The Cinereous Vulture
Once common in Iberia, the Cinereous Vulture became increasingly rare over the 20th century due to habitat loss, mortality from widespread poisoning campaigns against predators and direct persecution, among other threats. As a result, the breeding population of Portugal was wiped out in the 1970s, and only 206 pairs remained in Spain by 1973. Thanks to conservation efforts in both countries, the population in Spain recovered, which led to the natural recolonisation of the species in Portugal. However, the Cinereous Vulture still faces serious threats that could endanger its survival in the future.
Illegal killing and poisoning
Illegal wildlife poisoning has been identified as the biggest threat to vultures by the Multi-species Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP). In fact, a single poisoning incident can result in the death of multiple vultures, even wiping out entire vulture colonies.
To address poisoning, LIFE Aegypius Return aims to reduce vulture mortality due to poisoning enhancing the implementation of the national anti-poisoning programme and developing local capacity to deal with and follow-up poisoning and other incidents involving target species. Two new anti-poisoning dog units will also be established within the Portuguese police, located in an area that is essential to at least three of the Portuguese breeding colonies.
The use of lead ammunition during hunting activities has emerged as a severe threat to the survival of vultures and birds of prey in Europe. These scavenging birds often feed on the meat of shot game species that are not retrieved by hunters or on the offal (internal organs) that hunters leave on the ground. When lead ammunition hits the targeted animals, a large number of lead fragments form, which spread into the various tissues of the prey, facilitating lead ingestion by scavenging birds.
In a study of 252 Golden Eagles, Bearded, Griffon, and Cinereous Vultures collected from a large area of south-central Europe, 44% (111 individuals) showed chronic lead values higher than normal and 26% (66 individuals) had clinical poisoning levels. This high prevalence of lead poisoning is detrimental to raptor populations, which are often rare and scattered, and subject to conservation programmes funded by the EU and its Member States. To mitigate this issue, LIFE Aegypius Return aims to reduce the risk of lead intoxication by encouraging a transition to non-lead ammunition in 14 hunting areas (28,380 ha) within the Cinereous Vulture distribution range in Portugal, covering a total of 300 hunters.
Vultures face a significant threat from veterinary drugs, particularly non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like diclofenac, which have caused vulture deaths and are still legally available in Spain. Additionally, other drugs like ketoprofen, aceclofenac, flunixin, and nimesulide, commonly used for livestock, also pose a threat to vultures. In the LIFE Aegypius Return project areas, Cinereous Vultures and other vulture species are at risk of exposure to these drugs since they are used in free-ranging cattle, and pets treated with human medicines without veterinary supervision may also indirectly expose vultures to these substances.
Limited food availability
The decline of extensive farming and strict carcass disposal legislations have resulted in a reduction in vultures’ food availability in recent years. In 2001, the EU prohibited the abandonment of livestock carcasses in the field in response to the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease, crisis. These policies greatly impacted scavenging birds, including vultures.
However, in Spain, farm animal cadavers are now allowed to remain in the fields for vultures to consume, while in Portugal, they are collected by the authorities. Due to this difference in sanitary policies, Cinereous and Griffon Vultures rarely cross the border into Portugal to forage, creating an ecological barrier.
To address this threat, LIFE Aegypius Return will first estimate the trophic resources needed for the scavenger community in the project area, allowing the definition of a feeding strategy to be implemented for the Cinereous Vulture. The project team will further improve food availability in Portugal and border areas by enhancing the network of existing and new vulture feeding stations, but mainly through the establishment of 66 non-fenced feeding areas.