The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is one of the most endangered vulture species on earth – in fact it is considered globally Endangered by the IUCN because of a very fast decline in most part of its vast range. Turkey still has a significant breeding population, even though very little is known about the species in the country.
To find out more about its habits and conservation requirements, University of Utah biology professor Dr. Cagan Sekercioglu and his team at KuzeyDoğa (Northern Nature, a regional nature conservation organisation doing work in NE Turkey) have been studying Egyptian vultures since 2009 when they set up Turkey’s first vulture restaurant in Iğdır.
In August 2012, Dr. Șekercioğlu and colleagues managed to catch three Egyptian vultures in eastern Turkey, next to the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and tag them with satellite devices provided by the Ministry of Forestry and Water affairs in Turkey – this was the first time the species had been tagged in Turkey. Dr. Șekercioğlu has been ever since following the movements of these birds – one of them turned out to be a great traveller, flying 20,000 km in 7.5 months and surviving the perilous round trip migration this species makes every year to their wintering grounds in Africa.
Iğdır, an adult male, arrived back to its breeding territory in Eastern Turkey in April 2013, after having wintered in Ethiopia – it was tracked through 13 countries. This bird covered the distance between eastern Turkey and the wintering grounds in only 10 days in late September 2012. Interestingly, he followed almost the same migration route on both migrations, often flying at very high altitudes (maximum 7970 m). Iğdır bred successfully in 2013, and returned to Africa, where it is now wintering in the same area of Ethiopia again.
The other two vultures tagged in 2012 were not so lucky – one of them died on its migration to Africa, 2000 km south of where it had been tagged, near Najaf, in Iraq, while the third did reach Yemen and then Ethiopia, where its signal was lost in March 2013. You can see a video of the release of these three vultures in 2012 here.
Last summer Dr. Șekercioğlu´s team, led by his Ph.D. student Evan Buechley, tagged three more Egyptian vultures with satellite telemetry devices in Eastern Turkey. These three adult birds, named Agri, Tuzluca, and Ardahan, followed similar migration paths to those of the previous year, flying southward over the Arabian Peninsula and crossing into Africa via the Straight of Bab-el-Mandeb. It is becoming apparent that the Straight of Bab-el-Mandeb is a considerable bottleneck for Egyptian vulture migration, while the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia) are important wintering grounds for Egyptian vultures breeding in Eastern Turkey.
These birds continue to transmit fascinating information about their movements and habitat use in their wintering territories. If all goes well they will begin return migrations soon- in mid-March, according to last years timeline- and will again be spotted soaring over Turkey after completing their amazing intercontinental journeys.
In parallel to studying Egyptian Vultures, KuzeyDoğa is also maintaining a vulture feeding area in Eastern Turkey to try to provide safe, poison-free food for this and other vulture species, and are currently fighting a dam proposal that would flood some important Egyptian vulture habitat. You can see more about their work here.