Ten years ago, on 27 October, the first Griffon Vulture releases in the Stara Planina situated in the Balkan Mountains took place! The start of these releases marked a major milestone for the recovery plan of the species in Bulgaria.
Reintroducing Griffon Vultures in areas where the species went extinct in Bulgaria
Once common and widespread until the middle of the 20th century in Bulgaria, the Griffon Vulture faced a dramatic decline in the following years. The species was thought to be extinct in the country in the 1960s, but in 1978, conservationists discovered 28 birds and one breeding pair in the Rhodope Mountains. Significant conservation efforts by the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds since 1989 led to the slow increase of this population that now numbers around 80 breeding pairs. Despite the increase in numbers, the species only nested in the valley of the Arda River in the Eastern Rhodopes and failed to settle in the north of the country.
A vision to see these birds fly again in areas where they disappeared initiated an ambitious reintroduction project, with targeted releases of imported Griffon Vultures coming from the healthy and growing populations of the species in Spain and France. Local organizations were responsible for the reintroduction efforts of specific regions where the species used to nest. The Birds of Prey Protection Society (BPPS) was responsible for Vrachanski Balkan, Green Balkans for Eastern Stara Planina – “Sinite kamani” Nature Park, the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna /FWFF/ for Kotel, and BPPS and Green Balkans worked together for Central Balkan. The administrations of the respective park directorates supported all activities – “Vrachanski Balkan” Nature Park, “Sinite kamani” Nature Park and “Central Balkan” National Park.
2010 marked the first Griffon Vulture releases
Before the first releases, 56 Griffon Vultures secured by the Vulture Conservation Foundation and donated by the Regional Spanish government of Extremadura, Zoo Zlin, the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna, as well as two birds from the Green Balkans that lived in the four aviaries of Vrachanski Balkan, Central Balkan, Sliven and Kotel for a few months to acclimatize. Then, on 27 October 2010, the doors of the four aviaries were simultaneously opened, and 26 of the birds were freed into the wild for the first release.
Since then total of about 260 Griffon Vultures have been released, most of them provided by the VCF in collaboration with several Spanish regional governments such as Andalusia, Extremadura, Castilla y la Mancha, Castilla y Leon, Basque Country, Balearic Islands, but also coming from France. A significant contribution of birds comes from the captive breeding programme for the Griffon Vultures ESB in collaboration with EAZA.
Reintroduced Griffon Vulture population today
Several challenges and disappointments followed suit after the releases, but birds gradually began to adapt to the wild and year after year, their numbers were increasing. In the selected areas, vultures managed to adapt successfully, behave more naturally and even managed to attract birds from other Balkan populations.
In 2012, the first pair laid an egg in Eastern Stara Planina, signifying an important success for the reintroduction programme! Unfortunately, a few more years would pass before the successful hatching of a baby chick. In 2015, this happened for the first time in Vrachanski Balkan followed by Eastern Stara Planina in 2016.
Ten years after the beginning of the Griffon Vulture releases, the species is now recovered in the region with 15 to 18 pairs nesting in Vrachanski Balkan, 18 to 23 pairs in Eastern Stara Planina, and local colonies numbering up to 50 to 70 and 80 to 100 birds respectively.
Over the years, the reintroduction programme often faced many problems, primarily due to several threats such as the loss of birds killed by electrocution due to landing on unsafe electric pylons and the mass poisoning in the Vrachanski Balkan colony in September 2019. As a result of all these challenges and other obstacles, the Griffon Vulture population of reintroduced birds in Vrachanski Balkan lost a lot of bird, otherwise the colony would have probably reached 20-25 nesting pairs.
The successful recovery of the Griffon Vulture in Stara Planina is one of the greatest nature conservation achievements in Bulgaria, building the foundation for the reintroduction of the Cinereous Vulture with the Vultures Back to LIFE Project, as well as the plan to return the Bearded Vulture in the coming years — the symbol of Bulgarian nature conservation!
To celebrate this success, Sofia University will hold an International Scientific Conference on Restoration of Conservation-Reliant Species and Habitats on 7 November.
It is important to emphasize that behind the successful recovery of the species lays a network of many supporters, primarily experts, organizations and donors from Bulgaria and Europe. A big thank you goes out to everyone who contributed towards this brilliant nature conservation success in Bulgaria!
Vultures back to LIFE
Led by the wildlife conservation charity Green Balkans, with activities also implemented by the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna, and bringing together partners from Bulgaria, Spain and Germany, Vultures Back to LIFE aims to reintroduce the cinereous or Eurasian black vulture to Bulgaria. The team will transfer and release around 60 birds, some from captive-breeding, but mostly coming from wildlife rehabilitation centers in Extremadura (Spain) into the wild in Bulgaria as well as creating supplementary feeding stations and improving populations of wild herbivores, improving the nesting conditions and creating artificial nest sites and tackling some of the major threats to vultures in the country such as insulating electricity pylons and illegal use of poison in the nature.