The Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) one of the largest birds on our continent was once widespread all over Europe. But sadly now it has become extinct in most of its European breeding range with Spain being the only country left with a sizeable and healthy population.
The situation is no different on the Balkans where only a handful of small isolated colonies remain including the single Bulgarian colony located in the Eastern Rodopi Mountains near Madjaravo. Fortunately the number of vultures in a few Balkan colonies (Eastern Rodopi Mountain in Bulgaria and Greece, Uvac Cliffs in Serbia, Croatian islands and Crete in Greece) are rising due to very strong conservation measures being applied. Meanwhile, the very numerous Griffon Vulture colonies in Macedonia and Greece in the late 20 Century have suffered fast decline and extinction for only two decades.
With the large historical declines throughout Europe, including the Balkans several organisations joined together to form the Balkan Vulture Action Plan (BVAP). The aim of the action plan is to co-ordinate the efforts of the various conservation groups in the Balkans and to restore the populations of all four European vulture species on the Balkans.
A key component of the action plan is the re-introduction of vultures in several areas where they formerly bred but are unlikely to colonise in the near future due to their critically low population levels. The aim is to re-introduce the species in several different locations to form a Meta-population all over the Balkans.
The Eastern Balkan Mountains near Kotel was an ideal place for the re-introduction of Griffon Vultures. The species became extinct here at the end of the 1960′s because of the mass use of Strychnine poison for predator control, which caused secondary poisoning of the vultures feeding on the poison baits. Thankfully the law now forbids this practice and gives full protection to the vultures and their breeding sites. Cutting the reasons for vultures decline as well as the suitable breeding and foraging habitats is what makes Kotel Mountain such a good site for re-introduction.
In 2001 to 2003, hundreds of letters were sent to European zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in searching for available birds for the first vulture reintroduction project in Bulgaria. FWFF team made the best to prove internationally the suitability of the region and to attract European best vulture specialists to support the reintroduction.
First vulture aviary was set in the back yard of the Nature Museum of the village of Kotel in 2003. And the first birds were sent from Spain, France and Israel. But the pioneer donors who believed the idea were BIOPARK- Zoo De Doue La Fontaine, Friends of Vienna Zoo and Cottonwood Foundation.
Meanwhile the region was “under repair” by FWFF team for a couple of years to answer the needs of the birds’ releasing in the wild. We started an eco farm which practices traditional shepherding techniques in the area to help restore the natural pastoral habitats and to provide a better food source for the vultures. We also carried out some low level education work and addressed the issues of local stakeholders so that local people are now generally in favour of the re-introduction.
In March 2006 BVAP’s re-introduction committee, which consists of experts from all over Europe, visited Kotel and recommended that re-introduction begin immediately. This meant Kotel Mountain to be the first place in the Balkans where an extinct vulture species will be restored.
The first 3 birds were released on the 28/08/2007 as part of an experimental release. Twelve more were released up to 2010.
In 2010, FWFF and Green Balkans have started a joint project supported by LIFE+ Program and DBU for reintroduction of Griffon Vulture in the Balkan Mountain named “Return the Vultures”.
More than 200 birds were transported from rehabilitation centers and zoos in Spain and France to Bulgaria. Five local teams have been working so hard for five years to settle the birds and form colonies. Since 2010 there were released 45 Griffon vultures in Kotel Mountain. The most recent observation in 2015 shows a group of 20 birds. The first vulture nesting in the project took place in Kotel Mountain.
Surprisingly the Griffon Vulture reintroduction project has strongly impacted the presence of another vulture species. Egyptian vulture is a critically endangered (IUCN Red list) and the decline of the population is uncontrolled so far. In Bulgaria the population has shrunk rapidly and is being limited to Rodopi Mountain. The new formed Griffon vulture colony is attracting single Egyptian vultures to Kotel Mountain each summer thus a safe environment is ensured. The observations were published IUCN Global Reintroduction Perspective 2010.