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Griffon Vultures soaring high above Cres Island 

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Eight young Griffon Vultures rehabilitated by the Beli Vulture Rescue Centre, on Cres Island in Croatia regained their freedom at the end of May. Rescued from injuries, illnesses, or dangerous situations, their release emphasizes the vital collaboration between conservation projects and wildlife rehabilitation centres. Three of these vultures will be monitored via GPS transmitters as part of the LIFE SUPport project to gather essential data for the species conservation. 

Griffon Vulture flying after being released on Cres Island, Croatia - LIFE SUPPort © BIOM
Griffon Vulture release on Cres Island, Croatia – LIFE SUPPort © BIOM

Rehabilitation successes  

The life of a young Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) is full of challenges. Besides being susceptible to sickness and accidents due to inexperience, they face threats like poisoning and collision with electrical infrastructures. Fortunately, there are people whose mission is to take care of sick, orphaned, or injured animals. This is the case of the Beli Vulture Rescue Centre located on Cres Island which has a pivotal role in caring for these birds. The centre rescued, rehabilitated, and reintroduced in their natural habitat a total of 73 Griffon Vultures since 2016. 

Work on the preservation of a strictly protected and charismatic species, such as the [Griffon] Vulture, is a very challenging, complex, and long-term process in which numerous stakeholders and partners are involved throughout the year and at all levels, from the Primorje-Gorski Kotar County, the competent ministry, the Zagreb ZOO, the scientific and local communities, and numerous others.

Marko Modrić , director of the Public Institution “Priroda”, which manages the Visitor Centre and the Vulture Rescue Centre. 

Keeping an eye on released vultures 

Some of the Griffon Vultures rehabilitated and released since 2016, have been equipped with colourful plastic leg-rings and satellite transmitters. Young Griffon Vultures are known to wander extensively; therefore, these tools are crucial to tracking their movements and conditions. The plastic rings are easy to spot in the field observations with binoculars or photographs even when they are flying. We can recognize individuals thanks to these rings because each have codes that are uniquely assigned to each Griffon Vulture. Satellite transmitters, on the other hand, contribute to collecting data on the species’ behaviour and use of space. The data will be then used for improving local and international conservation strategies. Moreover, satellite transmitters, and the data they provide, ensure that scientists can follow the birds’ journey and check that they are alive and healthy. Most bird species, including Griffon Vultures, show unusual flight behaviour when they are sick or injured. If an unusual behaviour occurs, the monitoring team can alert the on-site colleagues and they can assist the bird if necessary. 

Of the eight young Griffon Vultures released on 27 May, three have been equipped with satellite transmitters. The initiative is part of the LIFE SUPport project, led by BIOM association. The project intends to use the data from the satellite transmitters to study the distribution and behaviour of the birds and identify hot spots like feeding and resting areas, electrocution, and poisoning cases.  

LIFE SUPport and Beli Vulture Rescue Centre teams with Griffon Vultures ready to be released on Cres Island - May 2024 - LIFE SUPPort © BIOM
The Team during the Griffon Vultures Release on Cres Island, Croatia, May 2024 – LIFE SUPPort © BIOM

Supporting Griffon Vultures in Croatia 

Griffon Vultures are the largest bird species and the only scavenger bird of prey left in Croatia. In the past, two more species of vultures inhabited the country: the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) and the Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), but both went extinct during the 20th century. Scavengers are a vital part of every ecosystem and their main food source in Croatia was sheep carcasses often coming from traditional sheep farming, which declined significantly over the last decades. 

The LIFE SUPport project, which started in 2023, aims to preserve and improve the current state of the Griffon Vulture population in Croatia. It focuses on the preservation of the only Croatian breeding population left, which lives on the Kvarner islands (Cres, Krk, Plavnik, and Prvić), and creating the conditions for the Griffon Vulture to re-occupy its historical breeding grounds on the mainland.  

Kvarner Islands breeding sites

The unique feature of the Kvarner Islands breeding sites is their position: on these islands Griffon Vultures nest on cliffs by the sea. This unusual characteristic poses an equally unfamiliar challenge: take care of fledgling vultures that fall into the water, and drown, because of human disturbance or after failing their first flight attempts. For this reason, the Beli Vulture Rescue Centre is such an important partner to the project. The collaboration of local boat owners and fishermen is equally important. To reduce of the disturbance at nesting sites, the project is focusing on informing locals and tourists about the desirable behaviours around Griffon Vultures colonies, especially during nesting season. 

Protecting Griffon Vultures from major threats

Human disturbance at nesting site is not the only cause of the past decline of this species. The main threats to its survival are the lack of food sources, unintentional poisoning, and electrocution. Today, the lack of food is compensated with supplementary feeding stations. The project is working on expanding food sources for the vultures creating new feeding stations. At the same time, it aims to preserve the traditional sheep farming with the cooperation of local shepherds and hunters.  

To tackle vulture poisoning there are two different strategies: promoting the use of lead-free ammunition and increasing the capacity of competent institutions to act against wildlife poisoning. Poisoned carcasses are often not intended to harm vultures. Their targets are larger predators that sometimes attack livestock. Electric fences, guard dogs and other preventive measures have been proven to be effective in reducing predation and could also be useful tools to downscale conflict between wildlife and farmers, including poisoning.  

Lastly, to reduce collision with electrical infrastructures and electrocution, the project is again working on different fronts: the implementation of protective measures at key locations; the collaboration with trained volunteers who inspect poles and search for electrocuted vultures; and the education of energy companies’ employees.  

Griffon Vulture flying after its release on Cres Island - LIFE SUPPort © BIOM
Griffon Vulture release on Cres Island, Croatia, May 2024 – LIFE SUPPort © BIOM

Time for hope and gratitude  

In celebrating the return in nature of these eight Griffon Vultures, and the others before them, we celebrate the amazing work of all the people involved in the LIFE SUPport project. We are grateful for the efforts and dedication they daily put into taking care of this species and its environment. Partners and volunteers monitor Griffon Vultures nests twice a year. The last counting session in February registered 70 active nests passing from the cliffs along the coast of Cres and the island of Plavnikon. Not every nest will produce a chick at the end of the season, and unfortunately, not all chicks will survive to adulthood. Soon the second round of 2024 monitoring will be completed concluding the 2024 reproductive season survey, and the final number of nesting pairs and young vultures will be determined. The numbers will tell how the population is progressing and how much work still needs to be done to preserve the last scavenger bird of prey species in Croatia. 

Griffon vulture flying away in the sky of Cres Island, Croatia - LIFE SUPPort © BIOM
Griffon Vulture soaring above Cres Island, Croatia – LIFE SUPPort © BIOM

The LIFE SUPport project

LIFE SUPport project logo

The LIFE SUPport is a 2.1 million project, co-financed by the EU’s LIFE Programme, running from January 2023 until December 2027. It aims to create better conditions for the threatened Griffon Vulture to thrive and recolonise its historical breeding ground in Croatia. The project aims to improve breeding and survival conditions, minimise nest disturbance, reduce nestling mortality, tackle the threat of poison, mitigate collision and electrocution risks, and increase food availability. 

It is a joint effort led by BIOM with Public Institution PrirodaOtok Krk Agricultural CooperativeHEP – Operator distribucijskog sustava d.o.o., the energy distribution company, the Vulture Conservation Foundation and the Croatian Nature Protection Directorate (Ministry of Economy) as associate partners.  

LIFE SUPport project partners funders logo

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