Maybe it was just a coincidence, but one cannot escape thinking that the old male bearded vulture from La Garenne Zoo (Switzerland) waited for his last chick to hatch before giving his last breath – last week (2nd February) the 45+ year old male was found dead in his cage, on the same day its last chick hatched from the egg that had been laid by the female partner on the 10thDecember last year.
The male BG 034 (that was his code number in the bearded vulture captive breeding network – EEP – managed by the VCF, for reintroduction projects) came from Russia as a juvenile in 1972 to La Garenne. This Swiss zoo was one of the very first to join the international breeding network established a few years before, to breed the species in captivity for reintroduction into the Alps, where the species was then extinct. In 1978 a new facility was constructed at La Garenne, and a female arrived - BG 035, origin unknown, until then kept in a private collection near Chamonix. The pair bonded well, and immediately the following year (1979) a first fertile clutch was laid, although the chick died at age 2 days. Successful reproduction came the next year, and continued for many years - between 1979 and 1995 this pair produced 33 eggs, from which 19 chicks hatched and 13 survived. 10 were included in the breeding network (2 of them are still alive) and 3 were released in the Alps (Hohe Tauern National Park (Austria) and Haute-Savoie - France).
In 1995 the female BG 035 died because of a collision with the fence, but it was immediately replaced by another female (BG130), born in 1990 in the Tierpark Friedrichsfelde (Berlin). Three years later it produced their first successful chick - until today the pair had laid 20 eggs, from which 12 chicks hatched (if we include this year´s chick), and all of them survived. Nine of these have been released in the Alps (in 4 different release sites) and 2 used for captive breeding (one still alive). In total BG034 produced 25 chicks!
The old male will not know what will be the destiny of its last descendant - we will decide in the end of the breeding season according to its gender, and the final results, but he can rest in peace as his contribution to the conservation of this species is impressive: if we consider the current captive stock (150 birds), 30 of them do include its genes, as do at least 47 birds flying in the wild, originated in 10 pairs in which the genes of this old male are present.
End of an era – but what a contribution to the restoration of the species in the wild! The first ever reproduction in the wild, in 1997, in Haute-Savoie, happened with a female that was fathered by BG034, and many of his descendants are now flying freely in the Alps – including the chick he fathered last year (see video), now flying free in the Swiss Alps, where it was released last June. His contribution was outstanding to restore the species in the Alps – last year 30 pairs fledged 19 young in the wild, a new absolute record.
We would like to thanks all the staff from La Garenne zoo for taking very good care of this portentous male, and for their unconditional support to the bearded vulture conservation projects during all these years. La Garene celebrates the 50th anniversary in 2015 – its own history is intertwined with that one of this superb bearded vulture. Happy Birthday, many thanks, and looking forward to continue to collaborate with you in this greatest story of restoring the bearded vulture to the European skies (photo & video courtesy of La Garenne).