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The reintroduced Cinereous Vulture Riga finally returns to Bulgaria after a long absence

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Cinereous Vulture Riga © VBTL

Do you remember the captive-bred Riga, who, together with two other Cinereous Vultures were the first to be released in Bulgaria back in 2018 as part of the ongoing Vultures Back to LIFE reintroduction project? After a long absence from Bulgaria, she finally returned home! 

Releasing captive-bred Riga in Bulgaria
Riga in the hacking platform in August 2018 © Stamen Stanchev

Riga is a female captive-bred Cinereous Vulture that hatched in May 2018 in Riga Zoo, Latvia, and was donated to the Vultures Back to LIFE project, becoming a valuable part of the efforts for the restoration of the species in Bulgaria. Riga, together with the Cinereous Vultures Boyan and Ostrava were placed in an artificial nest near the town of Kotel to acclimatise to the surrounding environment before fledging. The birds were fed and monitored without human contact by the dedicated staff from Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna and the Green Balkans until they fledged, and were the very first Cinereous Vultures released by the hacking method in the Eastern Balkan Mountains in 2018. The other two birds, which were released together with Riga, did not return to Bulgaria — the vulture Ostrava was poisoned in Greece in early 2019, and Boyan settled in neighbouring Turkey. Riga, on the other hand, who has been wandering far and wide, has now visited her release site once again!

Riga’s first winter in Greece

After her release on 25 July 2018 in Kotel and a short period of adaptation in the area, the young vulture left the release site. On October 2018, she headed towards the Republic of North Macedonia where her satellite transmitter placed her near Veles and the Vardar River. A few days later, she continued to move south, reaching Greece, 30 km from the border with North Macedonia. She then moved to Athens, arriving in the Peloponnese. She quickly adapted to local conditions and overwintered in the Messolonghi area with other local vultures. 

Riga summers in the Alps

In the spring of 2019, Riga headed north from southern Greece, travelling 257 km in one day and crossing Albania. The bird spent one night in Kosovo before heading back on the road. She was then spotted in Serbia’s Uvac Nature Reserve, alongside Griffon Vultures from the region. On 24 April, Riga returned to Bulgaria, where she remained for a short time. Then, in the summer of 2019, Riga went to the Alps, mainly in Austria, where she remained for over three months. From there, the traveler headed south in search of a warmer place to spend the winter. The bird crossed Slovenia and Croatia and stayed for a short time in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Riga escapes mass poisoning incident in Greece 

During all this time, the project team did not stop tracking Riga’s route thanks to her GPS transmitter. These birds’ GPS movements show that in the first few years of their lives, young Cinereous Vultures roam and it is extremely important to follow their path. In early February 2020, while spending her second winter in Greece, Riga was at the centre of a vulture mass poisoning incident in Messolonghi, where nine Griffon Vultures died and two others were rescued in time. Fortunately, just at the time of the incident, Riga was moving north near Embesos (about 60 km from Messolonghi) and, according to local shepherds, she joined a group of 30 Griffon Vultures. The Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna’s team, who were closely tracking Riga’s movements, were in constant contact with local authorities to ensure the bird’s safety and help the local team find the poison bait. 

Riga’s second journey from Bulgaria to the Alps
Riga in Austria © Richard Straub

After 19 months of wandering, in April 2020, Riga was spotted again in Bulgaria – in her “home” in Kotel. The project team observed Riga spending some time with another young Cinereous Vulture in the Mesolonghi area, bringing hope for the possibility that she found a potential partner. Unfortunately, the vultures parted ways, and at the beginning of the summer Riga flew north to Romania again, but quickly returned to the south. After stopping through the vulture adaptation aviary in Vratsa Balkan, through Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia, arrived again at the end of May in Hohe Tauern National Park , Austria, where for the second year in a row she spent the summer months. 

Riga returns to Bulgaria
The travels of Riga from August 2018 to April 2021

After a long absence from Bulgaria, on 30 March Riga 2021, Riga was spotted by the Green Balkans team again at home. Along with five other Griffon Vultures and another Cinereous Vulture, Riga was feeding on dead farm animals’ remains in Dripchevo village, Sakar Mountain. The news of Riga’s return to Bulgaria gives us new hope that the young vulture will finally stay in the Eastern Balkan Mountains and, once she reaches sexual maturity, will find favourable conditions to nest in the region. 

Follow the VCF on Facebook and Twitter to stay tuned with Riga’s next adventures!

Vultures Back to LIFE

Led by the wildlife conservation charity Green Balkans in collaboration with the Fund for Wild Flora and FaunaVulture Conservation FoundationJunta de Extremadura and Euronatur, theVultures Back to LIFE project aims to reintroduce the Cinereous or Eurasian Black Vulture to Bulgaria. The team will transfer and release around 60 birds, some from captive-breeding, but mostly coming from Spanish wildlife rehabilitation centres into the wild in Bulgaria as well as creating supplementary feeding stations and improving populations of wild herbivores, improving the nesting conditions and creating artificial nest sites and tackling some of the major threats to vultures in the country such as insulating electricity pylons and illegal use of poison in nature.

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