One of the two Egyptian Vultures, Sara, released in Italy by the Centro Rapaci Minacciati, Endangered Raptors Centre (CERM) has completed her Spring migration and is now in north Africa, but will she be brave enough to cross the Mediterranean?.
Sara and Tobia
Sara and Tobia were both released in 2015, along with four other captive-bred birds, as part of an experimental breeding and release programme led by the CERM, in collaboration with us here at the Vulture Conservation Foundation and the Egyptian Vulture Captive Breeding Network to test procedures and get crucial data on the feasibility and relevance of captive-breeding and restocking/reintroduction projects with this species.
Unfortunately of the four birds released only Sara and Tobia survived their first migration.
Over the last three years, thanks to the GPS transmitters that were fitted to them, we have followed the progress of Egyptian vultures Sara and Tobia closely. We watched their release in Italy back in 2015 at Pugulia and the Bailicata region, we reported the drama that surrounded Tobia’s visit to Malta and his protection from hunters by police on the island.
Sara heads north
Sara departed from the usual wintering grounds in the Sahel region of Niger (west of Agadez) on 23 March and arrived in north-east Algeria on 4 April, after a 2429 km migration which lasted 12 days, at a speed of 202 km per day.
This is the third spring migration completed by Sara, and the most efficient so far. The 2018 spring migration started a month later and lasted for 18 days as the vulture took a much more circuitous route, covering a total of 4435 km at 246 km per day. The first spring migration in 2017 only started in May and lasted 19 days, but was more direct and shorter in distance than in 2018 (3597 km).
Will Sara make it to Italy?
The earlier departure and improved migration efficiency as birds get older is typical of many soaring migrants, including Egyptian Vultures. One of the most interesting aspects of these movements is that Sara has reached the north-east coast of Tunisia (Cap Bon) each year but has not yet attempted to cross the Mediterranean to return to Italy. On the 23 April 2019 Sara once again reached the coast before turning back inland. We will be monitoring the movements carefully over the coming weeks to see if Sara attempts to cross for the first time since her first autumn migration shortly after release in 2015.
The migration from Italy remains risky, especially for captive-bred birds released with an already small population to join in their long migration. As was seen with the high mortality of the birds released in 2015 and releases in 2018 of captive-bred birds as part of the LIFE project Progetto Capovaccaio . Since 2018 we have been working to experiment with diferent release techniques as part of the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project.
If Sara is successful in making the journey across to Italy and is eventually recruited into the breeding population, this will provide hope that releasing captive-bred birds could play a role in restoring the national population.
While Sara continues to transmit data, Tobia, the other surviving captive-bred Egyptian Vulture released in Italy in 2015, has not transmitted data since September 2018 during the autumn migration. The last location was recorded over the Sahara but there is no indication that Tobia has died. Tobia has “disappeared” for extended periods in previous years, due to lack of data transmission, and so we hope that he will resurface again soon.
The tracking data provide very informative insights into the movements and annual cycles of the released vultures, particularly when they are tracked for several consecutive years. As the Italian population of Egyptian Vultures has declined to critical levels, any information that can be used to inform conservation strategies, including restocking through captive breeding programs, will be invaluable.
Egyptian Vultures in Italy
Once found all along Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast from the province of Livorno to Calabria, the Egyptian Vultures suffered a 80% decline in its population since the 1970s due to poaching, disturbance of nesting sites, reduction in their food supply and illegal poisoning. With less than an estimated 10-12 breeding pairs in Italy, the Egyptian Vultures is considered critically endangered in the county. The population is concentrated mainly the south of the Italy, in Sicily (5 breeding pairs in 2015) and the south of the Italian peninsula around Basilicata and Calabria (3 pairs in 2015).