A major international effort has succeeded in protecting endangered vultures by tackling threats to the birds on their migration route between Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Egyptian vulture (Neophron perconopterus) can be shot, poisoned or electrocuted by cattle herders as they migrate to 14 countries each year.
The combination of these threats has caused their population in Eastern Europe to decline from 600 breeding pairs in the 1980s to only 50 today.
Since 2012, conservationists working along the birds’ migration routes have been addressing those threats. In the Balkans, working with farmers to reduce the use of poisoned bait for livestock hunters halved the number of poisoning incidents between 2018 and 2022, which are then eaten by vultures.
The project also insulated live components near siting points on more than 10,000 power poles in countries from Bulgaria to Ethiopia and promoted the use of alternative vulture body parts in traditional medicine in Niger and Nigeria.
Additionally, 30 captive-bred vultures were released into Bulgaria, a major breeding site, between 2016 and 2022.
According to Stefan Opel of the Swiss Ornithological Institute and his colleagues, this decade-long conservation effort reduced mortality rates by 2 percent for adults and 9 percent for juveniles and reduced population growth by 0.5 percent per year.
“The population is currently stable with very little growth,” says Opel.
This work has benefited other migratory birds that use the same routes as vultures, including buzzards, eagles and storks.
Opel and his colleagues observed thousands of white storks (Ciconia Ciconia) arrived in southern Turkey, many of which were electrocuted by touching live cables with their wings while landing on power poles. To avoid this, wherever conservation teams found a lot of dead birds, plastic or rubber covers were used to protect electrical wires.
He says that people have also benefited. “We have had some great success with companies, for example in Bulgaria and now in Turkey, recognizing that it is in their interests that if they insulate power lines, they have much fewer service disruptions. “
Kerry Wolter of Vulpro, a conservation group in South Africa, says any intervention to save vultures is vital and the Balkan project has a good chance of succeeding. “It is kind of all hands on deck, and all in-situ and ex-situ conservation interventions and strategies are important to do everything within our means [to save the species],” she says.
Southern Africa once had its own breeding population of Egyptian vultures which is now extinct.
The EU-funded flyway project for Egyptian vultures in the Balkans ends at the end of 2022, but Opel says work must continue to ensure mortality does not increase again.
“On the one hand, you want to say, ‘Yes, we have achieved something fantastic because we have managed to balance the trend of a declining migrant population,’ but on the other hand, you need to make sure that politicians realize that. Ho is not fixed forever.”