A close shave for Switzerland's bearded vulture
By Mark Schulman
The black kites that swarm over Switzerland's Lake Geneva are a dime a dozen. Sadly, the same can’t be said for a fellow raptor on the other side of the country that has come close to the brink of extinction.
The bearded vulture, as with other scavenger species like hyenas, jackals, and sharks, gets a bad rap. Perpetually cast as the ugly villain of the alpine pastures, it has long been reviled by many as a predatory beast, erroneously claimed to swoop down on innocent grazing lamb and even small children who misbehaved or strayed too far from home.
Still often called by their traditional name in Switzerland, lämmergeier, a German word that translates to “lamb vulture”, it is no surprise that farmers and shepherds never took kindly to this bird and tried shooting it whenever the opportunity presented itself. And they succeeded. By the end of the 19th century the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) was hunted to extinction in the Alps, with the last individual believed to have been shot down in 1913 in Italy’s Aosta Valley, just over the border from Switzerland.
Almost a hundred years later, attitudes have changed and efforts are now being made to return this misunderstood bird species back to its rightful place in the fragile alpine ecosystem.
Dispelling the myth
Despite the myth, it turns out that the bearded vulture doesn’t go after baby sheep or naughty children after all. In fact, as far as scavengers go, they are pretty particular about what they eat and tend to go for bones rather than meat.
“It took a long time, but the image of the vulture has certainly improved,” said Dr Heinrich Haller, Director of the Swiss National Park, where a reintroduction of bearded vultures has become a yearly ritual. “As far as we can see, the vultures actually do no damage to the park and are the ideal species to re-introduce.”
The same public support for reintroduction isn’t the case, however, for other alpine species that once roamed this area, and many other parts of Switzerland uninhibited, including brown bears, lynx, and wolves.
Tucked away neatly in the most eastern side of Switzerland in the German-Italian-Romansch speaking canton of Graubünden, the Swiss National Park – founded in 1914, just a year after the last bearded vulture departed the scene – is the largest protected area in Switzerland (at 172km2) and surprisingly the country’s only national park. Here, no animal is hunted, no tree felled, no meadow mown.
According to Swiss law, the park’s entire fauna and flora are protected from any human interference and are left to their natural development. As a result, the park’s 30 mammal species, including ibex, chamois (horned antelope), deer, and marmot (groundhog-like rodent), and some 100 bird species thrive, and more importantly, are safe.
It is for this reason that the park has been designated as an ideal reintroduction site.
Learning to fly
Folio and Natura are not exactly the cutest babies you will ever lay eyes on – they have a dirty brownish-white complexion, their backs are humped, and a tuft of hair under their chin marks the makings of a beard…even though the two are female. Just over 100 days old, growing up comes early to these bearded vulture fledglings as they leave their parents and learn to make it in the big world alone, albeit with a helping hand from those that want to see the endangered species returned to the wild.
The two vulture chicks – weighing in at 6kg and a wingspan of 2.6m – are part of an ongoing reintroduction project that started more than 25 years ago. Led by the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture (FCBV) and supported by organizations like WWF, which was there from the very beginning, the project releases several young birds each year from a network of captive breeding centers and zoos from across Europe, and monitors their whereabouts.
According to Daniel Hegglin, a wildlife biologist with the Swiss Foundation for the Bearded Vulture, there have been 137 young captive-bred bearded vultures released into the Alps since 1987, and since 1991, 24 have been released in the Stabelchod Valley in the Swiss National Park.
Even though they are a protected species, not all make it in the wild. It is believed that the actual population is hovering around 110 as several have been killed by poison (intended for other animals), collision with power lines, and avalanches. Several have been shot by hunters, but those have been considered isolated incidents. For the most part, the birds are left alone.
“Despite some losses, we are optimistic that we will have a self-sustaining population in the Alps within a few years,” said Hegglin. “There are currently seven breeding pairs in the Alps, with seven new chicks born last year alone. That’s something we are happy about.”
In addition, each year about eight young vultures are released from four different sites in the Alps – the Swiss National Park, as well as in nature reserves in Austria, France, and Italy – all situated at a distance of about 200-300 km from each other.
“Bearded vultures do not respect border lines,” added Hegglin. “Just because they are released in one country, doesn’t mean they stay there. They fly to where they can find food.”
Follow the food
One couldn’t have asked for a more perfect June day in the mountains to see Folio and Natura off. The sun was shining brilliantly, not a cloud in the sky. Pockets of snow above the treeline at 2,000m are a reminder of the alpine region’s short summer season.
“The most critical time for the vultures will be the first winter,” said Hegglin. “They will be on their own and need to forage for themselves.”
Bearded vultures are the pickiest of scavengers, with most of their diet coming from the bones of a dead animal carcass. They are capable of swallowing bones up to the size of a sheep’s vertebra or an entire leg of a chamois. Large bones are dropped in flight from a height of 50–100m against rocks so that they can eat the shattered fragments, as well as the nutritious bone marrow inside.
“Even the captive-bred birds quickly pick-up on this technique,” added Hegglin. “It seems to be an innate characteristic that they are born with.”
But, these newly released fledglings need to first learn how to fly before attempting such aerial wizardry. After being hiked up in specially-designed backpacks to a secluded rock cave, park officials will continue to feed them for several weeks until their first flight. After that, they will be on their own.
But, even when they finally take to the skies, the two vultures will never be too far away as each one has been fitted with small satellite transmitters. They were also genotyped before the release through DNA and blood samples to have a record of their sex and identity. Based on genetic fingerprints in the field, such as feathers or egg skins, specific individuals can be traced and lineages recorded.
“We want to know what happens to them in the wild,” explained Doris Calegari, the species conservation coordinator with WWF’s European Alpine Programme. “We want to know where they go and how far they go.”
“The satellite telemetry project gives us information on how far the young birds fly, which regions they prefer, as well as some information on threats. In the past, when we didn’t use transmitters, several just disappeared and were never spotted again.”
Although in its infancy, the WWF-funded monitoring project has followed several previously released vultures outfitted with less effective radio devices. One has already been tagged with a satellite transmitter, following him as far as the Reschen pass in the Austrian Alps to the west and Italy’s Mt Adamello in the south, but it is believed that continued satellite tracking will follow the birds well beyond their range.
“It’s a good sign to see that they are repopulating different parts of the Alps,” Calegari added. “I see a few more releases in the coming years, but after that I think it will be time for the project to wind down as the population becomes stable.”
“We have done our job, now it’s up to the vulture to fend for itself in the wild.”
* Mark Schulman is Managing Editor at WWF International
• Vultures are among the largest raptors in the world, with wingspans up to 3m in length. There are four species of vultures – bearded, griffon, black and Egyptian – all which occur in Europe. Each species specializes in different eating technique. As the bearded vulture prefers the bones, griffon vultures go for the remains of large-sized wild and domestic animals. Black vultures tend to feed on small animals like rabbits, and Egyptian vultures go after insects, fish, reptiles and even smaller birds.
• In addition to the 110 estimated bearded vultures in the Alps, a limited number live in high mountain areas of Central Asia and North Africa, as well as populations surviving in Spain, Greece, and Corsica.
• The Alps – one of last wild spaces in Europe – are one of WWF’s Global 200 ecoregions, an area recognized for its outstanding biodiversity. Approximately 30,000 animal species, including brown bear, ibex, chamois, lynx, and golden eagle, and 13,000 plant species, including the world-famous edelweiss, contribute to their exceptional biodiversity. The bearded vulture has been identified by WWF as a priority species in the Alps ecoregion in need of particular conservation attention.
This article was written in honour of Heinz Stalder, WWF-Switzerland’s International Programme Director, who passed away unexpectedly only days after participating in the most recent release of the bearded vulture in the Swiss National Park. Heinz played a central role in the bearded vulture reintroduction project since the early 1990s. He will be missed.