Obligate Scavengers: A Tale of Vulture Conservation with José Tavares

A tragedy has befallen many species of vultures. They have become collateral victims of poisoning incidents and human activities. Their numbers are significantly declining in Africa and Asia and many places on earth are lacking sufficient scavenging by “nature’s clean-up crew”.

So says José Tavares, director of the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), Europe’s leading organisation working to conserve, restore and protect the undervalued species of vultures. Learn why vultures are so important, how bearded vultures came back from the brink of extinction, and how you can help conserve vultures. 

Vulture Conservation Foundation working on the re-introduction of the bearded vulture in the Swiss Alps.

VCF working on the re-introduction of the bearded vulture in the Swiss Alps. Credit: Hansruedi Weyrich.

 

You have been working as a director at VCF since 2013 and you aim to develop it into a ‘sustainable, effective leading organisation’. What pushed you to build and develop the organisation? How is it different from other organisations with the similar aim of vulture protection?

The population of European vultures is recovering thanks to conservation actions protecting the species, but in several regions, some species have disappeared or are on the brink of extinction.

 The VCF is fighting for the protection of vultures along with other international and national organisations. It is Europe’s leading organisation working to conserve, restore and protect the undervalued vultures. VCF allows continent-wide coordination to ensure successful conservation of vultures. 

Populations of species such as vultures depend on large areas for their survival and conservation. Very often their conservation can’t be tackled at a national level; it needs to be approached at a transnational and regional level. The VCF aims to overcome this problem by operating in different countries across Europe and guaranteeing inter-communication between countries and organisations. This international foundation is dedicated to restore the four European species: the Bearded, Griffon, Egyptian and Cinereous vultures.

The Egyptian Vulture caught in action by the Vulture Conservation Foundation.

The Egyptian vulture caught in action. Credit: Bruno Berthemy.

 

Vultures are perceived as ‘nasty creatures’. How important are they to the ecosystem? Why should this perception be amended?

Vultures do not have a good press partly because they are obligate scavengers. Their ecology evolved to eat carcasses and they almost never consume live prey. If they were not there, the carcasses would accumulate, and emit odour and could transmit diseases, hence the necessity of vultures to maintain a clean environment. 

Vultures can be compared to garbage services; they are rarely seen, but make sure our surroundings are clean. Their absence is sensed when they go on strike and our streets are filled with rubbish. 

Across Europe Bearded Vultures were at the brink of extinction, but the re-introduction of this species reversed that and benefitted other mountain wildlife. How can humans be more involved? How far can we go to protect vultures and other wildlife?

In the early 20th century, hunting and poisoning drove the Bearded Vultures to extinction in the Alps. Lack of food also led to the extermination of Bearded Vultures as reduced numbers of livestock and depleted wild ungulates meant there were fewer carcasses. 

A reintroduction project was launched in 1970s based on a captive breeding, and in 1986, the VCF and its partners released the first Bearded Vultures to the region. Since then, hundreds of Bearded Vultures were released to the Alps and in other European regions, thanks to captive breeding.

The VCF runs two important captive breeding centres and also coordinates the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network (EEP), which consists of over 40 international partners that breed the species in captivity, contributing to successfully reintroducing Bearded Vultures in the wild. Restoration of Bearded Vultures in the Alps has massively helped other mountain wildlife as well. 

This reintroduction project however has been a huge success. Today there are 55+ wild breeding pairs in the Alps, and this project has captured the imagination of local stakeholders.

The process of restoration is difficult and time-consuming. Years are spent on feasibility studies before the re-introduction of species. Species are only re-introduced when the environmental factors that led to the extinction of those species are absent. We make sure to follow the re-introduction IUCN regulation guideline precisely. 

The Bearded Vulture is one of the species the Vulture Conservation Foundation works with.

The majestic Bearded Vulture in an exquisite shot. Credit: Hansruedi Weyrich.

 

What is the biggest threat to vulture populations globally? 

The vulture crisis is mainly driven by poisoning events, when vultures consume meat laced with toxic compounds that are directed mainly to predators that impact on livestock or game species. This is known as ‘ghost poisoning’ and it puts the vultures in a compromised position, making them collateral victims. Poisoning of wildlife is an illegal activity, however these environmental crimes are usually neglected and VCF are trying to convince international agencies that these crimes need to be investigated and adequately dealt with. 

Mortality due to collision and electrocution on electricity lines and pylons are also a significant threat, while the availability of food – animal carcasses, also impact on vulture distribution and abundance.

Can you predict the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulture species?

There is no evidence of change yet. Three months is a short period of time to measure change, especially for long-lived species such as vultures. 

However, the pandemic happened during the breeding season. This can be viewed as a good thing as there is presumably lower levels of human activities, ski resorts were empty and habitat alterations halted, decreasing the risk. 

Nonetheless, farming continued and some reports suggest that illegal activities have expanded putting the species at higher risk. Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, nothing is conclusive and studies must be conducted.

Do you have any advice for upcoming conservationists? 

Never give up! It is a tough world out there; it is a very competitive world. There aren’t many opportunities to fulfil a career but it is possible if you really want to do something, it is possible, just do not give up. 

Try to improve and adapt yourself to all the new tools, formats and agendas that evolve in the conservation world so that you are ready to tackle the conservation challenges.

How hopeful can we be when it comes to vulture conservation?

Although the vulture crisis is ongoing and conservationists all around the world are fighting to tackle this devastating incident, there is hope. Europe is the only continent where vultures are increasing in number, recolonising former territories and expanding. 

And this is because we have in Europe excellent legislation – the EU birds and habitats directive, wonderful researchers that produce the science that underpins good conservation, and a fair deal of conservation investment on vultures, besides good capacity and organisations – like the VCF and many others, that can harness money, engagement and science and produce results on the ground. In Europe we are saving vultures – our portfolio is full of positive stories, and this is very important – yes we can do it!

What is a key message you would like to deliver to the public?

Learning about vultures never gets old! So do engage with us and read our news to learn exciting facts about vultures and vulture conservation.

I call everybody to follow us, support us and engage with us in vulture conservation.

 

Careers Advice, Interviews, Organisational Management Conservation Jobs, Senior Level

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