Return of the Neophron

Oiones57coverIn a recent issue of  Oionos (July-December 2016), the journal of the Hellenic ornithological society, we describe our work on Fuerteventura, as part of special section dedicated to  the LIFE+ project ‘Return of the Neophron’ (LIFE10 NAT/BG/000152) This project has ended in December 2016 and was  focused on improving the conservation status of the Egyptian vulture in Greece and Bulgaria (Project leader Stoyan Nikolov (Bulgaria) and Project coordinator Victoria Saravia (Greece).  In the last 30 years alone, populations on the Balkan have shrunk by more than 80%. Today, Greece and Bulgaria account for almost 70% of the Balkan vulture populations (62-71 pairs). The project aimed to secure the protection of all the remaining pairs found in 15 Natura 2000 sites in Greece and in 12 sites in Bulgaria.

In the past, our work to protect the Canarian Egyptian vulture has been financially supported  through a LIFE+ project (“The conservation of guirre in SPAS of the Fuerteventura island”   LIFE04 NAT/ES/000067), illustrating the important role of the European Union in helping to save this emblematic species from extinction.

See below, a translation of our contribution:

Donázar, J.A., García-Alfonso, M., van Overveld, T., Roldan, J. y de la Riva, M.

Back from the brink: the story of the “Guirre”, the Egyptian vulture of the Canary Islands.

Island populations of Egyptian vultures have been historically found in Mediterranean,  the Indic Ocean and the Atlantic archipelagos (Canary Islands and Cape Verde) but most of them have suffered precipitous declines.  In the  Canary Islands the endemic subspecies (Neophron percnopterus majorensis) was very abundant but became almost extinct during the second half of the twentieth century so that in the nineties, only 20 territories remained occupied in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote islands.   By 1998 local authorities decided to initiate an ambitious monitoring and research program to determine which were the main factors causing the decline of the vulture. Currently, and thanks to intensive ringing schemes, 90% of the birds are individually marked so it is possible to track the life events of each vulture.  Every breeding season, all the territorial birds are identified and breeding success is monitored. Non-breeding individuals are controlled in feeding stations and communal roosts.  Non-natural mortality factors, chiefly accidents in power lines, poisoning and lead intoxication, were recognized as the main cause of the vulture population decline.  Consequently, local conservation programs based in cooperation with electric companies and LIFE-Nature projects were implemented to correct these negative factors. Following these measures the mortality rate declined and the population began to recover. In 2016 the total population reached almost 300 birds with 64 occupied breeding territories.  The success in the conservation of the Egyptian vulture would not have been possible without the positive attitude of the local population specially goat farmers which historically has perceived the vulture as an ally providing that we know as “ecosystem services”.  Of course, menaces have not disappeared.  Although efforts to make power lines safer continue, electrocution is still the main cause of dead. Lead ammunition has not been substituted by non-toxic materials as would have been desirable.  Also, farming intensification is modifying deeply the trophic resource scenario something that hardly can be mitigated by feeding stations.  Finally, wind farm development, which reasonably can become an important new source of mortality, is knocking on the door.  To address these challenges new research and conservation projects have seen the light in the last years.  Almost 50 Egyptian vultures have been provide with GPS devices to collect detailed information on the foraging behavior and breeding ecology to better understand more general population dynamical process such as patterns of dispersal, recruitment of young as breeders and the factors affecting survival. More specifically, we aim to understand whether individual birds differ in the way they use the main food resources available on the island, such goat farms, the feeding stations and garbage dumps, which may help to fine-tune conservation efforts to improve their food conditions and hence survival rates. The GPS data also allows to study roosting dynamics, which is important because Egyptian vultures use electric pylons to roost and our data may help to inform local electricity company about the most used stretches. Lastly, we intensively observe Egyptian vultures at the feeding stations to deepen out patterns of social relationships and other aspects of the social structure of the population. Egyptian vultures are highly social birds, but little is known so far about how changes in food availability (and predictability) may affect the social dynamics of the population (i.e., the distribution of territories among the island and reproductive success).

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