Vultures Back to LIFE – conserving cinereous vultures in Bulgaria

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They were declared extinct in the country in the 1980s, but the Vultures Back to LIFE project aims to reintroduce Europe’s largest vulture back to Bulgaria. 

Cinereous vultures

Cinereous vultures in Europe

Over the 20th Century the population of the species has decreased across its distribution area in Europe as a result of poisoning, habitat destruction, reduction of food supply, and electrocution/collision with cables. In many European countries (for example in Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovakia and Romania), the species is now extinct. Today the population is split in two, in the west the population is recovering fast in Spain (2500-3000 pairs), Portugal (15 pairs, recolonised after extinction due to the proximity of the Spanish colonies) and south-west France (35 pairs, reintroduced). In the east of the species’ former range there is only a small isolated population in Dadia forest (Greece).

Cinereous vultures in the Balkans

Like elsewhere in Europe the cinereous vulture has disappeared from many of the Balkan states. Despite being a common sight in the skies of Bulgaria, it was declared extinct in the 1980s leaving just 30 breeding pairs in Dadia National Park in the eastern Rhodope Mountains in Greece. This population collapse is the result of a number of threats, with illegal wildlife poisoning the most important – this is still preventing the recovery of all vulture species in the region. 

Cinereous vulture found poisoned in Greece in January 2018
Cinereous vulture found poisoned in Greece in January 2018

Vultures Back to LIFE

Led by the Bulgarian wildlife organisation Green Balkans, the VCF participates in this historic vulture conservation project Vultures Back to LIFE, which was launched in 2016. 

With funding from the European Union’s LIFE+ programme the project will reintroduce the cinereous vulture back to Bulgaria for the first time since it was declared extinct, aiming to restore the connections between the remaining populations in Greece to the populations in western Europe. 

Bringing cinereous vultures back to Bulgaria

The most serious problem for cinereous vultures in Bulgaria today is the critically low number within the Greek population and their isolation. To achieve the aim of establishing a breeding population in Bulgaria the project will release birds from Spain  – never from the wild, but injured or weakened birds that were collected and treated in wildlife rehabilitation centres, and captive-bred young from the Cinereous Vulture Captive Breeding Network. In a historic moment for vulture conservation the first releases have taken place earlier this year with three birds from zoos across Europe taken to Bulgaria and released using a technique called hacking, which involves birds being released into an artificial nest, fed and monitored (without any human contact) until they fledge and leave the site.

Two captive-bred cinereous vultures released in July 2018 in Bulgaria
Two captive-bred cinereous vultures released in July 2018 in Bulgaria
Staff from the Vulture Conservation Foundation transporting cinereous vultures from Spain to Bulgaria
Staff from the Vulture Conservation Foundation transporting cinereous vultures from Spain to Bulgaria

Over the next six years they will be joined by other birds from the Captive Breeding Network along with over 50 birds coming from wildlife rehabilitation centers in Spain, the first of which are already in an adaptation aviary adapting to their new surroundings. 

Improving nesting conditions 

Cinereous vultures prefer to nest on top of trees, specifically in old coniferous forests of Mediterranean and European black pine, which have a large umbrella-like crowns ideal to build large nests. However, the species is very sensitive to habitat quality and disturbance. Forestry operations, construction of roads and wind farms have significantly damaged the nesting habitat and during their construction the disturbance force birds to abandon their colonies. The Vultures Back to LIFE will tackle this by planting of 2,000 saplings of pine and by creating a network of 60 artificial nests, like this one created in the reintroduction project in Portugal.

Artificial nests like this one will be created in pine forest in Bulgaria.
Artificial nests like this one will be created in pine forest in Bulgaria.

Tackling threats 

Despite being illegal across the Balkans, the use of poisoning by hunters and farmers to control unwanted mammalian predators and feral dogs is the biggest threat to vultures in the region and is still widespread.  We work with partners involved in Vultures Back to LIFE and in four other Balkan states in the Balkan Anti-Poisoning Project to raise awareness about the impacts of using poison as well as to support law enforcement and governmental organisations to protect the reintroduced vultures. 

Working with electricity companies the Vultures Back to LIFE project is also insulating over 170 electricity pylons helping to prevent deaths caused by electrocution, which is an often overlooked threat. 

Insulating cables on electricity power lines
Insulating cables on electricity power lines

Improving the food base

the project will also support cinereous vultures by improving the food availability. Working with farmers on animal husbandry practices, two flocks of around 250 sheep and a herd of 100 cows will be managed in ways that increases food availability for the birds. Other efforts will also involve releasing of 200 free ranging fallow deer and creating a network of feeding stations in Bulgaria. 

For more information about the project follow #VulturesBackToLIFE on Twitter or Facebook and keep an eye on our website as we regularly publish news from the project. 

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