The reintroduction of vultures to former distribution range has been a very successful conservation tool in Europe: the bearded vulture for example has been reintroduced successfully in the Alps and in Andalusia, and the griffon and black vultures have been also reintroduced in several places, including France (both species) and Bulgaria (griffon only).
While some of the reintroduction projects with griffon and black vultures can use wild birds originating in wildlife rehabilitation centres – after they are found weak or injured they are nursed back to health and then released in the projects elsewhere, with bearded vultures – and Egyptian vultures – there is no possibility of using birds from the wild, so captive breeding has been the only source of birds for reintroduction.
The VCF developed successfully the methods for captive breeding in bearded vultures, and coordinates now the network of 40+ institutions within the excellent captive breeding programme for reintroduction, that produces on average 10-15 fledglings each year that are released in the three on-going reintroduction projects – Alps, Andalucía and Grands Causses.
Can captive breeding in the Egyptian vulture play a similar role in the future? The coordination of captive breeding in this species was upgraded to an EEP (European Endangered Species Programme) in 2012 by EAZA, the European Association for Zoos and Aquaria, to respond to the 2007 downlisting of the species as Globally Endangered. In an EEP, a network of zoos and breeding centers work in a coordinated way towards maximising captive breeding for conservation purposes. The coordinator of the Egyptian vulture EEP is Anton Vaidl, curator of birds at Prague Zoo and also a member of the VCF scientific advisory board.
Currently there are 121 western Egyptian vultures (the Eurasian subspecies) within EEP institutions, and in the last 10 years these produced a total of 69 young – most in Zoos, but about a third was born in the only Egyptian vulture specialized captive breeding centre in Europe, run by Centro Rapaci Minacciati (CERM) in Italy. On average, this captive breeding network produced 4 to 6 young birds a year, barely enough to replace losses , but since the network was upgraded to an EEP, and due to the enhanced coordination, the productivity improved significantly and last year a total of 16 birds were fledged (in 7 different countries in Europe). This year again the breeding seasons is going well and we expect a similar number of young.
This suggests that with enhanced coordination, and with developing guidelines and know-how, it will be possible to release from now on a certain number of birds in reintroduction and/or restocking projects. Fortunately we have already the experiences of CERM to guide us - between 2004 and 2012 they have released 12 birds in southern Italy, 7 of which were seen far from the release site, with at least two reaching Africa (only 5 have been marked with GPS tags).
With Egyptian vulture population viability studies in Spain and the Balkans suggesting that adult mortality is the main driver behind current population declines, restocking and reintroduction may need to wait until the threats killing adult birds are corrected, but we will keep working on developing the technical expertise so that captive breeding may be – when the times comes – a useful conservation tool to revert the decline of this species in Europe.
You can see a recent presentation about this issue below. All photos VCF/Prague Zoo.