Conservationists have joined forces to provide a lifeline for the threatened Griffon Vulture through ‘LIFE with Vultures’, a new four-year project aiming to prevent the extinction of the species in Cyprus.
The Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus is the largest bird in Cyprus with a wingspan that can reach 2.8 metres.
In the 1950s, the population numbered several hundred birds, but with only 20-25 vultures remaining today, amounting to a 94% decrease, these iconic birds are now a rare sight in Cypriot skies.
The reasons behind the decline are many and complex, but the main threats facing the species are two: lack of food and poisoning.
Changes in livestock keeping, from extensive to intensive, meant the subsequent reduction of food availability for the Griffon Vulture, a carrion-eating bird of prey that roams widely in search of food.
Their dietary habits are what make these birds an integral part of the ecosystem and at the same time highly vulnerable to poisoning, from illegally placed poisoned bait in the countryside.
Although targeted at foxes and stray dogs, poisoned bait also affect vultures as well as other birds of prey.
Thanks to their unique eating habits, vultures are also known as ‘nature’s clean-up crew’ providing critically important ecosystem services by cleaning up after death and acting as natural carcass recyclers.
Vultures also help livestock keepers, not only because they clean up the land, but also because they eliminate the need for the treatment and incineration of thousands of tons of animal remains every year.
Thanks to this free cleaning service, millions of euros can be saved in waste management and the potential emission of hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 per year is avoided, for the benefit of all.
The EU-funded ‘LIFE with Vultures’ project aims to prevent the extinction of the Griffon Vulture population in Cyprus and take measures to protect it, through concerted actions to address the species’ main threats.
Specifically, the project includes actions against the use of poison baits, actions to counter collisions with overhead powerlines as well as expanding the feeder network that provides safe supplementary food to the vultures.
Through the project, Griffon Vultures will be brought from Spain for release in Cyprus, to strengthen the extremely diminished Cypriot population.
Another key aspect of the project is the implementation of a coordinated and targeted awareness-raising campaign, to spread the message of the importance of the Griffon Vulture and the problems posed by poisoning.
The project rationale follows the global blueprint for vulture conservation (The Vulture Multi-Species Action Plan, endorsed by the Convention for Migratory Species), as well as the relevant EU roadmap towards eliminating illegal killing and successful examples from other European countries.
Actions against poisoning include the setup of anti-poison units, consisting a specially trained dog and its handler, improvement of the process for responding to and handling poisoning incidents, training of officers from government agencies, proper investigation of poisoning incidents and law enforcement.
“Apart from the ecological importance of Griffon Vultures as nature’s clean-up crew, we also have a duty not to allow a species to go extinct on our watch on this planet,” said Melpo Apostolidou, Project Coordinator at BirdLife Cyprus.
“The ‘LIFE with Vultures’ project, will not only benefit vultures but also other wildlife as well as a large number of dog owners who lose their dogs to poisoning in the countryside every year,” she added.
The €1.3 mln project, is co-funded by the EU’s LIFE programme and will be completed in 2023.
Project partners are BirdLife Cyprus as the coordinating beneficiary, the Game and Fauna Service, Terra Cypria – The Cyprus Conservation Foundation and the Vulture Conservation Foundation.