Bearded vultures were at one point confined to the Pyrenees, Corsica and Crete – before the successful reintroduction projects in Europe, led by the VCF and many national partners, have restored the species to the Alps (and now to Andalusia!).
However, trends in the last two European autochthonous island populations are contrasting – while the Population in Crete has slowly recovered during the last decade, unfortunately the Corsican population has decreased sharply and is now verging extinction (see graphs below).
In Crete the species has been legally protected since 1979, but in the late 90s and early 2000s its situation was fragile, with only 4 breeding pairs, and often poor breeding success (between zero and 2 fledgling per year between 1996 and 2004). Thanks to the implementation of two LIFE projects by our Cretan colleagues (Natural History Museum), the threats in Crete –principally shooting and poison- could be controlled, and the population has been slowly recovering since then – this year there were a total of 7 breeding pairs, of which 5 started to breed, and 4 young fledged – the average number of fledglings registered during the last 10 years.
On the other side, although the species in Corsica is also protected (notably by the creation of the Parc Naturel Regional de Corse, which is also monitoring them), during the last 25 years the number of fledglings has been very poor (between zero to 2 fledgling per year). More worryingly, in the last 10 years the number of occupied territories decreased from 10 to 6, and in the last 4 years the number of nesting pairs from 5 to 2. This dramatic evolution is due mainly to the fact that natural food resources (in former times large numbers of small domestic ungulates) are now reduced to comparatively small flocks of Corsica mouflon Ovis orientalis musimon, insufficient to deliver enough food for a healthy Bearded Vulture population. The disappearance of the extensive highlands livestock farming has caused the loss of grasslands and consequently the natural encroachment of open spaces, reducing additionally the accessibility of the few existing food resources.
The Bearded Vulture population of Corsica is the last surviving genetic pool of a former metapopulation including Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Alps. And Cretan birds are the last ones from the Balkan metapopulation. Bearded vultures were probably never abundant on both Islands, and their survival depends on a healthy habitat with abundant food resources. Furthermore the exchange of individuals with neighboring mainland populations assured the genetic variability. With the loss of these neighbor populations, their survival depends on active conservation and management programs.
One of the goals of the Bearded Vulture Alpine reintroduction project is to establish a genetic bridge between the reintroduced and autochthonous population, and avoid the loss of their genetic variability. We are therefore working, slowly but steadily, to link Corsican, and eventually Cretan populations, to others.