Ornithologists are celebrating after one of the four vulture species in France was taken off the list of animals in danger of extinction.
There are now around 2,000 breeding couples of griffon vultures (vautour fauve) in the Pyrenees, the Massif Central and Alps.
The species was thought to be extinct between 1940 and the late 1960s after being persecuted by hunters and farmers who left out poisoned bait for them.
At the time it was believed that vultures, as well as eating dead animals, also killed them.
Yvan Tariel, of bird protection organisation the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), told The Connexion: “It was by chance that two ornithologists came across what were probably the last two breeding couples in the Pyrenees.
“Once they had identified them, they started a campaign to save the species, and it was protected in the early 1970s, just before the law of 1976 which set out the basis for the protected species laws in force today.”
The campaign was successful, to the extent that a group led by Mr Tariel set out to re-introduce them into the Massif Central, where the birds had not been seen since the 1940s.
Early attempts were unsuccessful, until a new method was used.
'We built a very large birdcage and kept the vultures in there until they formed breeding couples'
“After they had successfully raised one batch of eggs, we released them, and straight away they were able to adapt to being wild again.”
The three other varieties of vultures in France, all found in the Pyrenees, are: the black vulture (vautour moine), reintroduced in 1992; the bearded vulture (gypaète barbu), reintroduced in the Massif Central in 2012; and the Egyptian vulture (vautour percnoptère) which returned on its own after the reintroduction of the other species. All three are still endangered.
“They are fascinating creatures,” said Mr Tariel, who has been studying vultures for 30 years after researching the game hunted by large birds.
“Griffon vultures, when they see a carcass of an animal, eat only the muscles and soft flesh, bearded vulture eats the bones, black vultures the tough skin and tendons, and the Egyptian vulture specialises in picking up the bits the others have left behind.
“Nothing is wasted. You end up with a site with signs of being trampled but no dead animal.” One of the problems with maintaining healthy vulture populations is that until recently livestock farmers were obliged to remove dead animals and have them disposed of by knackers.
“This meant we had to have feeding sites but in reality they were not necessary, as the farmers would ignore the knacker requirement,” said Mr Tariel. “Now they have permission from the prefectures to leave animal carcasses out.”
The vultures can have wingspans of more than two-and-a-half metres, and they now put on spectacular displays for hikers
Recent research on African vultures has also finally solved the mystery of how they suddenly seem to appear out of nowhere – something which has given them a sinister reputation in some parts of the world.
Scientists have shown they fly very high, as high as 10,000m in Africa, while simultaneously scanning the ground for food and keeping an eye on other high-flying vultures, which can be as far as 40km away.
When one vulture sees food, it dives down to it. Any vulture watching sees the first bird make its move and in turn flies down to the food, triggering a chain reaction in the birds that had been watching it.
“European vultures do not need to fly so high – they go up to between 2,000 and 3,000 metres – but have the same mechanism,” said Mr Tariel. “I have seen around 200 vultures appear quickly at a carcass, seemingly out of nowhere.”
Now that hunting and poisoning vultures is banned, one of the main dangers for them is electricity cables.
They can be killed both by flying into them and by being electrocuted.
The LPO and EDF are working to have wires with markers to try to reduce the number of deaths.
“You used to get postcards with hunters holding up dead vultures as trophies,” said Mr Tariel. “Thank goodness, those days have gone.”
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