Neophron percnopterus - The Egyptian Vulture
Updated: Oct 18, 2020
While being sitting in our garden, having lunch and enjoying the already rich bird fauna around us, we did first not pay much attention to the raptor flying above our heads. We have many red kites and buzzards around us, so we enjoyed our food. However, after a short while the white of that big bird caught our attention. Sprinting for our binoculars and big lens, we were able to observe an adult of a rare and highly threatened vulture, the Egyptian vulture (French = vautour percnoptère, German = Schmutzgeier). He took mounting air on top of our house and went up to the close-by mountains. Very majestic!
The Birdlife fact sheet on the species notes (http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/egyptian-vulture-neophron-percnopterus/text):
Vultures may not be the prettiest of birds: They are often reviled for their looks, and are victim to illegal killing and poisoning, but it’s hard to argue against their usefulness. The Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), for example, feeds primarily on carcasses of dead animals. It is nature’s waste disposal service and plays a vital role in preventing the spread of diseases. This species of vulture is the smallest and the only migratory European vulture, listed as globally Endangered in 2007 due to a drop in population in most of its range. In Europe, the species has declined by over 50% in the last 50 years, and in the Balkans, over 80% have been lost in the last 30 years.
The Egyptian Vulture occupies a large range with isolated resident populations in the Cape Verde and Canary Islands in the west (although they may still have some connectivity to the continental population [Agudo et al. 2011]), through Morocco (Amezian and Khamlichi 2015) and parts of West Africa (Ferguson-Lees and Christie 2001). A small resident population persists in Angola and Namibia. The bulk of the resident population occurs in Ethiopia and East Africa, Arabia and the Indian Subcontinent, while Saharan and Sahelian parts of Africa in Algeria, Niger, northernmost Cameroon, Chad and northern Sudan also hold significant but presumably smaller populations (I. Angelov in litt. 2012). Migratory birds breed in northernmost Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt), southern Europe from Spain in the west through the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Caucasus and central Asia to northern Iran, Pakistan, northern India and Nepal. These birds winter within the resident range, and in addition throughout the Sahel region of Africa. Global population estimates for the species are crude, but 3,000-4,700 pairs are estimated in Europe (BirdLife International 2015), < 2,000 pairs in central Asia, just a few thousand pairs now in the Indian Subcontinent, perhaps 1,000 pairs in the Middle East, and perhaps 1,000-2,000 pairs in Africa (Thiollay 1989, I. Angelov in litt. 2012).
The population size in Europe is estimated to have decreased by 50-79% in 53.4 years (three generations) (BirdLife International 2015).
This species typically nests on ledges or in caves on cliffs (Sarà and Di Vittorio 2003), crags and rocky outcrops, but occasionally also in large trees, buildings (mainly in India), electricity pylons (Naoroji 2006) and exceptionally on the ground (Gangoso and Palacios 2005). It forages in lowland and montane regions over open, often arid, country, and also scavenges at human settlements. It has a broad diet including carrion, tortoises, organic waste, insects, young vertebrates, eggs and even faeces (Margalida et al. 2012, Dobrev et al. 2015, 2016). Usually solitary, individuals congregate at feeding sites, such as rubbish tips, or vulture restaurants (i.e. supplementary feeding stations), and form roosts of non-breeding birds (Ceballos and Donázar 1990). It performs an energetic display flight with its mate. Northern breeders conduct long-distance intercontinental migrations, flying over land and often utilising the narrowest part of the Strait of Gibraltar or the Bosphorus and Dardanelles on their way to Africa (García-Ripollés et al. 2010, López-López et al. 2014, Oppel et al. 2015). The species exhibits high site fidelity, particularly in males (Elorriaga et al. 2009, García-Ripollés et al. 2010, López-López et al. 2014).
This species faces a number of threats across its range. Disturbance, lead poisoning (from ammunition used in hunting game), direct and secondary poisoning, electrocution (by powerlines), collisions with wind turbines, reduced food availability and habitat change are currently impacting upon European populations, with juveniles showing higher declines (Clouet et al. 2014) and mainland populations showing higher rates of juvenile mortality than island populations (Sanz-Aguilar et al. 2015a).
Conservation Actions Underway
An International species action plan for the species was published in 2008 (Iñigo et al. 2008). National species action plans are in place in France, Bulgaria and Italy, and the species is included in the Balkan Vulture Action Plan (BVAP). Efforts are being taken to release captive-bred individuals in parts of Italy. In Spain, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Macedonia birds have been fitted with satellite-tags to study juvenile dispersion, migratory movements and wintering areas (e.g. García-Ripollés et al. 2010, López-López et al. 2014, Oppell et al. 2015). Nest guarding schemes for pairs that are most threatened by poachers have been implemented in Italy and Bulgaria, where very small populations survive (Zuberogoitia et al. 2014, Oppel et al. 2016). Expeditions to study the limiting factors in the wintering areas and along the migration flyway have taken place together with local organizations in Mauritania, Senegal, Ethiopia, Sudan and Turkey (Arkumarev et al. 2014, Oppel et al. 2014). A multi-species action plan for African-Eurasian vultures is underway, and an international Flyway Action Plan for the Central Asian and Balkan populations was initiated in 2015 in Bulgaria, encompassing the Balkans, Central Asia, Middle East, and East Africa (S. Oppel in litt. 2016). This Flyway Action Plan was published in 2017. The species is considered Critically Endangered at the national level in Uganda (WCS 2016).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Start and maintain intensive cooperation with local stakeholders to ensure poison- and poaching-free zones at sites with high densities or congregations of the species throughout the breeding, migration and wintering range, alongside similar efforts for other threatened species. Build capacity in countries along the migration flyways and in the wintering areas. Protect nest sites where persecution is a problem. Research the causes and extent of current declines across the species' range. Insulate dangerous electricity pylons in areas where high mortality is recorded. Coordinate monitoring to assess trends throughout the range. Relax the European Union sanitary regulations in relation to carcass disposal. Establish supplementary feeding sites based on rigorous scientific knowledge and under adaptive and appropriate management (Moreon-Opo et al. 2015, Cortés-Avizanda et al. 2016). Raise awareness amongst pastoralists of the dangers of using diclofenac for livestock (BirdLife International 2008). Effectively reduce risks of poisoning through strict enforcement of poison-bait ban and education. Lobby for the banning of diclofenac for veterinary purposes throughout the species's range, and support the enforcement of this ban where it has been adopted. Where applicable, establish the impact of wind turbines, and lobby for effective impact assessments to be carried out prior to their construction. Where appropriate, guard nests to reduce disturbance. Confiscate illegally kept live birds and use them for the purposes of captive breeding and future restocking and reintroduction programmes. In key areas of the species's range, implement long-term and large-scale education and community involvement programmes. The Flyway Action Plan for the conservation of the Egyptian Vulture in Central Asia and the Balkans (2017) additionally highlighted: the need to improve detection methods and better understand the causes of poisoning and illegal killing; legislation and enforcement to mitigate illegal killing; raise awareness of illegal killing; mitigate electrocution and collisions with energy infrastructure; raise awareness amongst planners and developers of dangerous energy infrastructure; monitor breeding pairs, productivity and success rate; protect breeding sites and foraging habitats; and ensure a successful ex situ Egyptian Vulture endangered species programme.