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Report 2022-2023: Cinereous Vulture Reintroduction in the Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria

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How did we reintroduce the Cinereous Vultures to Bulgaria? What are the recent population trends and effects on other vulture species? Are there plans for future vulture conservation actions? The latest technical report on the conservation efforts for Cinereous Vultures in Bulgaria from 2022 to 2023 answers all these questions and more.

Reintroduction of the Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus in Balkan Mountains, Bulgaria Annual Report for 2022

Releasing Cinereous Vultures into the wild

In the heart of the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria, remarkable conservation efforts have been underway to bring back the Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) as a breeding species to its native habitat. The releases of birds that started in 2018 with the Vultures Back to LIFE project, and that now continue with the Bearded Vulture LIFE project, mark a significant milestone in restoring the population of this majestic vulture, which once thrived in the region but went extinct due to facing various threats.

The releases drew expertise from similar projects with the species in France and Spain. Two successful techniques were employed: ‘Hacking’ involved releasing captive-bred nestlings from artificial nests, akin to natural fledging, using birds donated by the Cinereous Vulture EEP from zoos or captive breeding centres. While the ‘Cage’ or ‘Aviary’ release method involved releasing wild-origin immature birds from an acclimatization aviary, mostly donated by Extremadura, Spain, after they were rescued and rehabilitated from the wild.

The reintroduction efforts began in 2018 with releases in the Eastern Balkan Mountains (EBM) near Kotel, followed by subsequent releases in the “Sinite Kamani” Nature Park (SKNP) and the “Vrachanski Balkan” Nature Park (VBNP) in the years that followed. Up until 2023, a total of 72 individuals were reintroduced into the wild. The results, as outlined in the biannual report covering 2022-2023, prove promising. Thanks to the reintroduction efforts, the first reproductions took place in 2021 and 2022, marking the return of the Cinereous Vulture as a breeding species. In 2023, both nuclei are now well established, with five pairs in EBM and 6-7 pairs in VBNP, which produced 2 and 1 fledglings, respectively.

ictures catalogue of all released and appearing Cinereous Vultures in EBM in summer and late 2023, including some guests from other colonies.
Picture catalogue of all released and appearing Cinereous Vultures in EBM in summer and late 2023, including some guests from other colonies.

Conservation actions benefit neighbouring birds and other species 

The conservation actions targeting Cinereous Vultures, such as improving the food base and nesting habitat, also had positive spillover effects on the Griffon Vulture colonies, where targeted reintroduction efforts for the species took place in the Balkan Mountains between 2010 and 2016. The growth observed in Griffon Vulture populations, stabilizing to 22-27 pairs in VBNP and 25-30 in EBM in the last few years, particularly in VBNP and EBM, highlights the interconnectedness of conservation efforts and their far-reaching impact on the ecosystem. 

One notable aspect of the reintroduction project is its ability to attract birds from neighbouring colonies and sub-populations, indicating the viability of the habitats created in the Balkan Mountains. While this cross-population movement enhances genetic diversity and strengthens the overall population, it also presents unique challenges, such as the need for coordinated conservation efforts across borders. However, the opposite process was also observed – one of the first birds released by hacking now nests in Dadia in Greece, and the second alive one settled permanently near Cankiri in Turkey.  

Initial results from reintroduction actions

The initial phase of reintroducing the Cinereous Vulture in Bulgaria has shown promising results. With two nuclei (EBM & VBNP) established along the Balkan Mountains, comprising 15-20 and 20-25 individuals and 5 and 7 pairs respectively, progress has been evident. While the hacking method, though successful in releasing vultures into the wild, has shown limitations in establishing local populations from scratch, it remains a viable option for restocking regional populations. Conversely, the release by aviaries method has proven highly effective in establishing precisely targeted vulture nuclei. Initial trials of releasing captive-bred individuals through aviaries using the Delayed Release method have yielded promising results, although further releases and data analysis are required for conclusive evidence.

Persisting threats pose continuous challenges

However, challenges causing mortality persist. As they prefer roosting on the ground, Cinereous Vultures face a newly established threat – predation by Golden Jackals – accounting for 29% of mortality cases among reintroduced and freshly fledged Cinereous Vultures in the Balkan Mountains. To mitigate poisoning risks, anti-poison activities should be integrated into regional and international conservation initiatives. Greece, in particular, demands exceptional attention due to its attractiveness to Balkan vultures and the prevalence of illegal wildlife poisoning, turning it into an ecological trap. Additionally, measures to combat shooting, particularly during the acclimation period, are essential, especially in areas lacking comprehensive vulture conservation initiatives. Moreover, fostering interactions between different nuclei and establishing additional colonies in strategic locations like Kresna Gorge, Central Balkan, and Sakar is crucial for enhancing the coherence and resilience of local vulture populations. 

Plans for the future

Looking ahead, the momentum gained from the LIFE14NAT/BG/649 project paved the way for a new endeavour, the LIFE22-NAT-BG-BEARDED VULTURE LIFE – 101113869 project, launched in 2023. With continued support from the European Union’s LIFE program and additional funding from partners like Bioparc Conservation and Sainte Croix Biodiversite, the conservation efforts are set to expand further. Through continued collaboration and concerted conservation efforts, the Cinereous Vulture’s foothold in Bulgaria can be strengthened, ensuring its long-term survival in the region and, at the same time, aiding other species and broader conservation goals.

Read the technical report for all the details on the reintroduction efforts.

The Bearded Vulture LIFE Project

The “Bearded Vulture LIFE” project is a comprehensive initiative, aiming to restore the Bearded Vulture and Cinereous Vulture across Bulgaria and the Balkans. With a budget of €5.17 million, co-funded by the European Union’s LIFE Programme, the project commenced in August 2023 and is expected to continue until 2030. Building upon the achievements of its predecessor, “Vultures Back to Life,” it is coordinated by Green Balkans, with five more partner organizations within Bulgaria, including the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna, Foundation EkoObshtnost, EVN – Elektropradelenie Yug EAD, Severozapadno Darzhavno Predpriyatie – Vratsa, and “Sinite kamani” Nature Park Directorate. Furthermore, the project benefits from international collaboration, including the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), responsible for the translocation and safeguarding of captive-bred birds secured for release. Additionally, the partner Milvus group is responsible for executing conservation efforts in Romania.

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