Greeks Fight to Protect Majestic Rare Vulture

By Heini-Sofia Alavuo

The bearded vulture (gypaetus barbatus) is one of the rarest raptors in Europe, and now Greeks on its mountainous island home of Crete are doing all they can to help this magnificent bird survive.

Bearded vultures are categorized as ‘near threatened’, not endangered, because of their population level in Spain, where their high juvenile survival levels are increasing. The population is also rising in the Alps.

But, despite this good news, the bearded vulture is far from safe in Greece, where it has already disappeared from the mainland.

In the 1990s, biologists, professors, and other experts founded conservation programs to protect the species in Greece. There were three programs: the first initiated in 1995-1996, then another in 1998-2002 and a second phase in 2002-2006.

Greek Reporter spoke to Dr. Stavros Xirouchakis — an expert on raptor ecology, conservation, and management at the University of Crete — about the efforts and how the species is faring.

Xirouchakis takes our call on-the-go since he is out ‘ringing’ or tagging birds. Xirouchakis says in the 90s the population was very small and collapsed on the Greek mainland because of poisoning – never to recover.

He says one of the biggest threats to the species is the presence of wolves or other predators – locals in these areas often resort to illegal hunting or poison.

In most cases, the wolf population endures the brunt of these poisoning attempts but these actions have a dangerous impact on vultures.

“The bearded vulture was the first to disappear and to be affected by these baits since they are capable of finding the small pieces. They are also very territorial, so it’s very easy to lose them in such actions,” Xirouchakis says.

In Crete the situation is different — there are no large carnivores, hence no antipredator campaigning. According to Xirouchakis, the population here is rather healthy; they have plenty of food — they eat only bone — because Crete has plenty of livestock. The island also offers many suitable nesting sites, such as rocky cliffs.

In the 90s, the main threat to the vulture in Crete was illegal shooting. Their numbers dropped from 10 breeding pairs to four, from which only two were producing juveniles every year.

Xirouchakis says population growth takes time for the bearded vulture since it takes five to six years for juveniles to become sexually mature. Then they need to form territorial pairs in order to start breeding around the age of seven.

The conservation projects focused on spreading public awareness, artificial feeding and detailed monitoring of the species’ population. They also focused on the protection of all the Natura 2000 Network sites where the vulture is found.

People were persuaded to stop target-shooting raptors, which turned out to be successful. The vulture population started to grow slowly but steadily -– now there are seven pairs of bearded vultures in Crete, producing approximately five juveniles every year.

“Currently there are approximately 45-50 individuals in total living in Greece,” Xirouchakis says.

Some poisoning still happens but not as much as before — the public has clearly become more aware of the situation.

Xirouchakis tells Greek Reporter that one of the modern threats to vultures, especially in Crete, are wind farms – the need for renewable energy is dangerous for the species.

“There are plenty of windmills in Crete but that leaves no grazing land for the vultures,” he says. Crete is known for its wind power and there will most likely be more production in the future.

After these EU-funded projects, the work continues. Conservation of the bearded vulture is still vital in order to maintain the population in Greece. This majestic bird is part of the country’s beautiful biodiversity and, with active work, the population will hopefully become healthy and numerous in the future.