Saving Egyptian Vulture

Egyptian Vulture has declined by 50 per cent in Europe over the last half-century. Photo: Artemy Voikhansky (commons.wikimedia.org).
Egyptian Vulture has declined by 50 per cent in Europe over the last half-century. Photo: Artemy Voikhansky (commons.wikimedia.org).
Europe's smallest vulture has declined by more than 50 per cent over the last 50 years, but BirdLife are fighting to save it.

Egyptian Vulture feeds mainly on the carcasses of dead animals, playing a vital role in waste disposal and preventing the spread of diseases. However, it has been listed as Globally Endangered since 2007 due to a huge drop in population over most of its range. In Europe, the species has declined by over 50 per cent in the last 50 years, and in the Balkans, over 80 per cent have been lost in the last 30 years.

Most Egyptian Vulture populations are migratory. The eastern population of the species, which breeds across the Balkans, Anatolia, Central Asia and the Middle East, travels thousands of kilometres to winter in Arabia, but mostly in Africa's Sahel region, a huge stretch of land that runs west to east across the continent from Senegal to Sudan.

The large-scale threats to its survival are known to include habitat degradation and food shortage through changes in land use; animal grazing systems; collisions with wind farms; the use of agricultural chemicals; veterinary and sanitary practices, including use fo the drug diclofenac which has been responsible for a 99 per cent reduction in the Asian vulture populations; and the control of feral dogs (in the fight against rabies in Africa). These factors affect vultures not only on their breeding grounds, but also along their migration routes and in wintering areas.

However, the most common cause of death appears to be accidental poisoning. Vultures eat poisoned bait meant for predators like foxes and wolves, or consume dead poisoned predators and livestock treated with medicines that are harmful to them.

Electrocution is another major threat, particularly on their wintering grounds in semi-desert areas, where there is a lack of places to roost, leading the birds to perch on electricity poles. A 30-km-long line between Port Sudan and Red Sea coast – called the ‘killer power line’ – is estimated to have electrocuted hundreds and perhaps thousands of Egyptian Vultures since its construction in the 1950s.

The Port Sudan power line was considered the single most major threat before being decommissioned last year. It was replaced by a new fully insulated and bird-safe line, thanks to the joint efforts of the Migratory Soaring Birds project,  the Sudanese Wildlife Society, the BSPB (BirdLife Bulgaria), and the support of the Sudanese Government and electricity distribution and transmission companies.

A recent telemetry study in the Balkans also showed that about half of the juvenile vultures die during their first migration, mainly because of sub-optimal navigation as they try to cross the Mediterranean, and to a lesser extent because of direct persecution in Africa, due to their use in traditional medicine.

A recent workshop in Bulgaria was attended by 70 conservationists, researchers and representatives from 33 countries, hoping to develop an International Egyptian Vulture Flyway Action Plan. The plan will guide trans-continental implementation of conservation measures to ensure the survival of the Egyptian Vulture in the Balkans, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East and Africa, which shelter about 40% of the global population. In fact, in some countries like Oman and Yemen, the population is now stable and even increasing.
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