A new study shows that a threatened migratory vulture faces a variety of threats along its 5000 km journey from Europe to Africa, with birds getting shot, poisoned and electrocuted in 13 countries across 3 continents. Large-scale collaboration is necessary to reduce threats in each country along the flyway to protect migratory birds. Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, explains.

Anybody who has ever witnessed a huge flock of birds migrating across the sky will be enthralled by the spectacle. Each year billions of birds migrate between seasonal breeding and wintering areas, some in large flocks, some under the cover of darkness all by themselves. The arrival of many migratory birds in northern breeding grounds typically marks the advent of spring or summer, and migratory birds are therefore deeply embedded in many cultures and folklore tales. Yet, despite their popularity, many of these species are actually in desperate trouble.

Witnessing thousands of White Storks migrating overhead is an unforgettable spectacle © Steffen Oppel

The spectacular feat of migrating thousands of kilometres across mountains, seas, and continents means that migratory birds cross many human cultures and boundaries. The same birds that may be revered in one country, may be eaten in another, and considered a harmful nuisance in a third country.

By virtue of their long journeys, migratory birds are therefore very difficult to protect, because they are exposed to many different threats along their journeys. Collaboration along a flyway is essential, but to achieve this we first need to know what threats kill migratory birds, and what we need to do to save them in every country along their journey.

Even vultures migrate across continents

Most migratory birds are fairly small, but some very large birds like cranes, pelicans, and storks also migrate thousands of kilometres. There is even a vulture species in the old world that routinely migrates from southern parts of Europe to wintering grounds in Africa: the Egyptian Vulture, the smallest of the four vulture species that breed in Europe.

Egyptian Vultures are heavy birds with huge wings, so they avoid flapping their wings too much when they travel, because it would require a huge amount of energy. Instead, they use columns of rising air to soar to higher altitudes, and then glide for several kilometres without a single wing-beat. This effortless way of migrating is shared among many raptors and storks, and it comes with one disadvantage: the birds cannot easily cross large water bodies where there are no columns of rising air.

One distinct flyway, used by hundreds of thousands of storks, raptors, and Egyptian Vultures therefore exists that takes the birds around the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea to wintering areas in Africa. This 5000 km journey is hazardous at the best of times, and many human obstacles exist that cost some vultures their life.

Egyptian Vulture soaring on migration © Michele Mendi

Identifying the key threats along the flyway

Because Egyptian Vultures have declined dramatically in eastern Europe over the past decades, a BirdLife International alliance led by the Bulgarian organisation BSPB has investigated the threats facing Egyptian Vultures and other large soaring migratory birds in 13 countries across 3 continents.

In a new paper published this week in the journal Biological Conservation, the team now presents the priority threats in each country along the flyway. Rather than focussing on a single problem or area, governments and conservation organisations need to address different threats with different priority in each country.

One of the most widespread threats that occurs in almost every country along the flyway is the consumption of poison-baits: typically, some rural livestock herders who may have lost livestock to a wolf, hyena, feral dog or another predator will add some lethal pesticide to a carcass to kill the predator that threatens their livestock.

Vultures – uniquely skilled to find dead bodies as their main food source – consume the poisoned carcass and inadvertently suffer a gruesome death. This threat is the biggest problem for vultures worldwide, and for Egyptian Vultures on the Balkan Peninsula, in Saudi-Arabia, and in Ethiopia.

Egyptian Vulture poisoned near its breeding grounds on the Balkan Peninsula © BSPB

An equally widespread and unintentional threat is power infrastructure. Poorly designed poles that allow birds to simultaneously touch a live wire and a conducting part of the pole lead to instant death from electrocution; other lines or wind turbines can be difficult to see and large birds collide with them and get killed. The electrocution and collision threat is particularly widespread in Ethiopia, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Egypt.

Egyptian Vulture electrocuted in Turkey on a poorly designer power pole © Süleyman Atil

Besides getting inadvertently killed by poison or by infrastructure, Egyptian Vultures also get shot directly. This threat is greatest in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, such as Niger, where there is a large market demand for vulture parts, and in some countries in the Middle East that have a ‘tradition’ of hunting migratory birds. The threat of illegal killing affects millions of migratory birds every year, and although Egyptian Vultures are only rarely targeted, being shot still adds to the many other threats that these birds have to negotiate along their flyway.

Juvenile Egyptian Vulture trapped for sale on a market in Lebanon © SPNL

Solutions exist for all threats

Some of the threats could be easily fixed, others are more complex, but solutions exist nonetheless. Poorly designed power infrastructure can be retrofitted to be safer for birds, or governments and international funding agencies could simply invest in safer designs in the first place. Direct persecution and the use of poison baits are already illegal in many countries, but these laws are often not enforced.

Many alternative methods exist to reduce the conflicts between livestock owners and wildlife, and governments must invest in protection and compensation schemes that reduce stakeholder’s incentive to use poison baits. Such approaches will take time, so for now the team has started to use dogs to detect and remove poisoned carcasses from vulture breeding areas in the Balkans.

Dog patrols are now used in Greece and Bulgaria to detect and remove poison baits from the landscape © Victoria Saravia

The direct persecution is a similarly widespread problem that will take years of community engagement to achieve results. In Nigeria, work has started to collaborate with traditional medical practitioners to promote sustainable alternatives to vulture products in belief-based uses. In Lebanon, increased efforts to monitor and enforce existing hunting laws, and collaboration with responsible hunting groups are starting to reduce the risk of being shot for birds passing over Lebanon on migration.

The EU-funded LIFE project “Urgent Actions to Strengthen the Balkan Population of the Egyptian Vulture and Secure Its Flyway” is an excellent example to fund various activities in many countries along the flyway to reduce the threats to migratory birds.

An anti-poaching unit in Lebanon displays the carnage caused by illegal shooters during bird migration in Lebanon © SPNL

The paper Major threats to a migratory raptor vary geographically along the eastern Mediterranean flyway is available here for free until October 2021. Otherwise visit here for the permanent version of the paper or contact Steffen.Oppel@rspb.org.uk for a copy.

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