Griffon Vulture in Corsica falls victim to severe lead poisoning

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X-ray showing two bullets and an ingested unknown metallic item (c) Cerba Vet
X-ray showing two bullets and an ingested unknown metallic item (c) Cerba Vet

A reintroduced Griffon Vulture in Corsica with a fascinating history has fallen victim to an often overlooked threat – lead poisoning. The vulture is alive but has not recovered yet.

Lead poisoning incident 

Experts identified the Griffon Vulture by his ring in April 2019, but the bird appeared to be very tired, so a team of experts safely captured and examined it. The team took the vulture to a centre that specialises in rescuing birds of prey where it was tested, revealing the bad news. The radiography showed old bullets and an ingested unknown metallic piece. The experts determined that the vulture was suffering from acute lead poisoning, due to the metallic item found in its gizzard. A veterinarian will now operate it to remove the metallic item and help nurse it back to health. We will track the Griffon Vulture’s progress and hopefully update this post with positive news about the state of the bird.

The Griffon Vulture’s story

The Griffon Vulture was born in captivity in an aviary in Northeast Italy as part of a reintroduction programme lead by The Regional Nature Reserve of Cornino Lake. The vulture was tagged with a GPS transmitter and was then released at the reserve in 2015. The bird began travelling immediately, moving from Cornino to Bergamo just a few days after it was released. There it lost the GPS tag, but some of its movements were still tracked in the future by its ring. The next observation was in Corsica, two months after the initial release, where it seemed to be tired, so it captured and examined. After a few days, the bird was healthy again and was released at Col de Bigornu (Lentu) where it flew very well. In the next few years, the bird survived long periods in unknown locations, probably alone. In 2016, the Griffon Vulture was spotted in Lozzi at the feeding site of two released Bearded Vultures. Cimatella and Muntagnolu are still alive and were the first Bearded Vultures we released in Corsica as part of a reinforcement project we are involved in. The Griffon Vulture was also observed in Corsica and Raven Roots alongside two Bearded Vultures that were released in 2017. The bird was next seen this April where it appeared weak, as it was suffering from lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning is an overlooked threat to Vultures

(c) Bruno Berthemy

Lead exposure, primarily through ingestion of lead ammunition, poses a severe threat to vultures, according to research. Just like in the case of this Griffon Vulture, ammunition used by game hunters can severely poison vultures and is a threat that is often overlooked. Often, hunters who kill animals leave their carcasses behind and vultures feeding on them ingest lead fragments from the bullets, causing health problems. These problems can vary, from inhibiting proper metabolic functions to having adverse effects on the nervous system. Acute poisoning, just like in this case, can result in weakness, inhibited movement, paralysis, hindered respiration, behavioural abnormalities, weight loss, immune system disruptions and bone mineralisation. In severe cases, it might also lead to death. However, the research is still relatively recent, and the article calls for further exploration:

“There is an urgent need to evaluate the effect of this contaminant on vulture demography, since some species may be undergoing important reductions on their populations due to this threat. A silent threat such as lead may produce long-term population decreases that are difficult to detect or reverse and thus, merits special attention.”

We here at the Vulture Conservation Foundation are committed to protecting vultures from lead poisoning. We are working with other conservation organisations, hunters and governments towards passing laws and regulations to minimise this threat.

You can support our vulture conservation efforts by donating.

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