"THE WORST THING FOR US IS LOSING BIRDS THAT WE KNOW. LOSING A BIRD AFTER IT HAS TRAVELED ALL THE WAY FROM AFRICA IS ESPECIALLY HEARTBREAKING."
A unique white-winged raptor once revered as an ancient symbol of life and royalty, the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is sadly facing a setting sun in its existence. The smallest of four, and sole migratory vulture species in Europe, this vulture is particularly special to Greece where it is known as the Asproparis, and is considered a herald of spring.
Once gracing the skies, the Asproparis now faces immediate extinction. The past 30 years have seen a 80 percent decline in the Balkan area’s population, according to WWF Hellas. “We have been losing almost one vulture pair per year during the last couple years [in Greece],” says Victoria Saravia, project coordinator at the Hellenic Ornithological society.
In Greece today, only five pairs remain in the Meteora and Thrace areas, a decline from 15 pairs recorded in 2012, and 70 pairs recorded in 2000.
“If we don’t take measures, this bird will be extinct within the next five years,” warns Roula Trigou, senior conservation communication officer at the Hellenic Ornithological Society. “The fact that five documented pairs remain in Greece essentially means that the population has collapsed...it’s very difficult to save this vulture now, but we want to at least safeguard the pairs that are left.”
To put the declining population rate into perspective, in the 1980s when counts were first conducted, some 200 to 250 pairs nested in the Meteora region alone. “The Asproparis was a common sight in the Meteora region” Trigou says. “This bird was so popular and beloved in the community, it had 18 local names.”
Revered since ancient times, the vulture was considered sacred for many cultures. The ancient Egyptians highly honored this species in hieroglyphics and symbolism. In ancient art, it donned the headdresses of priestesses and the goddesses Mut, Satet, Isis and Nekhbet.
In fact, the respect for this bird was so deeply rooted in Egyptian culture that the white-winged vulture was officially protected by Pharaonic law. It was thus known locally as the pharaoh’s chicken.
In Greek mythology, Zeus transformed two friends turned enemies, Aegypius and Neophron, into vultures, according to mythographer Antoninus Liberalis’ work, Metamorphoseon Synagoge. The vulture’s genus name is derived from this Neophron of Greek mythology.
In Muslim tradition, the legend of the akbuba, or “the white father” speaks of a vulture that rescued Muhammad from the claws of the golden eagle. In India, the Vedagiriswarar temple in Tirukalukundram is famous for hosting a pair of vultures. These birds are traditionally hand fed by temple priests before noon, who believe that the birds’ late arrival symbolizes there is a sinner amongst them.
Since antiquity, this particular vulture cultivated a rather close relationship with humans, nesting on top of stables, wobbling down streets, and acting as a cleaner of sorts, feeding on deceased animals and protecting its environment from the spread of diseases.
In Greece, the arrival of the Asproparis symbolizes the commencement of spring, and constitutes a significant piece of local tradition, at least for those old enough to have experienced the bird’s majesty.
“Younger generations not exposed to local traditions, stories, and myths do not understand the importance of this vulture,” Trigou says. “It means nothing to them if the bird comes back or not. It’s sad...this is an example of how modern society has broken its link with nature.”
An intelligent, beautiful bird that has profoundly inspired mythology, religion, society and local traditions for centuries, the Asproparis is now at the mercy of human intervention.
A globally endangered species, the Balkan Asproparis population nests in Greece, Bulgaria, FYROM and Albania, making its way up from Chad or Sudan in Africa on routes through Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Greek seas.
These birds take on quite the perilous journey, traveling over 5,000 kilometers north in the spring, and south in autumn. They hatch in the north and travel to Africa where they spend two to three years before reaching maturity, traveling all the way back to their original nesting grounds to start their own families.
Statistically speaking, only one in ten birds survive to adulthood. The majority of juvenile birds falls victim to lack of adult guidance. Migratory routes are knowledge passed on from generation to generation, Trigou explains. “If you were an Egyptian Vulture born in Meteora and no bird is there to show you the route, that knowledge is lost.” With few or no experienced birds available to light the way for fledgelings, these young birds now tend to take on dangerous routes.
Last year, a group of seven decided to fly a particularly unfavorable route from northern Greece straight down to Africa, via the Mediterranean Sea. Usually, the Asproparis travels along the Turkish coastline, but with no elders to lead, this group went with instinct instead, a choice that proved fatal. With no rest areas along the way, these birds wore themselves out, perishing one by one along the route. That year, a sole survivor made it to Chad, the “hotspot” for the Greek vulture clan.
And though these early stage hardships play a vital role in the demise of the Asproparis, the main cause of population loss is quite unfortunate and directly connected to the wrongdoing of just a small number of individuals.
Second degree poisoning by consumption of animals targeted by poison bait, has taken a toll on this majestic vulture. While strictly prohibited in Greece, illegal bait and pesticides, so difficult to trace, are still used to posion animals such as wolves and dogs. And while vultures are not the main target, the use of poison bait has proven catastrophic to local populations. Secondary threats include electrocution, nesting site disturbance, and the depletion of formerly available feeding sources.
Up in the forests of Dadia in the northwestern part of Evros, WWF Hellas researcher Ela Kret and her team of trained canines focus on minimizing poison bait around the Asproparis’ breeding grounds. They patrol the area and rid it of both bait and poisoned animals, most of which are larger animals: dogs, foxes and vultures, she says. According to an EU LIFE Project report, only an estimated 10 percent of poison victims are ever located, noting that the vast majority of incidents remain unrecorded.
“To tackle this problem, we need the assistance of relevant authorities, citizens and stakeholders,” Kret stresses. But conservation efforts to save the Asproparis in the Balkan area are not enough to save the vulture in the near future, she explains. For the few birds that actually make it to Africa, a new journey full of dangers begins.
“Of the few birds that make it to Africa, some are killed for belief-based practices...black magic and witchcraft,” Trigou says. “This is very disheartening.” Such was the fate of a vulture named Paschalis.
Hatched in Greece in 2013, Paschalis was one of two juvenile vultures (of 10 tagged that year) to survive the migratory route to Africa, and was the only bird to make it across the Mediterranean Sea alive. Tagged with a satellite transmitter under the LIFE Project “Return of the Neophron,” Paschalis was traced as he successfully flew to wintering grounds in southern Niger.
In February of 2014, however, a last signal was received about 140 km from the border of Nigeria and then from a hut in a nearby village. An investigation was launched shortly thereafter in collaboration with the Sahara Conservation Fund in Niger and the A. P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute in Nigeria.
A search team conducted interviews with locals to procure information that may lead to Paschalis. It was discovered that the bird fell victim to local tradition, as he was taken down by a hunter for witchcraft ceremonies.
The bird had spent a total of five days in the hunter’s home before being transported to Nigeria for sale. When the search team reached the location, the hunter himself was absent, but a woman who identified as his girlfriend disclosed that Paschalis was accompanied by an additional seven vultures and 43 crows.
In Niger, locals consider vultures repulsive. In Nigeria, these birds are a commercial target, and while protected legally, black market trade is still widespread. The report states that the hunter told the woman that “rich and famous people from Nigeria...make the orders.” These people, the report goes on to state, “make alliances with the devil for more wealth and money, a common act of witchcraft in Africa.”
Greece is home to four types of vultures, all of which are endangered. These are the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), Black vulture (Aegypius monachus) and the star of this feature, the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus).
The Asproparis is an intelligent, family-oriented bird. Laying between one to three eggs, the female and male equally care for their young. A rarity in the world of aves, this vulture is known to use tools to dine, breaking larger eggs with the use of rocks, or using twigs to roll up nesting material.
A scavenger bird of prey, the Asproparis feeds on carrion, and occasionally enriches its diet with small animals like insects, lizards and hedgehogs. Juvenile Asproparis vultures are brown with white speckles and grey legs, acquiring their beautiful white plumage and pink legs at around age five or six.
Their spiked head feathers resemble a lion’s mane, or a quirky hairdo. Their hooked bills, slender and long, may be darker at the tip, extending from a characteristic featherless bright orange yellow face. Their wings sport distinct black feathers, while their tail is wedge shaped. Adult wingspan reaches about 180cm (5.9 feet), with a body length of about 60cm (2.2 feet).
When it comes to love matters, the Asproparis is monogamous and usually chooses a mate in Africa. Pairs then fly up north together to nest. But with almost depleted populations, not every bird finds a mate. Named after his characteristic crooked tail feathers, Stravoouras is a male single who has not seen success in finding love, flying to Greece solo for years.
“It’s a stressed situation,” Trigou says. “He couldn’t find a mate and attempted to mate with a female from another pair...and that pair ended up abandoning their egg after this.”
Though this story may seem a bit comical...a crooked-feathered loner tries his luck with someone else’s girl...it sheds light into yet another issue plaguing the ever dwindling Greek Asproparis population.
Today, 14 countries in the Balkans, Africa and Middle East are joining forces in an attempt to save this gracious bird, with the Hellenic Ornithological Society and WWF Hellas leading actions in Greece.
An extension of the original program that ran 2011 to 2016, the LIFE Program “Urgent Action to Empower the Balkan Population of Asproparis and Ensure its Migration Route,” will last until 2022, and is funded by the European Commission and the A. G. Leventis Foundation.
Program participants will implement actions in countries where the Asproparis breeds (Greece, Bulgaria, FYROM, Albania), migrates (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) and dwells in the winter (Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Chad).
Given the large geographical reach of this migratory bird, the LIFE Program for the protection of Asproparis is one of the most ambitious wild animal conservation programs ever implemented. And while conservation efforts may curb the rate at which this magnificent bird’s population diminishes, the fate of the Greek Asproparis group is gloomy.
“It’s always good to give some kind of positive and hopeful message to people, but in my opinion, the future of the Egyptian vulture in Greece is looking quite bad,” Trigou says.
Organized efforts to fight the out-of-control illegal poisoning of wildlife date back to 2012 when an antipoison task force was launched to mitigate poisoning incidents by educating local communities, and actively engaging in the eradication of poison bait. Participants included environmental NGOs ARCTUROS, Hellenic Ornithological Society, WWF Greece, Callisto, the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature, the Hellenic Wildlife Care Association (ANIMA), and the Natural History Museum of Crete.
“When locals understand that their actions are what kills their beloved bird, it comes as a shock,” Trigou says.
In 2014, under the framework of the LIFE Project “The Return of the Neophron,” the Hellenic Ornithological Society coordinated this task force, collecting data on illegal poisoning, a crime that all too often goes unseen. According to one of the project’s reports, only an estimated 10 percent of poison victims are ever located, noting that the vast majority of incidents remain unrecorded.
When it comes to conservation efforts, some argue that captive breeding may be a solution, but as Trigou explains, this does not solve the problem. “The main threats right now are very difficult to address...there are so many sociological and economical aspects to it,” she says. “One of the preconditions of actively breeding birds in captivity is that the threats should be addressed, if not completely eradicated. We cannot just release birds to die.”
The breeding of Greek and Balkan birds with mates from other countries is a possibility, but not one that has been considered at the moment, Trigou explains. “It’s against all conservation rules to mix two genetic pools,” she says. “If the Balkan population does not share the gene pool of the vultures living in Span, we cannot breed them.”
And though they may be connected to other European flocks by DNA, the remaining five Greek Asproparis pairs are the only ones that share their unique migratory route, making them a national treasure.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
With threats ever increasing, this beautiful vulture faces extinction, not in the future, but right now. Help save this majestic bird by showing zero tolerance to poisoning, and by sharing the story of the Asproparis with your community.
“The Asproparis is not just a bird. In Greece, it’s an iconic bird,” Trigou says sitting in a tidy office at the Hellenic Ornithological Society’s headquarters in Athens. Here, the walls are decorated with bird posters, their gleaming eyes staring back at the cameraman, unaware they are the face of preservation efforts some end up dedicating their lives to.
“We know all the vultures individually...each has a name,” she says. “It’s a family relationship.”
WORDS: Portes Magazine
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