One would think that direct persecution and the shooting of vultures was a thing of the past, particularly in Western Europe. Not so. Last Sunday an adult male bearded vulture was found shot and heavily wounded near a railways line between Bayonne and Saint-Jean Pied de Port, in the westernmost extremity of the Pyrenees, in the French Basque country.
The bird was taken immediately into rehabilitation (Hegalaldia wildlife center), in a very poor state – it was extremely weak, could not stand on its own feet, was very emaciated (3,6 kg rather than the normal 5 kg). It had 6 lead pellets, in the wings, tail and in the upper body. Two days later, in spite of all the efforts by a team of veterinaries, the bird died.
The bird was well known to Pyrenean bearded vulture researchers, as it was ringed. It had been marked in 2000 in Aragon (Spain) by the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ), and named Benigno. In 2008 Benigno finally established a territory in Navarra (on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees), but had not yet started to breed. There are only 8 established territories in Navarra, four of which are breeding. In the whole Pyrenees, the biggest population of this species in Europe, there are 165 established territories, of which 106 attempted to breed in 2013.
Bearded vultures are unique, very large (2,8 m of wingspan) and easily recognized, so it is highly likely that whoever shot this bird knew what he/she was doing. Shooting a bearded vulture is a crime under French law, and has potential penalty of a 15,000€ fine and one year in prison.
Bearded vultures have been slowly increasing in the Pyrenees, and have been reintroduced into the Alps (in an ongoing project led by the VCF – 30 pairs in 2013), in one of the most celebrated wildlife comeback in Europe. The VCF aim is to reconnect these two populations, and thus we are collaborating in a reintroduction project in the Cevénnes-French Massif central, with the objective to try to promote movements and genetic flow between the Pyrenean and the Alpine populations.
Adult mortality is one of the main drivers of species decline. Millions of Euros have been spent by NGOs and government to protect and improve the species in those two European mountain chains. It would be a pity to jeopardize this with an increase in persecution. Let´s hope this event will continue to be an isolated and aberrant action.
(The VCF would like to thank staff from Hegalaldia and LPO Pyrénées Vivantes for all their efforts to try to recue this bird)