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Intercontinental collaboration secures the future of key migratory bird population

Intercontinental collaboration secures the future of key migratory bird population

A new paper, published today in the journal Animal Conservation, shows that the population of Egyptian Vultures in the Balkans has stabilized, thanks to an international collaboration of partners working across Europe to the Middle East and Africa.

The Egyptian Vulture is Europe´s smallest and only migratory vulture. The species travels thousands of kilometres annually, sometimes travelling through 40 to 50 countries during its migratory round trip. However, these vultures were being killed by human activities along the entire route from Europe via the Middle East to Africa, being shot in one country, poisoned in another, and electrocuted following collisions with uninsulated pylons on their way to and from their wintering grounds.

In eastern Europe the population stood at >600 pairs in the 1980s but plummeted rapidly. Since 2010, conservationists in the Balkans have tried to save the Balkan breeding population, but the population continued to decrease to just ~50 pairs in 2018.

However, an ambitious project funded by the European Union expanded the work across the flyway, involving 22 organisations across three continents.

Led by conservationists from the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, and partners including the RSPB, the project team reduced the risk of poisoning, electrocution, and direct persecution in 14 countries along the flyway, as well as reinforcing the breeding population in the Balkans by releasing captive-bred individuals donated by a network of European Zoos.

Thanks to this huge collaborative effort, the downwards trajectory has now been halted and the Egyptian Vulture population on the Balkans has stabilized at around 50 breeding pairs.

Steffen Oppel, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, said: “This project is a fantastic example of international collaboration and evidence-based conservation. Ten years ago we did not know what the problem was, but the EU helped us to invest in research and we followed the evidence, and worked with local partners along the flyway to reduce threats at large scale. I am immensely proud of what this team has achieved – but the daunting prospect is that we need to keep up this effort because the Egyptian Vulture is by no means secure.”

Arresting the decline of a threatened migratory bird species is a major success, but ongoing work is still needed to remove poison from the countryside, to reduce the illegal killing of birds, and to manage the ever-expanding network of poorly designed powerlines that function as death traps for birds. Persistent efforts to reduce these threats are necessary along the entire flyway to facilitate the recovery of the population, and funding is needed to sustain these efforts.

Victoria Saravia-Mullin, Project Coordinator, Hellenic Ornithological Society, Greece said: “The Egyptian Vulture is just one of many threatened migratory species. But the ´death-by-a-thousand-cuts´ syndrome is probably very common across these species, where fixing one particular threat or working in one particular region simply isn´t enough. Migratory species need large-scale conservation efforts – and we have shown that this can actually work to save a population.”

Many migratory species across the world are threatened and their numbers declining. Life is inherently risky when the annual routine involves journeys of thousands of kilometers across hostile land and seascapes and political borders, often with different threats in each country. With enormous effort a species can be protected in either its breeding or wintering areas, but those efforts come to nothing if the carefully protected birds then vanish during their migration to those areas in other parts of the world.

However, there is a glimmer of hope that with a large team of dedicated people working at truly intercontinental scales, even species that migrate thousands of kilometers can potentially be rescued – a feat that seemed impossible only a few years ago.

Cloé Pourchier, Project Officer, Sahara Conservation, Niger said: “This project has been a fantastic learning experience, and we appreciate the opportunity to be part of such a network and benefit from its experience and resources. By reducing the threats to the migratory Egyptian Vulture we will also save many resident African species that suffer from the same threats.”

Main image: Egyptian Vulture, Paul Donald