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New Bearded Vulture reintroduction site in Spain: Sierra Nevada National Park 

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The dream to restore the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) to its former distribution grounds in Spain and Europe is one step closer to becoming a reality with the expansion of the Andalusian reintroduction project to the Sierra Nevada National Park.

Bearded Vulture in flight from AndreAnita Getty images:canva
Bearded Vulture in flight © Andre Anita/Getty images-Canva

We are excited to announce that Sierra Nevada National Park has been selected as the latest release site for our successful Bearded Vulture reintroduction programme in Andalusia. This initiative aims to accelerate the Bearded Vulture’s comeback across Andalusia, after the return of the species in Cazorla, where a successful reintroduction has already established a breeding population (currently totalling 10 territorial pairs, of which 5 bred this year). 

Sierra Nevada has been chosen to continue the reintroduction of this species in Andalusia because it is the second largest mountain massif in this autonomous community, where there is a lot of food available (both wild ungulates – there is a very large population of Iberian Ibex and domestic livestock) and, furthermore, it is an area that is already frequently visited by the Bearded Vultures released in Cazorla and Castril. 

Sierra Nevada landscape Aurelie1 from GettyGetty images-Canva
Sierra Nevada landscape/ illustrative © Aurelie1/ GettyGetty images-Canva

Reversing the extinction of the species in Andalusia 

The majestic Bearded Vulture, with its nearly 3-meter wingspan and specialized bone-eating diet, plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Unfortunately, its importance was not always appreciated and it was often misunderstood, leading to its decline in many parts of Europe during the 20th century. In Andalusia, the species was driven to extinction in 1986 due to human activities such as persecution, poisoning, and disturbances at nesting sites. 

To counter this, the Junta de Andalucía, Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), and the now ‘extinct’ Fundación Gypaetus launched a reintroduction programme in 1996, that also included the establishment of the Bearded Vulture Captive-Breeding Centre of Guadalentín. This centre is today one of Europe’s leading facilities for captive breeding, producing many of the Bearded Vulture chicks that are then released in Andalusia and other European projects. Thanks to this centre and the European Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding programme, we have released 90 Bearded Vultures into the Andalusian wild since 2006, with about 65 still alive as of 2023. 

Returning the Bearded Vulture to Andalusia 

A landmark moment came in 2015 with the hatching of the first wild-hatched chick in over 30 years. There are now about 10 breeding territories across Cazorla, Segura, Las Villas, and Castril, showcasing the success of restoring the Bearded Vulture to its historic habitat. Now, the reintroduction programme in Andalusia aims to expand the range of the project with a new release site in Sierra Nevada. 

With its steep peaks, vast alpine areas and diverse ecosystems, Sierra Nevada National Park is perfect for Bearded Vultures. The park boasts over 2,000 plant species and a rich variety of wildlife, including Iberian Ibex, a natural food source for these scavengers. The high-altitude environment, with excellent aerological conditions and visibility of snowfields at 3,000 meters, is often visited by the species, with up to 10 Bearded Vulture individuals who often spend much of the year at the Sierra Nevada National Park. 

Iberian ibex (Capra pyrenaica) Tania Araujo: Getty images-Canva
Iberian ibex (Capra pyrenaica) ©Tania Araujo/ Getty images-Canva

Preparing the new release site at Sierra Nevada

In Sierra Nevada, we have carefully selected a release site at 2,000 meters altitude that represents an ideal habitat for the species. This valley is one of the two most frequented by Bearded Vultures from Andalusia, providing opportunities for the released birds to socialize with and learn from their counterparts. The dedication of Sierra Nevada National Park officials has been crucial in ensuring the hacking site and release process follow best conservation practices, involving conservation directors, veterinary officers, and other important stakeholders. Additionally, a nearby rehabilitation centre is ready to support swift rescue operations if needed and food supplies are readily available and secured for the young birds that will be released.  

Replicating natural fledgling with the hacking method  

Bearded Vulture released in Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y las Vilas Nature Park in Andalusia Spain, 13.06.2023 © Jovan Andevski
Bearded Vulture released in Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y las Vilas Nature Park in Andalusia Spain, 13.06.2023 © Jovan Andevski/ Vulture Conservation Foundation

We use the “hacking method” to reintroduce Bearded Vultures. Nestlings around 90 days old are placed in artificial nests within suitable caves, similar to the release site at Sierra Nevada. This method mimics natural conditions, allowing the young vultures to develop their muscles and body structure necessary for flight while getting used to their new home and safely interacting with surrounding animals. After several weeks of acclimatization, the birds are ready for their first flight and independent life in the wild. This method has proven effective in long-term reintroduction projects for the Bearded Vulture, enhancing the birds’ chances of survival and settlement near the release site. Before release, we equip the birds with GPS transmitters and identification rings, also marking a unique set of feathers to closely monitor their adaptation and progress in the wild. 

Join us for the upcoming releases at Sierra Nevada 

The first ever release at Sierra Nevada will happen on 10 June, with two young Bearded Vultures, one coming from Tierpark Berlín and the other one is the second chick coming from Aragón (FCQ) and raised in Guadalentín. The field team at the site has been working hard to prepare everything for the release. 

To engage the local community, we will hold a public event on 17 June at Sierra Nevada. Schoolchildren and their families are invited to witness the Bearded Vultures in their natural habitat and learn more about their ecological importance. 

Our ultimate goal is for these young vultures to return to this territory to breed once they reach sexual maturity, between 7 and 10 years of age.  

We eagerly anticipate watching these birds in the wild and hope many people will appreciate their presence in the mountains. 

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