How did a GPS transmitter from a Cinereous Vulture end up on the beach in St-Tropez?

The GPS transmitter attached to one of the Cinereous Vultures released at Parcs Naturel Regional Baronnies provençales
The GPS transmitter attached to one of the Cinereous Vultures released at Parcs Naturel Regional Baronnies provençales

Colleagues from a French Cinereous Vulture reintroduction project have been left searching for answers as to how a GPS transmitter attached to a vulture released in the southern Alps washed up on a beach in St-Tropez, but evidence suggests a sinister end to the bird that was wearing it. 

 

Reintroducing Cinereous Vultures to France

Bernadus, one of the released Cinereous Vultures released in France
Bernadus, one of the released Cinereous Vultures released in France

The Cinereous Vulture reintroduction project in France is a success story that has been running since 1992 with the species now firmly re-established after going extinct in the country. After the first releases at the Parc Naturel Regional Grands Causses, Cinereous Vultures have been released at two other sites in the southern Alps, at the Parc Naturel Regional Baronnies Provençales and Gorges du Verdon since 2004. And it is at the Baronnies that this mystery begins. 

Fitting one of the Cinereous Vultures released with a GPS Transmitter
Fitting one of the Cinereous Vultures released with a GPS Transmitter

The release of three Cinereous Vultures in November 2018 at the Parc Naturel Regional Baronnies Provençales marked an end of the reintroduction project there with a total of 45 birds released in total. During this final release three birds, one male and two females named Encre, Ecaille and Ebene were released back into the wild after having spent a year in an acclimatisation aviary on the site since being transferred from wildlife rehabilitation centres in Spain. Each bird was fitted with a solar powered GPS transmitter, that weighed between 30g and 70g. These transmitters send the GPS position of the birds over the mobile communications network and can provide several thousands fixes per day. 

 

Following Ecaille

By using the data from the GPS transmitter our colleagues followed one of the females Ecaille as she moved from the release site at the beginning of December, firstly moving north between the Natural Regional Parks of Vercors and Baronnies before heading south toward the coast near Nice. 

 

Colleagues noticed then some unusual behaviour -it appeared that Ecaille was moving slowly in a southeastern direction and far off to sea. 

 

What had happened to her? Had she died and was drifting at sea? Was she alive and rescued aboard a ship? It was some very unusual movements and all that could be done was to wait and closely monitor her movement. 

 

Washed up on a beach

Colleagues noticed at mid-December that Ecaille had begun moving back to the coast and it soon became clear that earlier fears were confirmed, and that she had died and was drifting back on the currents. In order to retrieve the remains colleagues from LPO traveled to the coast and were surprised by what they found -instead of the remains all that was found was the GPS transmitter that was fitted to Ecaille. The GPS was found burried in the sand under some rocks in the jetty that protects the beach, so seemingly deposed there by the sea. But no sign of the Cinereous Vulture!

 

Even more mysteriously, the harness showed evidence that it had been cut from the bird. Was Ecaille intentionally killed by people, who then attempted to dispose of the transmitter? Was the harness cut from the dead body - and so what happened to it?

 

The investigations are continuing and if we find out any more we will report back. 

 

Cinereous Vultures in France

Cinereous Vultures went extinct in France more than 100 years ago, but a reintroduction project started in the early 90s in the Grands Causses. 53 individuals were released at the Grands Causses Regional Natural Park between 1992 and 2004, both wild vultures that were rescued at rehabilitation centres in Spain and then sent to France, but also captive bred Cinereous Vultures. Following the success of this project, in 2004 a second reintroduction project began at two other release sites, in the southern Alps in the Regional Natural Park of Baronnies Provençales and Gorges du Verdon. The objectives of these reintroduction programmes is to release 50 birds per site to create viable populations. To date 36 birds have been released at Gorge du Verdon and 45 at Baronnies. During an annual census in 2018 more than 37 breeding pairs of Cinereous Vultures were counted at the three release sites in France, and the species has now been firmly re-established. 

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