Early this month four young Egyptian vultures, all captive-bred in the Egyptian vulture captive breeding unit managed by CERM (Centro Rapaci Minacciati Onlus), were released in southern Italy, as part of trials to evaluate the relevance and the effectiveness of this conservation tool to help this endangered species.
The trial this year is part of an experiment led by CERM, in collaboration with the Federparchi Association, with the Vulture Conservation Foundation and other organisations, to test procedures and get crucial data on the feasibility and relevance of captive-breeding and restocking/reintroduction projects with this species.
In 2015 6 young had been released in southern Italy – 3 died while crossing from Sicily to North Africa, while two made it to Africa – you can see their whereabouts here, while last year 3 captive-bred Egyptian vultures were released in Bulgaria – two died in the sea crossing, but one made it to Africa.
This year the birds released - one male (Apollo) and three females (Era, Teti and Atena), were already in their second year - all had hatched in May and June 2016 in CERM and were kept in captivity until now. The idea was to try the “delayed release method” that has been used with some success in Israel.
In July they were transported to the acclimatization aviary set up in the Appennino Lucano National Park (Basilicata), near one Egyptian vulture breeding territory, in suitable habitat, and they were let free on the 2nd August. The birds were all equipped with a small GPS device which send us regularly their position and whereabouts - these tags were provided by the VCF, in the framework of our project to find out more about the movements of European vultures and hence also know more about mortality cases, a programme funded by MAVA Foundation. There was also a feeding platform established nearby where food was provided to wild birds (red kites etc.) (see photo). Importantly, the electricity utility e-distribuzione S.p.A. has also isolated 17 electricity pylons in the area of the release, to minimize any problems with electrocution (see photos).
It was expected that the older birds would perform better on the migration and we had hoped that they would have a higher survival chance, but unfortunately this was not the case. The female Teti was found dead under a tree - we are waiting for the results of the post-mortem, while females Era and Atena had to be immediately recaptured after showing signs of dehydration and weakness due to the very high temperatures and lack of water in the rivers, but Apollo made it – see below a video of him flying around in the area several days after the release.
CERM is now analyzing the data to try to explain these results – which will be very important for us to determine the relevance of this release method.
The reintroduction or restocking 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 and Egyptian vultures there is no possibility of using birds from the wild, so captive breeding is the only source of birds for reintroduction.
CERM has a lot of experience on releasing captive bred individuals, and since 2004 has released 19 young, all of them in the year they hatched.
The VCF developed successfully the methods for captive breeding in bearded vultures, and coordinates now the 40+ institutions that participate in the excellent captive breeding programme for reintroduction, and that produce on average 15-17 fledglings each year that are released in the four on-going reintroduction projects – Alps, Andalucia, Grands Causses and Corsica.
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. With the EEP´s enhanced coordination and guidelines, the number of birds produced yearly has been increasing.
There are only about 10 pairs of Egyptian vultures left in Italy, in Sicilia, Calabria and Basilicata. This year a new LIFE project on the species will start in Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily.
The following organizations were involved in this year´s release
Federparchi Federazione Italiana Parchi e Riserve Naturali
Ente Parco Nazionale dell'Appennino Lucano Val d'Agri Lagonegrese
ISPRA Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale
Centro Studi Appennino Lucano Onlus
Centro Studi Naturalistici Nyctalus Onlus
Ardea Associazione per la ricerca, la divulgazione e l'educazione ambientale Onlus
Sponsor: Co.Ge.Di. International, MAVA Foundation
Video: Antonio Luca Conte