Vulture populations from Spain, France, Portugal and the Balkans are all benefitting following results of a successful LIFE project which used the power of public participation to help prevent poisoning of these important bird species.
Vultures have in the past attracted somewhat of a bad press and this can in part be attributed to the way they are portrayed by children’s cartoons as villains, crooks or rogues. Vulture reality is however actually very different. Vultures are not in fact to be found lurking in the shadows or waiting to pounce on wearing prey, and these birds are actually rather timid in character and weary of trouble. Representing some of the largest of EU raptors and revered by ancient civilisations, vultures soar with great grace in flight and they form long-term pair relationships demonstrating strong empathy and connections with their partners.
Despite the truth about vultures, their negative reputation has been a contributing factor in demographic trends showing severe declines in European vulture populations. The Eurasian black vulture (Aegypius monachus) for example is now extinct from its former colonies in France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. On a global scale, the bird is officially designated at ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN red list, but in Europe the status is worse and poison is recorded as one of the black vulture’s main threats to survival. In recognition of the species’ unfavourable conservation status, a Spanish LIFE project was launched in 2000 to help improve the prospects for this grand raptor.
LIFE00/NAT/E/007340 received around €620 000 of LIFE funds for a four year project which saw conservation work being carried out in Castilla-León, Extremadura, Andalucía, and the Baleares. Much of this activity took place on the island of Majorca where the black vultures favour hilly and mountainous areas. The birds forage over these habitats in search of carrion from medium-sized or large mammal carcasses, although snakes and insects have also been recorded as food items. Live prey is seldom taken.
LIFE’s role focused on achieving improvements to habitat conditions and increasing knowledge about the endangered species. Success factors in this process were credited to the forging of close working relations between the project team, land owners, hunters and regional governments. Addressing concerns linked to vulture poisoning was a high priority for the NGO beneficiary, which used LIFE funds extremely effectively in awareness raising actions. These included the promotion of a national programme against poisoning and a dedicated island campaign on Majorca.
Special “poison kits” were distributed to highlight the problem and nature rangers received training courses about poisoning issues. A free phone helpline was introduced and this ‘SOS VENENO’ line proved very productive at both identifying poisoning incidents, but also spreading the word about the LIFE project’s work. Approximately 2500 calls were made during the project to the free phone number which alerted the project team to 366 poisoning cases, plus the collection of 1312 presumably poisoned animals in the target regions. Removal of these threats from the vulture habitats helped the project to achieve its objectives and on Majorca the number of poisoned animals fell substantially.
Legal tools were also harnessed by LIFE to enforce criminal procedures against people caught using poison baits. LIFE part-funded the costs of hiring a lawyer who secured several convictions for illegal use of poison. In a relatively small island like Majorca, strong messages quickly spread about the serious consequences of illegal baiting.
Successes in mainland Spain remained more challenging. Here relations with hunters are seen to be a sensitive subject but the beneficiary did make some inroads into bringing such important stakeholders on board with their ‘zero-tolerance-to-poisoning’ agenda.
Lessons learnt in Spain during the LIFE project led to an expansion of its work over the border into Portugal, where similar campaigns have been catalysed to protect important species from the fate of poison baits.
Furthermore, other vulture conservation groups in Europe have also taken note of the positive outcomes resulting from LIFE’s work with this Spanish project and set in motion their own conservation plans for France and the Balkans.