‘It’s a serious problem’: battle to save Griffon vulture heats up in Cyprus

‘It’s a serious problem’: battle to save Griffon vulture heats up in Cyprus

They’re vital for the ecosystem, play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, for bird lovers, are an ecotourism delight. But in Cyprus, where prolific use of poison bait has made the Griffon vulture virtually extinct, campaigners are taking action.

“Island-wide, we had just eight,” says Melpo Apostolidou at BirdLife Cyprus, which is coordinating the EU-funded life with vultures project to boost what was once a thriving population. “That’s the lowest number of any country in Europe.”

The battle to revive the Mediterranean island’s most threatened bird of prey was turbocharged last week when eight Griffons, imported from Spain, were released into the wild. For ornithologists, the move has not come a moment too late. “There is no time to lose,” says Apostolidou. “Restocking is vital. We released 15 in September and will be bringing in another 15 next month before releasing them as well in the spring.”

Changing farming techniques and decreasing staples of available food are partly to blame for the decline of a bird whose scavenging role as a recycler of natural carcasses is deemed essential. So, too, is the loss of natural habitats and collisions with overhead power lines.

In Cyprus, a culture of using banned poisons to reduce perceived pests, especially foxes and dogs, is also seen as the greatest cause of the Griffon becoming critically endangered.

Over the past year, numbers have dropped precipitously as the scavengers have fed off poisoned carrion. “It’s a serious problem,” said Nikos Kassinis, a senior officer at the island’s Game and Fauna Service.

After centuries of having Griffon vulture colonies nationwide, there is now only one nesting colony high up in the Episkopi cliffs in the British sovereign base area.

Kassinis said authorities had also stepped in with the Game and Fauna Service setting up feeding stations for the birds. Earlier this year dog units – border collies specially trained to detect poison bait and poisoned victims – began patrolling rural areas.

Replenishment of the species would be good for nature and indicative of the local ecosystem’s overall health, conservationists claim. Recent studies have shown that vultures not only provide what the EU project described as “a cost-effective and environmentally beneficial carcass disposal service,” but play a central role in regulating the spread of diseases such as rabies.

Spain has Europe’s largest population of Griffon vultures, with the latest imports to be released from an acclimatisation aviary in the mountains north of the coastal city of Limassol. “We’ll be monitoring them closely,” said Apostolidou, adding that the Griffon have been tagged with GPS transmitters to track their movements.

“The Spanish birds are juveniles, and it is very important that they mix and learn from the local birds. So far we’re pleased to report that although it’s still early, some of them are doing just that.”

Tales of the prowess of Griffon vultures are legendary. Ornithologists recorded one bird, named after the wine god Dionysus, watching over the egg of a would-be hatchling in the Greek Rhodope Mountains for 33 days after losing his female mate at the time of incubation. The feat was seen as indicative of the vultures’ parental skills.

In Greece as in Bulgaria, local populations, once also dangerously low, have gradually been restored. But with numbers so down in Cyprus, campaigners say they cannot afford to be sanguine.

“Imagine if we hadn’t brought in any birds at all,” says Apostolidou. “The Griffon vulture would be extinct, but dealing with the poisoning problem must also now be a priority.”

This article by Helena Smith was first published by The Guardian on 10 October 2022. Lead Image: A Griffon vulture flies after being released from a holding pen in the highlands of Limassol, Cyprus. Photograph: Peter Martell/AFP/Getty Images.

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