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Rare Rüppell’s Vulture, tagged with a GPS transmitter, crosses Gibraltar and explores Iberia  

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A young Rüppell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppelli) has been recently tagged by staff at the Vulture Recovery Centre (CRV Jbel Moussa) in Morocco with a Vulture Conservation Foundation GPS transmitter. This action is part of the international monitoring of this critically endangered species, that also aims to monitor its expansion into Europe, especially in Portugal and Spain. Can Europe be Rüppell’s vulture’s Noah’s Ark? 

Rüppell’s Vulture

From Morocco to Spain, international cooperation to save Rüppell’s Vulture from extinction 

Every year the Jbel Moussa in the north of Morocco hosts numerous Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) during their seasonal migration from the Sahel area (Senegal, Niger and Chad) to their reproductive sites in Spain and Portugal. Many Rüppell’s Vultures (Gyps rueppelli) take part into this migration following Griffon Vultures to northern Morocco, but most of them stop there.  

Nevertheless, an average of 70 Rüppell’s Vultures per year undertake the difficult journey to Europe accompanying Griffon Vulture to their reproductive sites. These individuals are subject to a special monitoring by the Moroccan association for the protection of birds and wildlife AMPOVIS, together with the national water and forest agency. The initiative comes in parallel to the concern of the scientific community about the alarming decline of African Vultures, especially Rüppell’s Vulture. Over the years, over 30 Rüppell’s Vultures were tagged in Morocco with GPS tags, but only few of these reached Europe safe and sound. The journey over Gibraltar Strait is quite difficult and dangerous for these birds.  

The Vulture Conservation Foundation takes part in the international monitoring of this critically endangered species with the Vulture Recovery Centre (CRV Jbel Moussa), lending GPS transmitters to follow the movements of Rüppell’s Vulture individuals across Europe. This collaboration with the Moroccan researchers is part of a set of priorities set up by the Rüppell´s Vulture working group, that includes also the Junta de Andalucia, IUCN-MED, Grefa, Fundacion Migres, Association Marocaine pour la Protection des Rapaces AMPR, Wildlife-lab Estación Biológica de Doñana, and SEO BirdLife.     

On 3 May, a young Rüppell’s Vulture was captured at Jbel Moussa within the monitoring programme. The Vulture Recovery Centre team ensured it was healthy and ready to migrate. Before releasing it, it was equipped with a PVC identification ring and one of the GPS transmitters provided by the Vulture Conservation Foundation. The Vulture crossed safely the Gibraltar Strait and reached Spain on 6 May. The Vulture Conservation Foundation and Vulture Recovery Centre teams have been following its journey in Europe. The young vulture quickly moved from Spain to Portugal, visited the country following almost its entire length, and then moved back to Spain where it is now. 

Second Cycle Ruppell's Vulture hold by a Vulture recovery centre operator, showing the GPS transmitter
Young Ruppell’s Vulture with its GPS transmitter
Map of Ruppell's Vulture movement from May to July 2024. It moved from Morocco to Portugal, crossed Portugal lenghtwise and moved to Spain.
Ruppell’s Vulture movement from May to July 2024

Meet the 5th European Vulture Species: The Rüppell’s Vulture 

Rüppell’s Vulture is an African vulture species distributed in the equatorial and eastern areas of the continent. It looks similar to Griffon Vultures, especially in its juvenile stage. The adult’s plumage is quite distinctive: mottled brown or black overall with a lighter underbelly. 

The species counts less than 23000 individuals in Africa (Convention for Migratory Species – CMS), and it is rapidly declining. It is listed as Critically endangered in the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, which means it is one step away from extinction. Poisoning is one of the biggest threats to this species survival, as it is to all vulture species worldwide, according to the Vulture Multi-species Action Plan (Vulture MsAP), co-developed by the Vulture Conservation Foundation, and endorsed by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).  

In the last decades Rüppell’s Vultures numbers in Europe, especially in Spain, followed an increasing trend. Therefore, the species was added to Andalusia’s list of vultures, becoming Europe’s 5th vulture species and one of the most threatened bird species in Spain. 

Rüppell’s Vultures in Europe 

Despite the alarming decline in Africa, the number of Rüppell’s Vultures in Europe is surprisingly growing. The reason behind this phenomenon is probably attributable to the increase in the number of individuals following Griffon Vultures in their migration from the Sahel area to Spain and Portugal. Europe, with plenty of food and Vulture protection programmes, is an appealing destination for Rüppell’s Vultures. The Iberian Peninsula has the largest population of this species in the continent. 

The species was reported in Spain for the first time in 1992, and it has been increasingly observed since then. Over the last years, Rüppell’s Vultures have been seen at different monitored feeding stations alongside with Griffon Vultures. It is now possible to spot the African species all year round, independently from migration peaks. In Andalusia, it is also possible to observe all age classes for the species, from juveniles to adults. Following this evidence, experts suggest that this vulture may have already settled down in Spain. 

There are no evidence of Rüppell’s Vultures pairings and nesting in Europe so far. On the other hand, several unsuccessful breeding attempts involving mixed pairings with Griffon Vultures have been observed since 1999 when an adult Rüppell’s Vulture was observed in Portugal in a possible nest. Further indications of mixed pairings were detected in 2020 in Cadiz province (southern Spain) when a female Rüppell’s Vulture was recorded mating with a male Griffon Vulture, and in Malaga province, where another female was observed carrying nesting material.  

Rüppell’s and Griffon Vulture mixed pairings 

Throughout 2021 and 2022, mixed pairs breeding attempts have consistently occurred, but the monitoring confirmed they were not followed by egg-laying. Only in December 2022, a tagged male Rüppell’s Vulture successfully mated with a female Griffon Vulture. The mating and the following incubation were successful. It was the first confirmed case of successful breeding of the two species in the wild.  

Scientists are keeping a close eye on these mixed pairings. According to them, hybridisation events like these will probably continue to increase in Europe, since the two species seem to be closely associated. When successful, they may result in hybrid offspring that could be sterile or breed more often with Griffon Vultures. This hybridisation could eventually result in the abundant Griffon Vulture genetically assimilating the rare Rüppell’s Vulture, accelerating the extinction of Rüppell’s Vulture in Europe through genetic amalgamation. (Antonio-Román Muñoz, Juan Ramírez and Raimundo Real – “A critically endangered African vulture starts breeding in Europe: Escaping from extinction or entering a genetic amalgamation trap?” – Ardeola 71(1), 2024, 157-161). 

Adult male Rüppell’s Vulture in the nest with the chick, raised with a female Griffon Vulture, in April2023 © Muñoz et al.

Strategies for the future 

Rüppell’s Vulture is becoming more and more present in the Iberian Peninsula. The arrival of this new individual, tagged within the monitoring programme that precisely follows this phenomenon, only reinforces this statement.  

It is still too early to affirm if Europe could be a new home for the species, following the expansion of its range with successful breeding. However, conservationists are planning and acting on two fronts: monitoring the species in Europe and reducing the main threats to its survival both in Europe and in Africa.  

In an ever-changing world, with climate change and anthropic threats, saving a critically endangered species like Rüppell’s Vulture is a titanic effort. Small, but critical successes, like tagging a young Rüppell’s Vulture on its way to Europe, highlight the value of international collaboration and adaptive conservation strategies.  

We will continue to follow this young Rüppell’s Vulture on its journey and work together for the conservation of its species in Africa and Europe. 

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