A huge international effort has succeeded in protecting endangered vultures by tackling threats to the birds along their migration route between Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) can be shot, poisoned by livestock farmers or electrocuted as they migrate across 14 countries each year.
A combination of these threats has caused their population in Eastern Europe to drop from 600 breeding pairs in the 1980s to just 50 today.
Conservationists have been chipping away at dangers to the birds, and a project launched in 2017 aimed to protect them over their entire migration route. In the Balkans, the number of poisoning incidents was cut in half between 2018 and 2022 by conservationists working with farmers to reduce the use of poisoned bait for livestock predators, which is then consumed by vultures.
In addition, 30 captive-bred vultures were released in Bulgaria, a key breeding site, between 2016 and 2022.
The European-Union-funded project also insulated live components on more than 10,000 electricity poles near perching sites in countries from Bulgaria to Ethiopia, and promoted the use of substitutes for vulture body parts in traditional medicine in Niger and Nigeria.
This ambitious conservation effort has led to a decrease in mortality of 2 per cent for adults and 9 per cent for juveniles, and a population growth of 0.5 per cent per year, according to Steffen Oppel at the Swiss Ornithological Institute and his colleagues.
“The population currently is stable with that very tiny increase,” says Oppel.
The work has benefited other migratory birds that use the same route as the vultures, including buzzards, eagles and storks.
Oppel and his colleagues witnessed thousands of white storks (Ciconia ciconia) arriving in southern Turkey, a number of which were electrocuted by touching live cables with their wings as they landed on electricity poles. To avoid this, plastic or rubber covers were used to insulate power cables wherever conservation teams detected lots of dead birds.
People have benefited too, he says. “We’ve had some great success with companies, for example in Bulgaria and now in Turkey, recognising that it is in their own interest that if they insulate the power lines, they have far fewer service disruptions.”
Any intervention to save vultures is important, and the Balkans project has a good chance of success, says Kerri Wolter at VulPro, a conservation group in South Africa. “It’s kind of all hands on deck, and all conservation interventions and strategies are important in order to do everything within our means [to save the species],” she says.
Southern Africa once had its own breeding population of Egyptian vultures that is now extinct.
EU funding to protect the Egyptian vultures’ flyway ended at the end of 2022, but Oppel says the work must continue to ensure mortality rates don’t increase again.
“On the one hand, you want to say, ‘Yes, we’ve achieved something fantastic because we have managed to swing around the population trend of a declining migrant,’ but on the other hand, you need to ensure that politicians realise this isn’t fixed forever,” he says.