Issue #3 – Bearded Vultures

Why we need the vultures, and why the vultures need the Vulture Conservation Foundation.

Ancient societies used to be scared of vultures. The old testament tells the story of a grieving woman, who watches over her family’s dead bodies in fear that the vultures might descend. Big, black birds in the sky, feasting on carrion on the ground – in those times, how could people not associate the vulture with death?

Their reputation did not improve in more modern times. Charles Dickens’ assessment was crueller and more shortly put: “Disgusting birds”.

But not all cultures have viewed vultures in such a negative light. Ancient Egyptians focused on the maternal nature of vultures, in the belief that they cared for their young better than any other animal. Vultures were used to symbolise the Egyptian goddess, Mut, whose name lives on in the translations of ‘mother’ across European languages. Let’s also not forget who saves the day in the Disney version of the Jungle Book.

The world needs vultures

Whatever your view on vultures, they play an absolutely crucial role in the environments in which they live. They are a distinctive, unique and spectacular component of Planet Earth’s biodiversity. Vultures feed on the carcasses of dead animals. It’s a clean-up operation. Where an animal has died from an infectious disease, the vultures swoop in, pick the meat from the bones (often also eating the bones) and let their highly corrosive stomach acids do the rest.

Vultures are rightly recognised as a “Keystone Species” in the European mountain ecosystems. This means they have a disproportionately large impact on their local environment. Sadly, these under-appreciated species are considered one of the most threatened groups of birds on the planet. In Africa and Asia, many species are on the brink of extinction as they faced dramatic declines over the past few decades.

Vultures in Europe faced a similar situation only a few years ago. In some regions their populations are threatened or even extinct. However, as a general trend, European vultures populations are increasing thanks to the action of conservationists. The four European vulture species still face several threats, from illegal wildlife poisoning to lack of food and collisions at wind farms and powerlines. As more vultures die, the populations become isolated, slowing the rate of reproduction and putting the survival of the species in difficult balance.

The Bearded Vultures

Thankfully, there are many organisations working together to save European vultures, such as the Vulture Conservation Foundation. The VCF is committed to protecting all of Europe’s vulture species, and has been doing so for years. But it all started with the Bearded Vulture.

The Bearded Vulture, Europe’s rarest vulture, is an exceptional vulture species that has evolved to primarily feed on the bones of animal carcasses, therefore providing unique ecosystem services. 

Because of its unique role in preserving the ecosystems they live in, Bearded Vultures are “umbrella species” targeted for conservation efforts. By safeguarding the mountain habitat for the Bearded Vulture, other mountain wildlife benefits too, such as golden eagles and ibex.

The VCF aims to see the return of the Bearded Vulture to its former range across Europe, and it has been working to achieve this for decades now. Since 1986, based on a captive-breeding programme, the VCF and its partners released 323 birds in different European regions and managed to bring the species back to the Alps after their extinction.  These results take a lot of effort and years to achieve as Bearded Vultures only successfully breed once they reach ten years old! Not only that, but it’s a very sensitive species.

Just watch below what it took to breed one Bearded Vulture chick in captivity for its eventual release into the wild or for it to become a breeding parent.

The Vulture Conservation Foundation

We are pleased to be supporting the Vulture Conservation Foundation this year through a special Bearded Vulture cycling jersey. VCF is an international NGO committed to the conservation of these vulture populations. Their work is critical to the health of European mountain regions. 

The VCF’s work is ambitious, focused, targeted and species-specific. They institute captive breeding programs in key areas. They take steps on the ground to halt the existing threats to the vultures and to prevent new threats from arising. They strengthen existing populations, while re-introducing vultures back into their original habitats, along with many other projects.

We will be updating you on their work every now and then here – so stay tuned for more!