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News: March 2018

Open water for safer suburbs

Photo: LIFE-GREEN4GREY Photo: LIFE-GREEN4GREY

23 March 2018 The LIFE-GREEN4GREY project has refurbished a park in Zaventem, Belgium, transforming it into a bustling waterfront. The site now provides flood defences to communities living downstream, and a natural refuge for both wildlife and its peri-urban neighbours.

Flooding presents Europe with a mounting environmental challenge. As the climate shifts, many parts of the EU expect more sudden and intense rain showers that could overwhelm existing waterways and spill over into built environments.

“Flooding is a big issue in Belgium,” said Pieter De Corte from VLM, the Flemish Land Agency that coordinated LIFE-GREEN4GREY. “Before there were marshes and other features in our landscape that could absorb water like a sponge.” Now concrete and houses cover much of what used to be the countryside.

Until recent decades, rainwater was treated much like sewage. Out of concern for public hygiene, underground pipes have channelled it away from human settlements and far from sight. As downpours increasingly saturate this hidden infrastructure, authorities are starting to revise their tactics.

“The Zaventem waterfront stores rainwater in the landscape,” said De Corte. Small dams, natural basins and vegetation capture as much of the rain water as possible where it falls, so that it can flow progressively into pipes and rivers later on, causing less damage downstream.

This has meant digging up the big grey pipe that previously carried water under the park in Zaventem and exposing its water once again to open air. This exposure provides more flexible flood defences and a more inviting setting for visitors.

Multifunctional

Photo: LIFE-GREEN4GREY Photo: LIFE-GREEN4GREY

Scenic jogging paths, bathing spots and playgrounds dot the Zaventem waterfront allowing locals to exercise and relax outdoors. De Corte points out that their presence is no afterthought. Multifunctional landscapes are a vital part of renovating city outskirts.

“This is an area where a lot of people live,” he said. To obtain building permits and win over property owners, project developers must make the case for the value that their work will add to the land they build on.

To make sure that the refurbishment of the park reflects local needs, LIFE-GREEN4GREY engaged the neighbourhood community in extensive information evenings and consultations.

According to De Corte, the pitch extends beyond purely financial arguments. In addition to boosting property values, providing health benefits and hosting recreational activities, the waterfront also has great natural value.

Nested halfway between the built-up centre of Brussels and the extensive monocultures of rural Belgium, the waterfront constitutes a small hotspot for biodiversity. Its pollinators sustain plants in the surrounding gardens and fields. The site also provides a lifeline for communities who have largely lost contact with nature.

De Corte muses that half the children in Brussels have never even seen a forest. “When I watch my 5-year old child play with water, I think it is very important,” he said. “Water brings a priceless feeling of peace. We have to grant future generations the chance to experience that.”

Noticing similarities between land conditions in Zaventem and regions surrounding Paris, London and North Rhine-Westphalia, De Corte hopes that the waterfront will serve as a prototype for other areas to follow suit.

Already the project has prompted communes and authorities in the surrounding river valley to review their water strategies. Their enthusiasm offers an encouraging example of how a single pilot initiative can cascade into a new trend for solving water-related challenges.

The LIFE programme is taking the concept of multifunctional land use further with the 10-year BELINI project to tackle flooding, water treatment and water-related biodiversity across the entire Scheldt river basin in western Belgium.

To experience some of its first benefits first-hand, join partners of the LIFE-GREEN4GREY project, EU representatives, local officials and the Zaventem community at the opening ceremony of their waterfront on 9 June.

Of wolf and man: reconciliation across the Alps

Photo: WolfAlps Photo: WolfAlps

23 March 2018 Crowds gathered in Trento, Italy, this week to discuss coexistence between wolves and humans in Europe. The event included a 2-day specialist conference marking the end of the LIFE-funded WolfAlps project. The conference brought together some 150 researchers, policy makers and conservationists, and over 1 000 members of the public. Thousands more took part in a public outreach side-event organised by Trento’s MUSE science museum.

In recent decades, wolves have recolonised entire areas across the Alps. Their return is welcome for the region’s ecotourism sector and biodiversity. But it also raises questions among Alpine residents – especially among farmers.

These past five years, the LIFE WolfAlps project, which organised the conference, has worked on preventive measures to protect livestock from wolves, and to raise awareness among hunters, shepherds, students and local communities of the value that wolves add to their neighbourhood.

“For the first time, we have addressed, and partially resolved, population issues that have been at the core of wolf-human coexistence for decades,” said Giuseppe Canavese, coordinator of the LIFE WolfAlps project. “The project has created a network of informed people that is essential for the future of nature conservation in the Alps".

Cave canem

Photo: PirosLife Photo: PirosLife

Simple solutions such as breeding the right variety of livestock-guarding dogs (top choices include the Maremmano sheepdog and the cord coated Komondor) and building electrified fences can keep wolves at bay without harming them. The WolfAlps project has spent the past five years spreading preventive practices of this kind to reduce damage to both livestock and wildlife.

Each country has historically pursued its own course of action to protect large carnivores and nurture coexistence with the people living within their borders. Now for the first time, measures are acquiring an international scale, spanning the Alps and notably protecting packs of wolves that cross the Italian-Slovenian border.

Wolves, which were almost eradicated from the Alps in the first half of the 20th century, now populate the region in their hundreds. Far from wreaking havoc, the carnivores coexist peacefully with locals, largely as a result of good practices and policies.

“The most up to date data speak of 47 packs and 6 pairs of wolves between Piedmont and Friuli,” said Dr Francesca Marucco, a biologist speaking at the conference. She explained that international coordination across the Alps has helped standardise data collection, revealing that many packs of wolves now roam between France and Slovenia.

Fellow speakers at the conference included the European Commission’s Head of Unit for Nature Protection, Nicola Notaro, and the LIFE Programme Head of Unit, Angelo Salsi, as well as representatives the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The international cast underlined a shift initiated by LIFE WolfAlps towards collective actions on a trans-regional level. At the conference, LIFE projects working in different jurisdictions shared their insight. Canavese says that this European-wide approach is vital to produce scientific data solid enough to base future wolf population management policies on.

Farms and forests confront climate change in the Mediterranean

Photo: LIFE Platform Meeting Photo: LIFE Platform Meeting

23 March 2018 Representatives from LIFE projects converged on Madrid, Spain, on 13-14 March to discuss the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture and forestry in the Mediterranean. The two-day platform meeting drew on expertise from LIFE projects, EU policy makers, local authorities and stakeholders in the agro-forest sector to tackle the impact of climate change in an area notoriously exposed to its effects.

The event, organised by Spanish NGO Fundación Global Nature and supported by the European Agency of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (EASME) and the Directorate-General for Climate Action of the European Commission, singled out solutions to help farms and forests adapt to southern Europe's shifting climate.

From extreme weather events to forest fires, climate change has hit the Mediterranean hard in recent years. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the region is among the most vulnerable in the world to the impacts of global warming.

This is bad news for local farms and forests that depend on stable weather conditions to produce food and timber. Climate-driven drought, forest fires, rising sea levels, increasing salinisation and invasive pests are now threatening these resources and the livelihood of Mediterranean communities.

The meeting in Madrid took stock of the situation on the ground and sketched out the path ahead. Thaïs Leray from the European Commission's Directorate General for Climate Action notably explained why it is urgent to both cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent unmanageable impacts in the future, while at the same time adapting to climate change in order to manage unavoidable ones.

Solutions on the ground

Her message resonated with an audience implementing climate adaptation measures in their daily work. In addition to the LIFE programme’s contribution to protecting the environment, Senior Project Adviser at EASME, Joelle Noirfalisse, reminded its funding beneficiaries of the role that they play in illustrating the EU’s support for people's initiatives. “You are crucial in identifying challenges,” she said.

Researchers and conservationists also presented satellite databases, modelling tools and other high-tech instruments to help farmers and forest managers monitor changing weather conditions and climate trends on site. Dick Dee, Deputy Head of the Copernicus Climate Change Service showcased how the European Union’s Earth observation programme could help farmers and forest managers better adapt to the consequences of climate change, and tackle some of its causes.

“Farming and forestry are unique in that they both depend on climate conditions and can contribute to stabilising them,” said Nicola Di Virgilio from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development. Prominent examples figured among the projects led by members of the audience.

The LIFE Enerbioscrub project, whose work participants at the platform meeting observed on-site on 14 March, is reducing the risk of forest fires by removing flammable scrubs from Spanish forests and turning them into marketable fuels.

Photo: LIFE AGRI ADAPT Photo: LIFE AGRI ADAPT

LIFE AGRI ADAPT is testing ways of safeguarding 120 farms across Europe to increase the resilience of EU crops and livestock to climate change. Its results could help integrate climate adaptation into existing EU laws and funding rules, and raise awareness of its importance in agricultural circles.

These are just two examples of how the EU is helping its agricultural and forestry sector deal with climate change.  The platform meeting gave representatives from dozens of LIFE projects the opportunity to discuss best practices and share their insight with policy makers, government agencies, farmer and forestry associations, and industry.

Working groups

At the event, delegates met in working groups specialised on increasing the climate resilience of Mediterranean farms and forests, implementing adaptation policies and engaging with stakeholders.

Experts on farms and forests warned of rising threats from forest fires, water stresses, rising soil salinity, soil-eroding winds, and new pests and diseases spreading to the Mediterranean. These changes are already making forest ecosystems more fragile and reducing their productivity. Left unchecked, they could threaten economic output in the region and ultimately impact food security.

Working group participants reported that some farmers and forest managers are already responding to climate change by diversifying the crops and trees that they plant. Replacing monocultures with more diverse species can foster biodiversity and hedge against temperature hikes and water shortages. Turning farms and forests into generally healthier ecosystems makes them more resilient to changes in external conditions.

Photo: LIFE working group Photo: LIFE working group

Farms can further deal with symptoms of climate change by rotating crops, maintaining permanent vegetation to cover their soil and by adapting harvest calendars. Likewise, some forest managers are rescheduling felling dates and other field work to adapt their forests to new climates.

Technological solutions range from high efficiency irrigation systems, data-driven software to support farming decisions and early-warning weather forecasts are proving their merit. Field experts warn that long-term monitoring remains direly needed, if only to convey the value of innovative solutions to the largely traditional communities working in agriculture and forestry today.

Human factor

One working group focused on the social intricacies of this target audience in further detail, pointing out that although the views of farmers and forest managers on climate change has generally risen in recent years, the personality, age, job description and sector of activity still lead to marked differences in how land users react to this challenge.

Participants identified challenges in reaching out to tightly-knit communities, warning of a wide gap between research in agronomy and what happens on the ground. For the latest advances in science and technology to help farms and forests adapt to climate change, they must be first translated into user-friendly solutions to specific problems.

Photo: LIFE LIFE Enerbioscrub Photo: LIFE Enerbioscrub

In Madrid, field experts argued in favour of adapting existing tools rather than developing new ones as top-down intervention in the sector has led to a degree of innovation-fatigue. “One more website platform,” summarised one participant. “For what?”

Local associations and training programmes provide a more effective gateway to spread sustainable solutions among trailblazing farmers and forest managers. Through them, locals can act as pioneers, offering a more tangible example to their communities than external experts can.


Public sector touch

Where public administrations can support better engagement with farmers and foresters is through sound policy. One working group concluded that EU policy on climate adaption stands to benefit from a focus as clear for instance as with the EU's measurable targets for mitigating greenhouse gases, safeguarding biodiversity or protecting fisheries.

Rolling out EU policies could also be smoother given more flexibility to take account of local needs. Weather conditions, geography and community traditions all contribute to how amenable, or even capable, farmers and forest managers are to follow guidance on climate resilience.

The last touch comes from well targeted financial incentives to scale up tried and tested solutions. Platform meeting delegates highlighted smart subsidies for insurance and eco-labels for climate-resilient goods as promising first steps. They also hoped that climate adaptation measures would gradually assume their place in major sectoral policies like the Common Agricultural Policy.

Further details on the platform meeting can be found in its programme, concept note, background paper, presentation slides or on the website of the AgriAdapt project.

Download the final report below:

Timber rooftops reduce construction sector emissions

Photo: PEMADE Photo: PEMADE

21 March 2018 The University of Santiago de Compostella in Spain has constructed a 24-meter long timber rooftop whose innovative design could help cut greenhouse gas emissions from the construction sector and spread environmentally sustainable forestry practices.

The so-called Gridshell rooftop that now houses a storage facility at the PEMADE Laboratory of Timber Engineering of the University of Santiago de Compostela is made of reprocessed wood from pine, chestnut and eucalyptus trees grown in the surrounding province of Lugo.

Eucalyptus is a novel choice for the construction sector. Its thin trunk has historically been hard to work into planks and beams. But PEMADE has developed a novel technique for turning even small pieces of wood into solid building blocks by binding them with glue. Assembling these blocks into long, sturdy beams has made it possible to curve and cross timber into successive layers, meshing it like the threads of a fabric.

As part of the LIFE-funded Lugo + Biodynamic project, carpenters and structural fitters have worked with PEMADE to assemble the Gridshell structure in a record-breaking 10 days. This first prototype has demonstrated that wood can replace more energy-intensive construction materials like steel and concrete.

“Eight percent of carbon emissions globally are the result of the manufacture of cement,” said Paul Brannen, Member of the European Parliament for the North East of England, speaking on timber constructions at a recent workshop on Climate Action in Agriculture and Forestry. “Not only are you embedding carbon in the wood, you are also offsetting the heat and the chemical reaction that takes place when concrete and cement is made.”

Photo: PEMADE The Gridshell rooftop structure
Photo: PEMADE

This summer, PEMADE will get to work on a 500 m2 multi-story administrative building using a similar Gridshell design. Researchers estimate that its construction will emit a mere 5 tonnes of CO2, as opposed to over 200 tonnes if they used concrete. The timber will also sequester an additional 200 tonnes of CO2 in its structure, essentially sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in walls.

The environmental benefits of engaging local timber industry in the construction sector will extend to forests in Lugo too. As part of a climate-conscious urban planning strategy, city authorities will require sustainability certificates for timber used to build municipal buildings.

Sustainable forest management certification schemes can avoid the degradation and overexploitation of native forests through climate-sensitive guidelines. Lugo is fostering forestry practices that sequester carbon over the long term by creating a market for certified local wood sourced from certified plantations.

“There is a huge possibility here,” said Brannen. “Where possible, it makes sense to replace concrete with cross laminated timber or other timber products.”

Vote now for the European Natura 2000 Citizens' Award

Natura 2000 Citizens' Award

20 March 2018 The European Commission has announced the twenty-six finalists for this year’s Natura 2000 Awards. The prize recognises excellence in managing Natura 2000 network sites and in conveying their added value to the public. The entries include 17 finalists supported by LIFE-funded projects.

You can now join thousands of Europeans online in electing your favourite conservation effort and deciding who will bring home the European Natura 2000 Citizens’ Award. Voting remains open until 22 April 2018.

Natura 2000 represents the single largest coordinated network of nature conservation areas on Earth. Its 27 000 sites cover almost fifth of the EU’s landmass and sit at the heart of its nature and biodiversity policy.

Although the Natura 2000 network has demonstrably helped protect Europe's most threatened birds and habitats, few Europeans are familiar with its work. The aim of the award is to demonstrate what the network is, what it does to preserve Europe’s biodiversity, and how it benefits us all.

At a ceremony in Brussels on 17 May 2018, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella will reward some of its latest protagonists, celebrating their achievements with an international audience.

Five awards will be handed out by a jury of nature conservation experts for outstanding achievements in conservation, socio-economic benefits, communication, reconciling interests and perceptions, and cross-border cooperation and networking. The prestigious European Natura 2000 Citizens’ Award is the only one to be selected by popular vote.

“I am delighted to see so many excellent achievements in protecting our European natural heritage,” said Karmenu Vella, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. “They clearly demonstrate the value that nature provides to Europe’s economy and how our nature is at the heart of our culture.”

The award is now in its third year. Previous editions have notably rewarded LIFE-funded projects that saved the Iberian lynx from extinction in Spain, and established Natura 2000 Day that has since brought thousands to local Natura 2000 sites and spread the emblematic Natura 2000 “butterfly hands” gesture to 3 million social network accounts already.

The ceremony this year offers an opportunity to meet finalists in person, and exchange with EU officials and conservationists working within the Natura 2000 network. You can follow the ceremony via web-streaming or join in person by registering online before 3 May 2018.

In the meantime, don’t forget to vote.

Find out more about this year’s Natura 2000 Award finalists supported by LIFE projects:

NCFF loans €15 million for green projects in Croatia

Photo: EIB Photo: EIB

16 March 2018 With support from the LIFE programme, the European Investment Bank (EIB) is investing €15 million in protecting Croatia’s biodiversity and fortifying the country against climate change.

The EIB has provided a loan to Croatia’s public development bank HBOR to conserve Croatian ecosystems and prepare communities for global warming through bankable investments in ecosystems. Projects to be financed include green infrastructure or payment for ecosystem services.

The loan to HBOR is provided under the Natural Capital Financing Facility (NCFF), a financial instrument created by the LIFE programme in partnership with the EIB to back projects that address biodiversity and climate change adaptation.

The financial support includes technical assistance to help HBOR identify eligible business and public-sector investment opportunities, which will eventually turn a profit and encourage green growth.

“There is a great business case for investing in nature,” said Jonathan Taylor, EIB Vice-President responsible for Climate and Environment. “Biodiversity and economic growth can go hand in hand”

Croatia has an exceptionally rich natural heritage, ranking third in Europe in terms of plant diversity. Over 30% of its land area is protected as part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network. These environmental assets are of value to both communities and sectors of the economy, including tourism, sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Nature-based solutions, including permeable paving and green roofs, will help towns and cities cope with emerging threats from climate change such as intense heatwaves and more frequent floods.

The investment in Croatia is one example of how the NCFF is helping the EU halt the loss of biodiversity and adapt to climate change. The funding instrument is tackling these challenges by supporting investments in natural capital through loans and investments in equity funds, backed by a risk-sharing arrangement financed from the LIFE Programme. Beneficiaries must generate revenue or demonstrate cost savings to be eligible. The EIB can invest under the NCFF until the end of 2021 and is currently open to new project proposals.

LIFE Calls for Proposals to be published in 2018

LIFE LOGO

13 March 2018 Details are taking shape for the LIFE programme’s 2018 Calls for Proposals. A provisional calendar   for the call for proposals publication is now available online. Please note that schedules are currently indicative and that more information will be made public closer to the publication date for each call.

This year, calls under sub-programmes for Environment and Climate Action will cover action grants for "Traditional" projects, Integrated projects, Technical Assistance projects and Preparatory projects. An additional call for proposals will be published for operating grants to finance Specific Grant Agreements (SGAs) with Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

This will be the first year in which proposals for calls under LIFE's Environment sub-programme will follow the streamlined 2-stage submission process introduced to simplify administrative steps for funding applicants. For the LIFE Climate Action sub-programme, the submission procedure remains unchanged. Applicants will submit full proposals from the start.

As each call is published, a dedicated application package will be made available for download, with full application details on eligibility criteria, administrative procedures and co-financing rates.

Please find the detailed provisional calendar here.

Tree farms grow greener

Photo: LIFE+ InBioWood Photo: LIFE+ InBioWood

8 March 2018 New tree plantations could boost wood production while caring for nature and the climate. Following 20 years of planting mainly poplar monocultures in rural Italy, land owners in Verona are now testing an innovative way of growing mixed tree farms to boost their sustainability and harness valuable ecosystem services.  

Harvesting lumber from intensive poplar monocultures leaves soils barren every 10 years after harvest. These desolate landscapes foster little wildlife and promote the release of soil carbon into the air, contributing to climate change.

In contrast, so-called polycyclic tree farms offer a more permanent ecosystem in which different species coexist and are harvested at separate times. By diversifying the species planted, forest managers can for instance grow poplars alongside oaks that mature three times slower, and plane trees that can be harvested for firewood in as little as 6 to 7 years.

As part of the LIFE+ InBioWood project, forest managers are now learning to grow these artificial forests, notably by optimising the distance between trees and timing harvests to prevent fast-growing species from shadowing their neighbours with longer life cycles. Used wisely, diversity could boost wood production and provide a steadier income for tree farmers.

Ecosystem services

Gains in productivity are just one advantage of permanent polycyclic plantations. The shift towards mixed tree farms could also help protect biodiversity and keep carbon locked safely underground.

Bare soil and intensively farmed monocultures struggle to sustain the soil microbes, birds and other animals that keep life-giving habitats healthy. In addition to ensuring a continuous presence of trees, land managers from LIFE+ InBioWood are fostering richer ecosystems in their plantations to by growing non-commercial plants like shrubs.

The blanket of leaves and vegetation provided by these trees also prevents carbon that is locked in the soil from leaking into the atmosphere. Likewise, it can sequester carbon from recently grown biomass and progressively feed it back into the soil as nutrients.

For more information on permanent polycyclic plantations, Italian climate scientist and TV personality Luca Mercalli has lent his voice to the LIFE+ InBioWood project in a short documentary explaining the benefits of diversifying the species grown in tree farms.

 

Restored lake helps bring Denmark's largest bog back to life

Photo: LIFE Lille Vildmose Photo: LIFE Lille Vildmose

6 March 2018 Birds and visitors are flocking back to the largest raised bog in Denmark now that its once dry lake is refilling with water. The restored lake plays a vital role in this wetland habitat. Its shallow flooding is nursing Lille Vildmose back towards a healthier ecosystem.

In December last year, the LIFE project Lille Vildmose reached a milestone in its restoration work by plugging a centuries-old leak in Lake Birkesø, located in Lille Vildmose, Denmark. Conservationists blocked an agricultural canal that previously evacuated water out of the lake and into the sea.

The lake was drained 250 years ago as part of government-backed efforts to convert the surrounding bog into farmland. In recent decades, environmental awareness has reversed many of these measures in an attempt to restore raised bogs back to their natural state.

Blocking the canal has notably re-established the site’s natural hydrology, flooding over one hundred hectares of land in over a meter of water.

Photo: LIFE Lille Vildmose Photo: LIFE Lille Vildmose

“It is very nice to see this open landscape,” said Peter Hahn from Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food. “Just bog, no trees.” Undisturbed raised bogs can accumulate dead vegetation over thousands of years. These rare and vulnerable habitats host a unique diversity of plants and animals, and lock up exceptional amounts of greenhouse gases.

Past efforts to drain the bog have reduced its water level, exposing long-dead vegetation to oxygen and releasing the carbon trapped inside it into the atmosphere. This decomposition degrades the natural habitat and contributes to climate change. Only a small percentage of Europe’s raised bogs remain intact today. Already some 35 of the original 55 square kilometres of raised bog in Lille Vildmose have disappeared.

Let it splash

To reverse the trend, the LIFE Lille Vildmose project has raised water levels across more than 700 hectares of wetlands in northern Denmark. Its work has required erecting dams, sealing off canals, and returning water to tampered landscapes like Lake Birkesø.

Photo: LIFE Lille Vildmose Photo: LIFE Lille Vildmose

“Many locals have waited over 20 years for the lake’s restoration,” said Hahn. “Without the LIFE programme, these activities may never have been completed. We have been very happy to have time and funding to run this project and we can see the results.”

Already whooper swans and Canada geese are alighting in the lake’s waters to overnight. Birds are not the only visitors celebrating the bog’s revival. Close to 200 people gathered last year in Lille Vildmose to witness the closing of the canal and the restoration of Lake Birkesø’s. Hundreds more have since followed to greet the site’s new wildlife from an observation pavilion on the northern side of the lake.

“Most visitors are very interested in the restoration,” said Hahn. The tourist centre in Lille Vildmose has recorded an increase in numbers from 50 000 to 75 000 a year since the LIFE project started. Some are locals, but many travel from far away to experience the millennial charm of Denmark’s largest raised bog.

 

Tackling illegal killing along migratory flyways

Photo: Return of the Neophron Photo: Return of the Neophron

1 March 2018 LIFE projects to conserve the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) are moving beyond its breeding grounds in the Balkans to take action along the whole migratory flyway of the species. This is also building local conservation capacity and leading to new knowledge and awareness of this highly-prized species.

Paschalis was a juvenile Egyptian vulture hatched in 2013 in Dadia, Greece and tagged with a satellite transmitter as part of the LIFE project The Return of the Neophron. He was the only one of 10 such juveniles to successfully migrate to wintering grounds in southern Niger. In late February 2014, the coordinating beneficiary of the project, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB), noticed that his transmitter was giving a signal from the same location for a long time, followed by the loss of the signal. This was an indication that there might be a problem. The last signal from the bird in the wild was received from a site about 115 km north-east of Zinder (some 140 km from the border with Nigeria) and the next signals were from a house in the nearest village. A few days later, the transmitter was exported to Nigeria .

Photo: LIFE05 ENV/NL/000200 Paschalis' migration path

BSPB contacted its LIFE project partners from the Sahara Conservation Fund (SCF) in Niger and the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI) at the University of Jos in Nigeria to investigate. These simultaneous investigations took place in March and April 2014 and revealed crucial information that is now being used to protect Egyptian vultures and other migratory species.

What happened to Paschalis?

“The last location they had was not very far from where I used to live so I sent a team of local colleagues to investigate. They managed to get the story about why this vulture had been killed,” recalls Thomas Rabeil of SCF.

The investigation revealed that Paschalis was killed by a traditional vulture hunter who comes regularly from Nigeria. His aim was to sell the bird to customers in Nigeria for traditional ‘blood money’ [juju] ceremonies.

“People in some parts of Nigeria believe that the vulture is a very wise animal. If you kill a vulture or if you do some belief-based use – e.g. eat vulture parts and keep it on you, somehow you are able to become as wise as the bird itself,” explains Dr Manu Shiiwua, Director of APLORI. For instance, some people believe that by smoking the vulture's brains they can see into the future.

APLORI discovered that there is a big market for vulture parts in south-west Nigeria. “Every vulture part is sold in the market – even its droppings. It's not just vultures, other species of birds as well,” says Dr Shiiwua. Though illegal, “these markets are not hidden; it's a traditional practice, that's the difficult thing.”

Vulture parts are valuable and what Paschalis's tale showed was that the market for vulture parts in Nigeria was also having a negative impact on the species in neighbouring countries such as Niger and Chad. “There were jokes in Niger that once raptors cross the border with Nigeria they never come back! We didn't know why, but now we understand,” says Dr Rabeil.  

Photo: LIFE05 ENV/NL/000200 Photo: Svetoslav Spasov

Across the border

The SCF team in Niger began working with wildlife authorities and local communities to change perceptions of vultures. “The Egyptian vulture is listed in Appendix 1 of the wildlife law in Niger, but the rangers and wildlife authorities didn't pay it any attention. It was considered a pest, a useless species,” recalls Mr Rabeil. SCF worked with the LIFE project to raise awareness. “We implemented a public awareness campaign with some journalists, people from the wildlife authorities and the NGO,” he says. “We also visited the main rulers. Traditional hunter is an official job in Niger. For example, in Zinder, which is quite a big town, the second or third largest in the country, the Sultan has more than 200 traditional hunters working for him.”

Dr Rabeil says this campaign was very useful in sensitising people to the issues, the threats to the species and the vulture's important rule as an ecosystem service provider. “There was a better understanding of the importance of the vultures within the wildlife authorities. We managed to get very strong support from the main rulers.” The project also worked with the traditional hunters, increasing their awareness of which species are protected by the law and which can be hunted, and providing compensations for any impact on their livelihoods. “We tried to do that by hiring some of them to use their knowledge about wildlife for tracking purposes,” explains Dr Rabeil.

New LIFE for vultures

Now LIFE is helping to build on these first steps. The newly-funded Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project aims to reinforce the breeding population of the species in the Balkans by carrying out measures in its breeding grounds and along its migratory flyway, with the active involvement of 10 countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as four in the Balkans. Both SCF and APLORI will be involved in the new project. 

Photo: Return of the Neophron Photo: Return of the Neophron

“We will be monitoring the micro habitats of the Egyptian vulture: noting where they are found and seeing what is attracting them to those habitats where they are stopping over,” says Dr Shiiwua in Nigeria. “We will also be doing awareness campaigns along their route, working with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation” These campaigns will involve a lot of face-to-face meetings, as well as pamphlets and other materials in the local language, Hausa.

“The enthusiasm with which everybody along the flyway is coming on board is very positive,” says Dr Shiiwua. “I think the project will be very useful. Take Nigeria for example: we get to locations where either some of the birds have fallen victim we will talk to some of the people just on a one-to-one basis; another country does something; the next does something, it passes on a very good message: at least some of the birds will come out here and return.”

According to Thomas Rabeil: “If we want to protect Egyptian vultures along the pathway, their seasonal movement, it's very important to get a great collaboration with all the stakeholders in the different countries. This LIFE project is a real opportunity for that. It's not only going to benefit the Egyptian vultures, it's going to benefit all the vultures and all the raptors.”

 

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