Guest blog by Dr Steffen Oppel, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist
Vultures are declining in many parts of their range, and in Europe the Egyptian Vulture is in most desperate trouble. The populations of this species in eastern Europe have declined from less than 500 pairs in the 1980s to around 80 pairs in 2014. The Balkan population of Egyptian Vultures is now only a tiny remnant, but there is a much larger population in neighbouring Turkey. Unfortunately nobody knows how large that population actually is, and whether it is declining or stable.Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus). Photograph by Nidhin PoothullyCounting vultures on migrationTurkey is a large country and could harbour 1000 - 3000 pairs of Egyptian Vultures, but surveying the entire country is not feasible and so the size and status of the Egyptian Vulture population is unknown. However, satellite tracking of Egyptian Vultures tagged in Bulgaria and Greece revealed that Egyptian Vultures migrate to Africa via a small bottleneck around the Gulf of Iskenderun in southern Turkey. In September 2013, the RSPB and a group of collaborators from Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB, Birdlife partner in Bulgaria) and the Doga Dernegi (Birdlife partner in Turkey) explored this area and identified a spot from where the autumn migration of raptors could be observed - with the hope of obtaining a first estimate of the number of Egyptian Vultures breeding in western Turkey.Amazing sights of mass migrationFrom 16 August to 16 October 2014, a team led by the Doga Dernegi and the RSPB counted all the migrating raptors passing over the small village of Sarimazi in southern Turkey. The field crew witnessed a staggering display of mass migration, with >45.000 Lesser Spotted Eagles (>95% of the world population!), >30.000 Honey Buzzards, >25.000 Steppe Buzzards, and >9000 Short-toed Snake Eagles. Countless White and Black Storks, White Pelicans, and numerous songbird species completed the fantastic experience of one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles to watch. White storks on mass migration. Photograph by Steffen OppelTurkish vulture population could be strugglingThese numbers are several orders of magnitude larger than previous counts at a nearby mountain pass (Belen Pass) - with one exception. Both in 2013 and in 2014 the crew counted far fewer Egyptian Vultures than a British Ornithologists expedition recorded at Belen Pass in 1976, despite being in a more suitable location.Lower than average fledglings per nestMonitoring of the breeding success of Egyptian Vultures at an important site near Ankara (Beypazari), which Doga Dernegi has carried out since 2010, also indicates that the Turkish population may be struggling. Pairs in this area raised on average only 0.96 fledglings per nest, which is even lower than the rapidly declining Balkan population (1.13 fledglings/nest).Volunteers counting migrating raptors passing over the small village of Sarimazi in southern Turkey. Photograph by Steffen Oppel. More monitoring needed to understand vultures in TurkeyLong-term monitoring programs cannot provide answers immediately, and several years of autumn migration counts will be necessary before a trend of the western Turkish Egyptian Vulture population can be estimated. However, so far the first indications are not encouraging and more research is required to better understand the status and potential problems of Egyptian Vultures in Turkey.Find out more about our work on vultures. If you are interested in volunteering in Sarimazi, Turkey in 2015 contact Dr Steffen Oppel. Please consider Signing the change.org petition to remove Diclofenac (vulture killing drug) from the EU market.
The IUCN Red List is what helps direct our conservation efforts to particular species (whether they are Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Data Deficient, Least Concern), and BirdLife International maintains and updates the information on birds. Our knowledge of some taxa, including birds and mammals, is extensive, but for many others there is a massive amount of work in progress.
As part of the communications campaign to support the 50th anniversary of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, they have released a stunning video explaining the importance of The IUCN Red List as a powerful tool that drives action for nature conservation. Featuring fabulous images, the video was produced by the photographer and filmmaker Mattias Klum, who is also an IUCN Goodwill Ambassador.
Find out more about IUCN, view the video and read their web story here, and please sign their pledge.
An important update on vultures from Dr Toby Galligan, RSPB Conservation Scientist
New research published by a Spanish-British-American team in Conservation Biology documents a suspected flunixin poisoning of a wild Eurasian griffon vulture from Spain. Flunixin is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) similar to the vulture-killing drug diclofenac that caused catastrophic declines in three vulture species in South Asian. This is the first reported instance of vulture mortality in the wild resulting from exposure to an NSAID other than diclofenac and the first occurring outside South Asia.
Eurasian griffon vulture, Gyps fulvus. Photograph by Carles Carboneras
Europe, particularly Spain, is home to significant populations of vultures and eagles. In fact, Spain is home to 95% of Europe’s vultures, the largest global population of Eurasian griffon (Gyps fulvus) and the vulnerable Spanish Imperial Eagle (Aquila adalberti) (an opportunistic scavenger). We now know that diclofenac kills not only Gyps vultures, but Aquila eagles too.
In 2013, despite sufficient evidence of the impact diclofenac has had on South Asia vultures, veterinary diclofenac was approved for manufacture and use in Italy and Spain and has since been distributed to other European countries. The flunixin case proves that Spanish vultures are exposed to veterinary NSAIDs; and while it is worrying, we are most concerned about the exposure to diclofenac, which we know is very good a killing vultures.
Call for a ban on diclofenac in Europe
A coalition of conservation organisations, including the RSPB and BirdLife partners in Spain and Italy, with the support of European Union representatives and members of the public are campaigning for an immediate ban on diclofenac in Europe and mandatory risk assessment to vultures of all NSAIDs currently approved and those to be approved in the future.
A decade ago, the discovery that veterinary diclofenac had caused the catastrophic declines in South Asian vultures stunned the world. Few imagined that a pharmaceutical drug could be responsible for such devastation. Ten years on, we hope that the EMA and European Commission realises a ban is required before it is too late for Europe’s avian scavengers.
Our work continues in Asia
Although we are forced to turn our attentions to Europe, our work in South Asia still continues. Our article published today in the journal Philosophical Transactions (B) reveals that diclofenac prevalence, a proxy for its use, has halved in India.
By sampling thousands of livestock carcasses dumped in the open and thereby available to vultures throughout India between 2005 and 2009, we have shown that diclofenac prevalence has decreased by 51%. In addition, meloxicam (the only know vulture-safe NSAID) prevalence has increased by 44%. From the prevalence of diclofenac, we can estimate the number of vulture deaths per meal has reduced by a third during that period. Key to this success was banning of veterinary diclofenac in 2006. However, we are advocating additional bans to completely remove diclofenac in vulture food.You can find out more about our work on vultures and how you can help here.