What an event! Over 130 participants gathered at Parco Natura Viva near Verona (one of our partners in the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network) for the Annual Bearded Vulture Meeting 2022 to celebrate the shared loved for the species and exchange the latest updates on conservation and research projects across Europe and beyond. Aside from the packed scientific programme, the event offered exciting side activities, which included a guided visit to the park, a dinner party involving a lot of dancing and the football match that has become a tradition!
Now that the meeting is over, we have summarized the key takeaways from the presentations, as they can be useful for the attendees and anyone who couldn’t join us.
Bearded Vulture conservation success
The Bearded Vulture conservation programme in Europe is one of the most spectacular wildlife comeback stories of our times. Thanks to many reintroduction and restocking projects, the population is increasing in Europe, and more than doubled its population in the last 40 years here – let’s not forget that in the 20th century, the species was on the brink of extinction in our continent!
Conservation and Zoos
Although still a rare collaboration, conservation NGOs and Zoos can effectively work together to help reintroduce the population of endangered species back to the wild. Our partners at Parco Natura Viva, the hosts of the Annual Bearded Vulture Meeting 2022, are a great example of such possible collaborations, breeding several species in captivity for conservation purposes, from Bearded Vultures to tigers and giraffes. For the Bearded Vulture, they follow our protocols to ensure chicks raised in captivity grow up to behave like their wild conspecifics, allowing them to be released to the wild and breed when they reach sexual maturity.
Bearded Vulture reintroduction in the Alps
The Bearded Vulture reintroduction project in the Alps started in the 1970s and was the reason behind the establishment of the captive breeding and reintroduction programme for the species in Europe. Today, after releasing 243 captive-bred birds over more than 30 years, the demography of the population is very healthy and is growing significantly, with 80 breeding pairs and a new record of fledglings recorded this year in the wild.
Bearded Vulture monitoring efforts in Europe
The International Bearded Vulture Monitoring Network (IBM), which coordinates the monitoring of the Bearded Vulture population in the Alps, the Massiv Central, Corsica and the Maestrazgo region, is a rare case of a standardized, international monitoring effort. The network currently has 1133 different individual Bearded Vultures registered, including 384 released and 546 wild-hatched individuals. It relies on the input of local partners and observers, with data retrieved from GPS transmitters and observations from the field (some recognized by rings or bleached feathers). It continues to be one of the best populations of species monitored in the world, with 15-25% of individuals seen in the Alps individually identified.
Breeding the species in captivity for conservation purposes
The Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network (part of EAZA’s Endangered Species Programme EEP) improved its capacity to support the increased ambition to reintroduce the species, by integrating strategies to maximize transportation logistics, among other actions. The breeding results in 2022 were very optimistic, showing an increase from previous years. But, the programme still faces hurdles. An unusually high number of individuals died in captivity between 2021 and 2022 due to emerging diseases, some caused by climate change, like the first case of bird flu for the species in captivity, or the increasing occurrence of the west Nile virus. The network is investing in vaccines and other efforts to deal with these diseases. In addition, the population is experiencing an ageing effect, with some pairs no longer producing eggs. Over the next couple of years, the network will prioritize increasing the number and genetic diversity of captive stock so that we do not have to decrease our ambitions in terms of the number of birds released and ensure stable production of chicks in the long term.
Provisioning of food
The decrease of both domestic and wild ungulate (large mammals with hooves) populations have caused a significant reduction in food availability for vultures in general at different locations and at different times. A good conservation tool to mitigate food shortage and/or promote dispersion in the right directions can be, in some contexts, providing food using supplementary feeding stations, like in the case of the Andalusian and GypConnect reintroduction projects. In Andalusia, they construct feeding stations at rock promontories that are inaccessible to predators like foxes and wild boars and also install camera traps to monitor the feeding situation. This method provided interesting insights, like the fact that some Bearded Vultures have been recorded feeding at 3 am!
Everyone wants to reintroduce the Bearded Vulture but…
The success of the Bearded Vulture programme has inspired stakeholders across Europe who wants to get involved and bring back this magnificent species to areas it disappeared. However, before reintroducing this flagship species, a lot of preparatory work must be done like mitigating threats and there are also factors to take into consideration like the availability of birds for release, the sustainability and strength of the institutions involved and the contribution of the reintroduction project to the dynamics of the metapopulation. The goal is to start the next Bearded Vulture reintroduction project in Bulgaria over the next five years. For over a decade now, together with our partners there, we have been implementing targeted conservation actions that successfully returned the Griffon and Cinereous Vulture to the country, paving the way for the reintroduction of the Bearded Vulture.
A growing threat: Wind farms and Bearded Vultures
Wind farms are a good source of renewable energy to help mitigate the climate crisis, but their often uncontrolled development in Europe harms populations of protected and endangered bird species. Some ways to prevent collision and mortality are through mitigation tools such as shutting down wind turbines on demand or using curtailment technology. However, the most important way to prevent collisions and mortality is by using spatial planning tools before constructing wind farms to ensure they are far away from important sites for protected bird species like vultures.
Vultures and tourism
The outcomes of successful vulture conservation projects can, directly and indirectly, benefit the wider society and the environment, something known as ecosystem service provision. For instance, the presence of vultures can attract birdwatchers and photographers, which can create an extra source of income for local communities.
Bearded Vulture population viability in the Alps
The Alpine population is steadily increasing, with 80+ breeding territories and 49 fledglings in 2022. An update on the Bearded Vulture demography, last done in 2009, showed the same patterns and survival more than a decade later: the species registers very low adult mortality, and it’s because of this that it is increasing so significantly. The study showed that survival is more important than productivity in population dynamics. For example, if we lose ten additional Bearded Vultures per year, it can lead to a decreasing population. So, it’s crucial that mortality does not increase by closely monitoring emerging threats and efficiently mitigating them to ensure the long-term stability of the population.
Bearded Vulture breeding success in the Alps
A study on factors influencing Bearded Vulture breeding success in the Alps showed that it increased with age, the length of the pair bond, and protected areas located above a certain altitude. It further showed that pairs of wild-fledged birds have better breeding success compared to reintroduced birds, although the latter still have good success rates.
LIFE GypRescue in Corsica
The Bearded Vulture population in Corsica is the only one in Europe that is decreasing. It now consists of four pairs, including one pair made up of restocked individuals. The population numbers 16-20 birds, which is a slight improvement. The LIFE GypRescue project will continue to reinforce the wild population by releasing captive-bred birds. But the key is to focus on mitigating threats. The project has recently released its first wild mouflons to respond to the food shortage of wild ungulates.
New project: LIFE GypAct
The LIFE GypAct project is the continuation of the LIFE GypConnect project, which focused on reintroduction actions in the Grands Causses, Baronnies and Vercors to encourage the connection between the populations in the Alps and Pyrenees. The new project will continue to reduce disturbance and mortality and improve food availability. They will continue reintroducing the species by releasing up to 60 captive-bred birds into the wild to establish a breeding population in the Grands Causses and Baronnies, and strengthen the Vercors breeding population, which already has 1-2 pairs.
Bearded Vulture conservation in Southern Africa
In Southern Africa, the Bearded Vulture subspecies is Critically Endangered, with only 334 individuals and 103 pairs remaining. The breeding success suffers from a low proportion of reproducing females and low productivity. The Bearded Vulture recovery programme was established in 2006 and the captive breeding programme in 2015 to respond to the worrying population trends. The aim is to establish a captive breeding population of 32 founder birds in captivity by harvesting eggs from the wild and following rearing protocols (i.e. puppet feeding then social contact). There are now 18 birds in captivity, with one pair that should hopefully reproduce soon.
The most severe threat in the Alps?
Collision possibly represents the most important threat to the Bearded Vulture in the Alps. The cables at ski stations, some cables from the electricity grid, and other transport cables pose a huge danger since they are not easily visible to the birds. Anti-collision systems do exist but are not 100% effective, and more research is underway to evaluate and improve such strategies. The Birdski project aims to reduce collision by raising awareness and working with ski resort managers to persuade them to invest in mitigation measures.
What about next year?
We have exciting news! Instead of an Annual Bearded Vulture Meeting next year, we will combine it with the European Vulture Conference 2023, which will take place in Spain next autumn – sign up for our newsletter to stay tuned!
And there you have the key takeaways from the Annual Bearded Vulture Meeting 2022. Perhaps the common themes for successful Bearded Vulture conservation initiatives are the need for expertise, commitment, perseverance and effective collaboration.
A big thank you to everyone who helped make the meeting a success: the event sponsors, local authorities, presenters, participants and our hosts.