The Egyptian Vulture – What’s going on in Afrika? [ 2010-01-04 14:11:45 ]


In 2009 BSPB started an initiative for creating of partnerships with the countries from the Near East and East Africa with aim to reveal and halt the threats for the Egyptian vulture along its migration route and in the wintering areas. From 5-th till 23-th December BSPB team together with colleagues from the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS)/BirdLife Ethiopia conducted expedition in the Afar triangle, Ethiopia, where is located the biggest known congregation of wintering Egyptian vultures in East Africa.


1424 Egyptian vultures were counted and we estimate the whole wintering population in the region at approximately 1600-1700 birds. In spite of the high number of birds counted, the comparison with data from 1994 and 2000 shows a high decline. The vultures were recorded in a semi-desert area at altitude between 140 and 1230 m. a. s. l. The vultures were counted for 9 days in the period 6-18.XII through counting of the individuals roosting on electricity poles along the main road in the region from the southwestern corner of the Afar triangle to the Djibouti border and in the region of Dire Dawa town. The count was implemented before sunset between 16:30 and 18:00 along 600 kilometers. The vultures were recorded roosting on 223 electricity poles and three communication towers. The birds were unevenly distributed and concentrated in three main areas in the surroundings of the main towns and villages along the road. The vultures showed preferences to high tension steel poles and communication towers, distanced on at least 150-200 meters from road or populated places with recorded maximums of 54 birds roosting on communication tower and 43 on high tension pole.
In the morning the birds start foraging before sunrise, when they leave the roosts and disperse in all directions in search for food. The vultures are commensal with people and huge part of the foraging birds were seen in the populated places. The birds were feeding mainly with food waste thrown behind the houses or at small scale rubbish dumps allowing people as close as less than 10 meters. Significant part of the birds are foraging in low density (1-5 birds) around nomads camps, situated far away from the roads and spread all over the region. Below three of the poles traditionally used for roosting by more than 50 vultures we found almost 400 pellets, containing mainly fur from domestic animals.
The age structure of 83% of the birds was recorded and consisted of 767 adults, 21 fourth plumage, 48 third plumage, 85 second plumage, 131 juveniles and 131 juveniles or second plumage. This data will allow us to approximately evaluate the survival of each age group and to predict the future trend in the population number. In 2008 and 2009 BSPB ringed 52 juveniles in Bulgaria with color rings. During the study in the Afar triangle 122 juveniles and second year birds were checked for presence of color rings, but none were seen. Calculations on this base lead to the conclusion that the region is not a main area for wintering birds from the Bulgarian population and it can be figured out that not more than 10% and quite possibly much less of the Bulgarian birds are wintering in the Afar triangle. Most probably huge part of the birds in the region originate from vast regions in Central Asia, The Middle East, Eastern Asia Minor and Caucasus.

Recorded threats:
During the study there were not recorded any significant threats to the Egyptian vultures.

98,4% of the poles used for roosting by the Egyptian vultures are safe and do not pose electrocution risk. 82% of the birds roosted on high-tension safe power lines, 7,3% on ~20KW safe power lines with wires below the perching substrate, 4,4% on safe communication towers and only 1,5% on dangerous poles with the wires above the perching substrate. The remaining 4,8% of the birds were observed in flight or still foraging before perching on the roosting sites.

High part of the men in the local nomadic groups Afar, Karaio and Somali have firearm most often submachine gun Kalashnikov, but they show marked tolerance towards the scavengers. In this region the threat for the vultures to be shot can almost totally be excluded.

Illegal use of poisons:
There were conducted few conversations with local people, that aimed collecting of information for the possible illegal use of poisons against carnivores. From them it is clear that the poisoning seem not to be a major issue in the area but taking into account the huge global importance of the region for the species and since the scale of this problem is generally uneasy and difficult to be correctly evaluated, there is need for more large-scale and thorough survey on this topic in the near future. In order to collect data for the mortality we checked for presence of dead birds the surface under the roosting poles used by almost 10% of the vultures. Under one pole where over 20 vultures are roosting every night we found a skull and a pelvis of adult Egyptian vulture, died probably more than 6 months ago, but the reasons for the death remain unknown.
In the last day of the expedition we received information that in South Ethiopia in the area around the town of Negele there is another significant wintering group of Egyptian vultures and during May 2009 in a single poisoning incident have been found around 30 dead vultures from 4 species among which 5 Egyptian vultures (4 adults and one juvenile). The poison had been set in a dead domestic animal aiming poisoning of hyenas. The nomadic group that inhabits that area is the same as the one inhabiting North Kenya, where the use of poisons against carnivores is increasing and in the last 6 years 345 vultures of different species have been found poisoned. In some areas of Kenya the vultures have declined with 77% just in three years during 2001-2003 and even in Mara region the vultures declined by half.

Most probable reasons for the decline of the wintering population in the Afar region:
• Increased adult mortality due to poisoning in the wintering grounds in South Ethiopia and North Kenya;
• Increased mortality as a result of illegal poaching along the migration route in The Near and Middle East;
• Increased mortality in the breeding grounds;

Necessary future most priority actions:
• Urgent survey on the conflict “carnivore-man” in relation to the use of poisons especially in South Ethiopia.
• Giving of support to the conservationists in the East and Central African countries for starting of projects for research and conservation of the Egyptian vulture and vultures in general.
• Cooperation with colleagues from The Near and Middle East for estimation of the scale and severity of the illegal shooting of birds along the migration routes, especially in Syria, Lebanon and South Turkey.

We express out gratitude to the colleagues from the EWNHS in Ethiopia: Yilma Dellelegn Abebe, Tesfay Bikila and Mengistu Wondafrash and to colleagues in Europe who significantly helped during the organization and logistics: Boris Barov, Mark Day, Antonio Sigismondi. Thanks also to GRIN in Peregrine Fund for providing of wealth of important publications for the East African region.
The expedition was funded by BSPBч's own funds, donation by Svetoslav Spasov and donations from the BSPB members in the UK.

In the last quarter of the XIX-th century the Egyptian vulture had been one of the most numerous migrant raptors through the Bosphorus. At that time the Balkan population probably well exceeded 5 000 pairs and flocks of thousands have been described as passing over the Bosphorus in single days during the autumn migration. Only in Istanbul there had been a breeding population of around 1000 pairs.
Today the Egyptian vulture is the most endangered bird of prey in this part of the continent, with population number hardly exceeding 100 pairs for the whole Balkans. 31 of them bred in Bulgaria in 2009 and the species could become extinct from the country in the next 20-25 years if the decline trend continues.
Since 2003 BSPB is working for the conservation of the Egyptian vulture in Bulgaria. The gained knowledge during these years firmly shows that the main reason for the species disappearance is the increased adult mortality due to various anthropogenic threats. Significant part of the loss of birds is happening outside Bulgaria during the migration and wintering. In the last 7 years probably more than 20 adult birds did not returned from their wintering areas. For 2009 only from Africa did not return 1 pair and four adult birds part of four other pairs.