In recent years, Rüppell's Vulture has suffered a drastic decline across its native sub-Saharan Africa, with large-scale poisoning events, as well as habitat loss and other means of persecution, all taking their toll. It is now classed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and is therefore one of Spain's most threatened birds.
The presence of Rüppell's Vulture has been well documented across the Iberian peninsula during the past three decades and, in 2015, the species was taken off the list of official Spanish rarities and instead recognised as a fifth resident or migrant vulture species in the south of the country. Birds have been observed to arrive with Griffon Vultures at the Straits of Gibraltar in spring, having migrated north through north-west Africa from the Griffons' wintering grounds in the Sahel.
In Europe, Rüppell's Vulture generally exhibits nomadic behaviour, and at least some of them have been observed to return to the African continent. Adults represent fewer than 10% of all records from the Iberian peninsula, suggesting it is the natural curiosity and wandering nature of immature birds that brings them northward.
Exceptionally, an adult Rüppell's remained at a Griffon Vulture breeding colony in southern Portugal between 1999 and 2007. It apparently attempted to breed, but no further detail could be documented.
Furthermore, at least one vulture showing mixed features of both Rüppell's and Griffon Vultures has been observed in Spain, further fuelling speculation that hybridisation was occurring in the wild, even if it had not yet been conclusively proven.
Fast-forward to the Griffon Vulture breeding season of 2019-20, which has recently commenced, and two different adult Rüppell's Vultures have been noted as showing breeding behaviour in Griffon Vulture colonies in Cádiz and Málaga respectively.
An increasingly close relationship between a male Griffon and female Rüppell's Vulture was documented at a site in Cádiz in January 2020, with video footage showing the birds copulating.
Meanwhile, in Malaga on 16 January 2020, an adult Rüppell's, resident in the area since 2017, was photographed repeatedly carrying nesting material to different shelves of a cliff where other Griffon Vultures are already incubating. It has been confirmed that neither bird is paired to another indivdual of the same species.
Although, it is still early to determine the success in the reproduction and hybridisation of Rüppell's Vulture in the region, these latest observations offer a fascinating insight into a species with an otherwise dire conservation outlook across Africa.
The localities of each breeding bird will remain confidential, and updates and developments on any breeding attempts will be reported to the local authorities. Finally, it is requested that any observers should act responsibly, given the delicate status of the vultures and their breeding sites.
An adult Rüppell's Vulture carries nesting material to a Griffon Vulture breeding colony in Malaga in January 2020 (Noel Hohental).