story by PannonEagle
Last week, BirdLife in Hungary (MME) was contacted by the Bulgarian organisation, Green Balkans to say one of their GPS tagged Cinereous vultures, named Ichera, was transmitting suspicious location data from an area in north-eastern Hungary.
MME’s responded immediately, deploying their canine detection unit, and, with the help of the local ranger service in the Hortobágy National Park, they were able to locate the vulture’s GPS tag – but no sign of Ichera.
Using information from the recovered GPS tracker, and feathers and blood marks found by MME’s specialised dog unit, the investigators believe that this vulture had been shot, its GPS removed, and the tag thrown into a nearby river. MME immediately called the police.
The Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), also commonly known as the black vulture or monk vulture, due its bald head and ruff of neck feathers like a monk’s cowl, is one of Europe’s four indigenous vulture species. The cinereous vulture is listed as Near Threatened globally and has declined over most of its range in the last 200 years due to persecution (poisoning and shooting), food and habitat loss. The species decline has been the greatest in the western half of its range, with extinctions in many European countries (France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Albania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania) and throughout its entire breeding range in northwest Africa (Morocco and Algeria).
In Bulgaria, the last recorded breeding pair was observed in the 1950s and the species was declared extinct in 1985. However, thanks to the efforts of BirdLife partner BSBP and other organisations such as Vulture Conservation Foundation, dozens of individuals have been reintroduced in recent years, and in 2021, the first two nesting pairs were recorded in Bulgaria over 30 years after they had been declared extinct. Through this reintroduction project, aptly named “Bright Future for Black Vultures,” a huge step for vulture conservation was achieved.
“Ichera’s presence in Hungary however, was the result a different project to reintroduce Cinerous vultures to their former habitats. The “Vultures Back to LIFE” project, led by the wildlife conservation charity Green Balkans in collaboration with the Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna, Vulture Conservation Foundation, Junta de Extremadura and Euronatur, aims to reintroduce around 60 birds, some from captive-breeding, but mostly coming from Spanish wildlife rehabilitation centres into the wild in Bulgaria. “Ichera” fledged in Spain in 2019, and after a rocky start, had begun making long-distance jounreys: 1 month in Bulgaria and then turning north to Serbia and Romania and finally arriving at East Hungary, Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, where it disappeared.
The Cinereous Vulture is a strictly protected species throughout the EU. Not only is killing one a criminal offence, with the offender facing fines and possible prosecution, but it is also a huge setback to conservation efforts that are often many millions of euro and many years in the making.
“All released vultures are priceless: they were rescued, rehabilitated, donated and transported by the Government of Extremadura, AMUS and the Vulture Conservation Foundation from Spain to reintroduction in Bulgaria. The project team works intensively to reach the goal while relying on international conservation cooperation – for example while the bird was in Romania, the local NGO, Milvus group provided artificial feeding sites and continuously monitored its condition and now in Hungary the contribution of MME was crucial to reveal the fate of the bird” – Simeon Marin from Green Balkans stated.
Vultures, just like other scavenges play an important role in our ecosystem. They are capable of consuming large amounts of carcasses which could potentially prevent outbreaks of pathogens that endanger both livestock and human health. It is truly dreadful that despite all of the conservation efforts to end illegal shooting, vultures continue to be persecuted in the 21st century.
Back at the riverbank in north-eastern Hungary, a crime scene investigation is underway; field evidence has been recorded and DNA samples collected from the GPS tag. We now wait for the police investigation to run its course.