Poison is the number one threat to vultures – in Europe and elsewhere. The poisoning situation in Greece has deteriorated significantly over the last few years, and has certainly contributing to the decline of the Egyptian vultures (and other vultures) there over the last few decades. Indeed, widespread poison is the main reason why the whole of the Balkan Peninsula has relatively few vultures, when compared with similar areas in Western Europe. The story of Lazarus, the Egyptian vulture that was poisoned twice (saved and released after the first poisoning but died after the second) shows with no shade of doubt the magnitude of the problem of poison baits in Greece.
Recognising this, the LIFE project The return of the Neophron included the creation of some anti-poison dog units in Greece – these were finally established in March 2014 in Central Greece and Thrace.
These dogs, properly trained and handled, are able to identify poison baits and poisoned animals in the wider countryside. These dog units patrol the mountains, in areas regularly used by vultures, and in particular where poison events had been recorded in the recent past.
The report on the activities of these dog units for the year 2014 has just been published (see below). In that year, they did 53 patrols in Central Greece and 35 in Thrace, over 78 days. In 19 of those patrols they found 26 dead animals that had been poisoned. The most commonly poisoned species was the dog (hunting or/and shepherd dog) (n=21, 80% of total) followed by the fox (n=4, 15%). In some events, the baits were detected - in most cases a piece of meat laced with poison. Many of the poisoning incidents were within protected areas and in many cases very close to active Egyptian vulture nests, during the breeding period.
The main drivers for the use of poison in Greece are control of predators (including stray dogs), and human conflicts between shepherds or/and hunters. Toxicological analysis done on those poison baits revealed three pesticides: Endosulfan, Carbofuran (both banned in Greece) and Methomyl.
These canine units proved to be an innovative and effective tool in the fight against poison, and have certainly saved some vultures from death, as these poisoned carcasses would continue to kill scavengers, but they also highlight the widespread occurrence of poison in the Greek countryside.
The VCF would like to thank the colleagues from the LIFE project for the great work done. The VCF is now starting a project to reintroduce black vultures in nearby Bulgaria, and thus welcome any advance in the fight against poison in the region.