Mitigating threat factors to vulture populations, key to their conservation

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The first Saturday of September of each year is the celebration of the International Vulture Daya date established thanks to the joint collaboration of the conservation organizations The Endangered Wildlife Trust y Hawk Conservancy Trusttogether with the Species Survival Commission Vulture Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In order to raise awareness of the threats to these birds, these organizations decided to create this event to raise awareness and promote the importance of their conservation.

Vultures fulfill an essential ecological function, acting as natural barriers against the spread of diseases, since, by feeding on carrion and meat of decomposing animals, they clean the natural environment, avoiding possible sources of infection. In this way, they prevent the spread of pathogens between animals and thus limit their transmission to humans. In addition, they contribute to reducing greenhouse gases and generate economic savings, since they avoid the removal of livestock carcasses in rural areas for subsequent treatment in industrial plants.

However, these necrophagous birds continue to face several threats that compromise their survival globally. The main risk factors include collisions with power lines and other infrastructures, habitat degradation, poisoning with bait or limited food due to the stabling of a large part of the livestock. Therefore, it is necessary to implement measures to help mitigate these dangers and facilitate the recovery of the species and their populations.

In this regard, Spain has contributed to the protection and improvement of the conservation status of these birds through a series of measures carried out in recent years. Thus, the approval of Royal Decree 1632/2011 made it possible to provide food for certain wildlife species, such as vultures, by providing them with animal by-products not intended for human consumption(SANDACH). In addition, the Ministry for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) conducted an assessment of compliance with these regulations, with the publication of a report detailing the actions developed in 2018 and 2019 to improve the availability of food for these species. This document indicates, among other aspects, that 14 autonomous communities have delimited protection areas dedicated to the feeding of necrophagous birds that cover up to 61.2% of the peninsular surface of Spain, and a total of 251 have been authorized and enabled. troughs throughout 11 autonomous communities. In addition, in 2019, nine communities granted authorizations to a total of 15,702 extensive livestock farms for the feeding of necrophagous species making use of SANDACH.

Thanks, to a large extent, to the implementation of these actions, our country is one of the great strongholds of vultures at European level, in terms of population size and also in terms of species diversity. Thus, Spain is home to the 90 % of the community populations of these raptors, including 94 % of the griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus), 82 % of the Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus), 98 % of the black vultures(Aegypius monachus) and 66 % of the bearded vultures(Gyapetus barbatus).

These species are at different levels of threat within our territory, according to the latest edition of the Red Book of Birds of Spain (2021). In the case of the black vulture, the Red Book considered it as “vulnerable” until a few years ago, but currently catalogs it as “near threatened”, thanks to the 38% increase in the breeding population between 2006 and 2017, a trend that seems to be maintained since then as the aforementioned document points out. With regard to the Spanish populations of griffon vultures, the evolution continues to be favorable and is currently in a state of “least concern”. However, the report highlights that it is the species with the highest mortality rate due to collisions with wind turbines, so mitigation measures are needed to address this threat. Finally, the Egyptian vulture and the bearded vulture are also experiencing a recovery in their Spanish populations thanks to the monitoring and conservation programs that have been developed in recent years, and in both cases have gone from being considered “endangered” to being classified under the “vulnerable” category. In the case of the Egyptian vulture, however, it continues to have a very small population, with barely 1,500 breeding pairs and less than 10,000 individuals in total, while the bearded vulture has some 133 breeding pairs and is also considered “endangered” in the Spanish Catalog of Threatened Species.

Since its inception, MITECO’s Biodiversity Foundation has supported more than 20 projects that contribute, directly or indirectly, to improving the conservation status of vultures, through actions that have made it possible to increase knowledge about the behavior and migratory movements of these birds. Actions have also been carried out to restore their habitats and improve the environmental conditions that favor their recovery, as well as actions to rescue and rehabilitate specimens for their subsequent release and monitoring.

In addition, within the framework of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan (PRTR), financed by the European Union – NextGenerationEU, the Fundación Biodiversidad is promoting the project
BioTramuntana project
. This is a bioeconomy initiative led by the Mediterranean Wildlife Foundation (FVSM), with the participation of the General Foundation of the University of Alcalá. This initiative aims to promote the use and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity of mountain farms and municipalities in the northern Sierra de Tramuntana (Mallorca), through the development of tools, infrastructure and interrelationships that generate a transformative environmental and social impact.

Among the actions included in this project, we highlight the live broadcast of the daily life of a pair of black vultures that have nested in the Sierra de Tramuntana (Mallorca) and the care they provide to their chick. The objective of this initiative, accessible through the FVSM’s
YouTube channel of the FVSM
is to bring the daily life of a family of these majestic birds closer to the general public, without disturbing them, and to allow experts to study their behavior during the breeding period. The black vulture is a protected species on the island of Mallorca, where it has the only stable island population of this species in the world, with about 45 breeding pairs.