Conservationists have been working across borders and continents to secure a future for Europe’s smallest vulture – the Egyptian Vulture. Jenny Weston, LIFE Egyptian Vulture Project Officer shares her experience of working on this amazing project and celebrates some of its many achievements. 

In the summer of 2015, I took a sabbatical from my job as a Conservation Officer in Scotland with the RSPB to go to Bulgaria, where we had the difficult task of trapping and fitting satellite transmitters to adult Egyptian Vultures to find out more about their survival and movements as part of the EU funded LIFE The Return of the Neophron. Working alongside our colleagues at the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) sharing our experience of some of the trapping methods and tagging we spent hundreds of hours in hides in the blazing hot sun, waiting. The experience would stay with me forever.

Hard work and patience pays off in conservation. After hundreds of hours in hot bird hides, we trapped and tagged two adult Egyptian Vultures, named Boris and Jenny by BSPB. I’ve been so proud of having a vulture named after me, and of course was glued to their movements revealed by tracking data from the tags. Egyptian Vultures are truly extraordinary. These striking punk plumaged birds are Europe’s smallest and only migratory vulture. I am in awe of their epic journey of 10,000km flown annually, now known as truly perilous. Sadly, this would be starkly realised.

Jenny tagging Jenny the Egyptian Vulture. © Vladimir Dobrev.

In the winter of 2020/21, the saddest news came. BSPB (BirdLife Bulgaria) reported that Jenny, and then Boris, had died on their wintering grounds of Chad and Ethiopia. Both had likely died from poisoning. I was gutted. In the following summer, I saw a job opportunity supporting the delivery of an EU LIFE funded project focused on the Egyptian Vulture with the RSPB. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with committed conservationists on a global scale to prevent the decline and potential extinction of this iconic species, and in a small way, fight back against the loss of Boris and Jenny.

Celebrating an incredible collaboration across borders and continents
The Balkan population has been declining at a rate of 8% per year and now numbers less than 50 pairs. Since 2017, Egyptian Vulture New LIFE has looked to identify and tackle the key threats on its flyway from the Balkans through the Middle East and into Africa. As the project draws to a close at the end of 2022, we want to celebrate all that has been achieved by this truly incredible collaboration across borders and continents.

At the end of the LIFE project, we're celebrating all that we've achieved for Egyptian Vultures. © Dimitris Vavylis.

Building an understanding of the magnitude and location of threats to the Egyptian Vulture was a natural starting point, and without this foundation work, all other work on the project just wouldn’t have been as effective. Over 60 Egyptian Vultures were satellite tagged during the project all along the flyway. This and other surveys created the scientific basis behind our work and for others to work from in the future

Addressing threats to Egyptian Vultures
Poisoning, either deliberate or accidental, is a major threat to vulture populations globally. Creating a poisoning database for the Balkans to keep track of and address high risk areas and setting up anti-poisoning canine teams to sniff out and remove poisoned carcasses proved highly effective in mitigating Egyptian vulture deaths at ground level. This work formed part of an anti-poisoning action plan adopted across the region. Further afield, significant efforts were made to ban Diclofenac and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for veterinary use in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria, addressing the issue at a policy level.

Electricity pylons pose a significant risk to soaring birds looking to rest, as many are uninsulated and lethal. Working closely with energy businesses and governments in six key countries along the flyway, 1,500 particularly hazardous poles and pylons have been insulated and no longer pose a risk to Egyptian Vultures and other migratory birds.

Electricity pylons pose a significant threat to soaring birds but we can make them safer by insulating them. © RSCN.

Poaching affects many endangered species, and sometimes addressing the issue requires sensitivity as well as targeted action. Working with 300 local stakeholders in Nigeria and Niger, the project addressed the use of vulture parts in traditional medicine, agreeing with tribal leaders the use of plant-based alternatives. And in markets in Niger, by working with over 5,000 local people, the sale of vulture parts in surveyed markets fell from 39 in 2019 to just one part found in 2022.

Building support and sharing our message
To make lasting change and ensure the success of conservation measures in-country, an understanding, appreciation, and in some circumstances involvement in the work to save a species is essential. 121 events in 12 countries reached almost 900,000 people with the story of the Egyptian Vulture and our work, and more than 50,000 runners participated in running events sponsored by the project enabled us to reach a further 4.5 million people. It was essential to ensure that our research, conservation techniques and innovations were shared with the conservation community by presenting at 55 high profile conferences and online networking events.

121 events in 12 countries reached almost 900,000 people with the story of the Egyptian Vulture © Dimitris Vavylis.

Twenty two partners – one mission
It’s been two years since Boris and Jenny died, and five years since the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project began. I’ve loved working on the project and being part of bringing it to a close. Considering all of the achievements of this incredible project, perhaps the biggest achievement of them all is the example it sets for global conservation partnerships. Twenty two partners, 14 countries, six project official languages, one mission. For nature, that knows no borders or politics, projects like this one are essential for the future of the planet. Only together can we accomplish this much.

Twenty two partners, 14 countries, six project official languages, one mission to support Egyptian Vulture conservation © Dimitris Vavylis.

The Egyptian Vulture New LIFE Project is supported by the EU's LIFE Programme and is co-financed by the AG Leventis Foundation, Green Fund and the MAVA Foundation.

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