genetic diversity within the established wild colonies.

Over the last decades, the successful methodology has also been replicated in other European regions! This year, Bearded Vultures were released in five locations with ongoing reintroduction projects: Andalusia and Maestrazgo in Spain, Grands Causses in France, Berchtesgaden in Germany and Melchsee-Frutt in Switzerland.

Two Bearded Vultures were released in Berchtesgaden National Park, Germany, to establish a viable breeding population. The same objective applies to the Bearded Vultures released in Maestrazgo, with two juveniles released in Tinença de Benifassà. In Melchsee-Frutt, Switzerland and in France, the releases serve another purpose: increase the genetic diversity of the alpine population. Two males were released in the heart of Switzerland, whilst six were liberated in three sites across Southern France (Aveyron, Baronnies and Vercors). The reintroductions in France are organised within the LIFE GypAct project, which aims to bridge the Alpine and Pyrenean Bearded Vulture populations. In Andalusia, two release sites (Sierra de Cazorla y las Villas Nature Park and Castril Nature Park) welcomed seven birds, although only six were captive-bred. The aim is to strengthen the recently established Bearded Vulture population.

After all, 22 Bearded Vultures were released, how come?

At the end of June 2023, a juvenile wild-hatched Bearded Vulture was rescued from a river pool in a canyon in the Pyrenees. The nestling fledged from a wild Pyrenean nest but could not gain altitude due to the lack of thermals, eventually falling into the water. Luckily, a couple that was canyoning saved the Bearded Vulture, which was transferred to our Specialised Breeding Centre Vallcalent.

The juvenile Bearded Vulture wild-hacthed in the Pyrenees at Vallcalent, after being rescued from a river pool © VCF

After a full health check by our team at Vallcalent, with no significant health problems found (apart from a lump on his forehead), the Regional Government of Catalonia donated the bird to be released in one of the ongoing reintroduction projects. Genetic criteria were the basis of the decision to release the bird in Andalusia. Its release followed the same methodology: the juvenile Bearded Vulture was transferred to an acclimatisation aviary in Andalusia. After three weeks, the aviary door was open on 27 July: it was free to venture into the wild again! This bird became the last fledging within the five reintroduction projects.

A year of record-breaking results

A record was also achieved at the Richard Faust Specialised Breeding Centre (Austria) in the number of chicks ever produced in the centre in a season. Nine pairs (+1 foster pair) produced 11 fledglings, with the most productive (and old) breeding pair in the EEP producing two offspring at the age of 39 (female) and 45 (male). Unfortunately, after successfully rearing their chicks, the female, Hanneke, passed away —a sad loss for the network.

“It has truly been a very successful breeding year, as we have surpassed the 30-chick mark substantially. 47 pairs laid 80 eggs, from which 37 hatched and 35 survived.”

Àlex Llopis, Bearded Vulture EEP coordinator and VCF’s captive-breeding specialist

Hatching hope for Bearded Vulture populations in Europe

The Bearded Vulture EEP, coordinated by us at the VCF on behalf of EAZA’s Ex Situ Conservation Programme, comprises a network of 45 institutions, including Zoos, specialised breeding centres, wild fauna rehabilitation centres and private collections. There are 184 Bearded Vultures in captivity within the EEP, most owned by the VCF.

Each season, the challenge of pairing newcomers to the network or re-pairing birds whose previous partnerships were unsuccessful or whose partners have passed away falls upon the Bearded Vulture EEP coordinator, Àlex Llópis. This intricate task requires careful consideration and expertise to ensure successful breeding and conservation efforts within the program.

Bringing the species back to a new European region

Soon, a new reintroduction site will also require juvenile Bearded Vultures… The central Balkan mountains in Bulgaria! With the freshly started project “Life for the Bearded Vulture”, we aim to bring the species back from extinction in the Balkans,

“We are truly restoring this species across Europe, from western Iberia to the Balkans, across all major mountain ranges!”

José Tavares, VCF Director

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