Interview with Ivaylo Angelov about the Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria

Date of the interview: 23 February 2010

In this interview Ivaylo Angelov talks about the conservation of the Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria.

Ivaylo Angelov

Ivaylo Angelov, © Dobromir Dobrev

Markus Jais: What is the current status of the Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria?
Ivaylo Angelov: In the last 120-130 years the Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria changed its status from common and widespread with a population of quite probably more than 1000 pairs, to species facing imminent risk of extinction in the next 20-25 years. Only 31 pairs are left in 2009. The breeding performance of the population during 2004-2009 is shown below:
  • Percentage of pairs laying: 70% (n=212) of the monitored pairs laying eggs;
  • Percentage of successful pairs: 90% (n=148) of the pairs with clutch are successful;
  • Productivity: 0,84 juveniles per monitored pair (n=212) ;
  • Fledging rate: 1,35 juveniles per successful pair (n=133);
Generally the breeding performance is above the average except the percentage of pairs that lay eggs, which is low (70%) and probably indicates high adult mortality during the non-breeding season.

Markus Jais: How has the population developed during the last decades?
Ivaylo Angelov: In the 1960s the population was already reported as declining. About 40 years ago the species had probably been at least 6-7 times more numerous than now with biggest density in the Eastern Rhodopes, Provadiya-Royak Plateau, Stara Planina Mountain and Rusenski Lom. In Rusenski Lom (close to the Romania border) which is one of the best monitored territories over the last decades, the species numbered at least 30 pairs in the 1960s, but only 3 pairs were left in 2009 and only one juvenile fledged. Similar and sometimes worse had been the population development in the rest of the country. For example only along the Arda valley (Eastern Rhodopes) the species had been estimated at about 50 pairs in 1980, while now it numbers 15 pairs forming the core of the Bulgarian population. The Egyptian Vulture is now extinct from Strandja and Sakar Mountains (about 10-12 pairs in 1990s), Southwest Bulgaria and in the whole Northwest there is only one single pair left compared to 4 in 2003. The systematic national monitoring in Bulgaria started in 2003 and since then the annual figures for recorded pairs are 57, 49, 41, 40, 39, 35 and 31 pairs respectively.

Ivaylo Angelov

Rusenski Lom area. Currently the northernmost breeding are for the species on the Balkans.
© Ivaylo Angelov

Markus Jais: Where do most pairs breed?
Ivaylo Angelov: Now the species is confined to 3 main areas in Bulgaria: the Eastern Rhodopes in South Bulgaria (20 pairs), between the towns of Shumen and Varna in Northeast Bulgaria (6 pairs), Rusenski Lom and surroundings, North Bulgaria (4 pairs), Northwest Bulgaria (1 pair).

Markus Jais: Is illegal persecution (incl. along the migration route) and illegal use of poison a problem?
Ivaylo Angelov: Yes, they are thought to be among the main reasons for the rapid extinction. The decline probably started at latest in the end of the 19th century as result of the world wide campaign for exterminating of the carnivores and raptors firstly through shooting and soon after complemented also by the use of strychnine.
The strychnine poisoning in Bulgaria (targeted mainly at wolves) had been implemented mostly in the winter and it probably did not hit the Egyptian Vulture population as hard as the larger sedentary species. During the national poisoning campaigns the species survived mainly in the areas where wolves did not occur.
Nowadays the biggest threatening factor operating on the territory of Bulgaria is poisoning. From totally 19 adults found dead in the last 16 years, at least 9 had died due to various poisonings. Along the flyway and in Africa the threats do not seem to be less significant than those in Bulgaria. The strychnine had been widely used mainly against hyenas and jackals in the wintering grounds in the Sahel. From the 1940s till at least 1980s it had disastrous effect on the vultures’ populations at least in Sudan and Somalia. Poisoning against carnivores had been and is still practiced throughout the whole wintering and migration area. In Egypt the large-scale use of zinc phosphide for rat control started in 1982 and was implemented in an enormous scale reaching up to 7300 tons used per year in a single oasis thus dramatically damaging the scavenger populations. Recently in Kenya and Tanzania the poisoning of lions and hyenas increased alarmingly after the introduction of the furadan on sale and at least 345 vultures of various species had been reported poisoned in the last 6 years only. Last year in South Ethiopia 5 wintering Egyptian Vultures had been found poisoned together with about 25 other vultures. Another major mortality hotspot is in South Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, where thousands and possibly tens of thousands of migrating soaring birds including vultures and eagles are still being illegally hunted each year mainly for target practice, sport and for taxidermy purposes.

Markus Jais: Are Egyptian vultures electrocuted?
Ivaylo Angelov: We have data for only two juveniles electrocuted in the 1990s in North Bulgaria but the extent of this problem had never been subject of special study in the Egyptian Vulture range in Bulgaria. Nowadays some territorial adults prefer to use for perching during the day and for roosting high-tension power lines which are considered to be quite safe. They vary rarely use medium voltage pylons which are the most dangerous.
We need future surveys to investigate this problem in more details, but it seems that this threat could be a bigger for the juveniles and not so for the adults.
But in Africa the extent of the problem is unknown, but potentially very big. In a single 10 km power line on the Red Sea coast of Sudan, near Port Sudan, more than 60 Egyptian Vultures had been reported as electrocuted during migration in 1982, 1983 and 2005. In the Afar region in Ethiopia at least 1500 Egyptian Vultures are roosting every night during the wintering mainly on high voltage quite safe power lines, but there are very few Bulgaria birds if any. During the migration they probably also choose for roosting big power lines, but whether do they roost on safe or dangerous pylons in Chad, where most of the Bulgarian birds are thought to winter is still unknown.

Ivaylo Angelov

Tsvetomira Yotsova making notes after collecting of prey remains from a nest in Eastern Rhodopes, where the remains of 60 land tortoises were found.
© Ivaylo Angelov

Markus Jais: In Bulgaria, as in most other European countries, more wind farms are built. Are they a threat to the Egyptian Vulture?
Ivaylo Angelov: Yes, and the problem will become bigger and bigger. As elsewhere Bulgaria is in the process of fast increase of the wind farms and the investment proposals in the range of the Egyptian Vulture are increasing. However till now there are no wind farms in less than 14 km from the nests.
The good news is that just very recently together with Green Balkans we succeeded to stop investment proposal for a wind park with 19 big wind turbines which were in very advanced stage and planned to be on less than 2.4 km from an Egyptian Vulture nest, 1.9 km from a Golden Eagle nest and at less than 10 km from a Griffon Vulture breeding cliff with around 10-15 breeding pairs in the various years.

Markus Jais: You made a toxicological sampling of Egyptian vultures. What are the results?
Ivaylo Angelov: In 2008 and 2009 thanks to the kindly help of the Natural History Museum in Madrid (Guillermo Blanco and Jesus Lemus) we took toxicology samples (blood samples and secretions) from 40 juveniles. The 2008 results showed high prevalence of pathogens (Gumboro disease, salmonella, trichomonas, avian pox), three birds had antibiotics in their blood (oxytetraciclines and amoxiline), and some birds with non-steroidal antiinflamatory drugs (fluiimixin meglumine) and antiparasitics (febendazole) from livestock. There is also a problem with heavy metals (lead and cadmiun; an individual with sublethal levels of lead). The health status of the juveniles was much poorer compared with the study in Spain. The data are still not fully analyzed. However all juveniles succeeded to fledge but the long-term cumulative effect on the survival is unknown.

Markus Jais: What other threats exists for the species?
Ivaylo Angelov: The human disturbance (mainly during the incubation) and sometimes nest robbing are threats causing breeding failure, every year affecting 1-2 pairs of our small population. The breeding habitat loss originating from inappropriate building and construction activities is a significant threat altering some of the historical and currently unoccupied breeding sites.
Another major problem worsening the quality of big number of the breeding territories is the food shortage due to: 1) abandonment of the traditional livestock husbandry; 2) depopulation of the small mountain villages; 3) closing of traditional sites where dead animals are disposed; 4) closing of many small slaughter houses; 5) improvement of the sanitary and veterinarian practices; 6) decrease and local extinction of the land tortoises; 7) decrease of the souslik colonies.

Markus Jais: What is the main food source for the Egyptian Vulture?
Ivaylo Angelov: Big part of the diet consists of livestock remains but it is not possible to ascertain their biomass. Till now in the diet we had identified 1070 individuals of 86 vertebrate species. The most important share is taken by the land tortoises (Testudo sp.) found smashed on the roads but also often taken alive. The other most common species that together with the tortoises form 73% of the individuals in the diet are Hedgehog (Erinaceus roumanicus), Domestic chicken (Gallus gallus), European Hare (Lepus europaeus), Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), Blind Mole (Nannospalax leucodon) and European Mole (Talpa europaea), Domestic dog (Canis familiaris), Caspian whip snake (Dolichophis caspius), Domestic cat (Felix catus), European Souslik (Spermophillus citellus) and domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Most of these species had been found killed on the roads, but many are taken from small and medium sized rubbish dumps (especially the domestic species) and some smaller ones are probably taken alive. From several low quality territories we have data from local people that the Egyptian Vulture can hunt on live chickens and in 2004 one adult was even shot by local farmer due to this habit.

Ivaylo Angelov

Local man in the Eastern Rhodopes with flock of Turkeys taking a calendar about the Egyptian Vulture.
© Ivaylo Angelov

Markus Jais: How important are traditional livestock farming activities for the Egyptian vulture?
Ivaylo Angelov: They are extremely important as it is also shown from studies elsewhere. On the Balkans the Egyptian Vulture survived almost only in the areas, where traditional animal husbandry is most preserved and still practiced by big percentage of the population. We suspect that the Eastern Rhodopes where it is most preserved may attract breeding individuals fledged in other areas. But on the other hand the future will show whether this areas are not turning by this way into ecological trap, because of the wolves’ presence and possibly more commonly illegally used poisons, in comparison with the other breeding areas in the north where the wolves are very scarce.

Markus Jais: What is BSPB doing for the Egyptian Vulture and what are the results so far?
Ivaylo Angelov: In terms of conservation activities in 2008 we prepared the Egyptian Vulture national action plan, which was the first such one for a bird species officially approved by the Ministry of Environment in Bulgaria. In 1994 BSPB created the Vulture Conservation Center in the Eastern Rhodopes (www.vulturecenter.com) which serves as center of local conservation activities, education, birdwatching and awareness raising site for the vultures’ protection. On average 10-15 tones of carcass are yearly disposed at two feeding stations in the Rhodopes. We are doing awareness rising among various stake-holders, education campaigns, fighting against inappropriate investment proposals, nest guarding, popularization and restoration of traditional livestock breeds. The research in Bulgaria includes monthly monitoring of the population, ringing of all juveniles since 2008, diet survey, toxicology studies. After thorough literature survey in 2009 we started investigating the threats for the species in the migration and wintering areas. In cooperation with local BirdLife partners we already conducted expeditions to Belen pass, Turkey and the Afar triangle in Ethiopia. Now we are preparing for going to Sudan in September, under an expedition project funded by the African bird Club, to study the current situation with the very big electrocution problems for the migrants there. Hopefully after this in December we plan expedition to South Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and North Kenya to throw more light on the wintering areas there and study the threats for the birds in cooperation with local partners.

Markus Jais: What gaps in the knowledge about the Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria still exists?
Ivaylo Angelov: Still poorly understood are the detailed reasons and hotspots causing the decline like main persecution and poaching sites, effect of the illegal poisoning and pesticides use on the wintering birds in Sahel (especially in Chad and Sudan), significance of the electrocution. Totally unknown is the level of mortality during the non breeding season. The accumulation effect of the pesticides taken during the non breeding period is unknown, they could possibly cause significant part of the early spring mortality recorded in Europe. The level of inbreeding and its possible effects and the genetic relatedness of the subpopulations on the Balkans and Turkey need research.

Markus Jais: How is the development of the Egyptian Vulture populations in neighbouring countries?
Ivaylo Angelov: It is already extinct from Slovenia (before 1950), Ukraine (mid 1960s), Croatia (1987), Bosnia (1990s), Moldova (late 1990s), Romania (1990s or shortly afterwards), Serbia (2006). Now there are still surviving populations in Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and a single known pair in the European part of Turkey, with total of probably less than 120 pairs on the Balkans. If considered on its own the Balkan population classifies for Critically Endangered well showing decline of over 80% in the last three generations.

Ivaylo Angelov

Karlukovski karst Natura 2000 site in Northwest Bulgaria. In 2009 the Egyptian Vulture went extinct from this area while in 2008 there was a successful breeding.
© Ivaylo Angelov

Markus Jais: What is the status of other vulture species in Bulgaria and what is BSPB doing for them?
Ivaylo Angelov: A century ago the Lammergeier was a common and widespread species in the high mountains in Bulgaria, but also inhabited areas below 1000 meters. Adult Bearded Vulture was recorded for the last time in 1972, when a dead bird was found and since then it is considered extinct as breeder. Sadly it seems that now it is gone from the whole Balkans (except Crete), with the last adult birds recorded in the early 1990s in Dadia National Park, Greece and several years ago was the last observation in Macedonia. As everywhere the reasons for its extirpation are poisoning and shooting. A very important fact that should guide us in the future reintroductions is that the last pairs in Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria inhabited low mountains, occurring in the range of the last remaining Griffon and Black Vultures with the birds strongly relying also on the land tortoises as a food base. When sound feasibility studies for its reintroduction are being undertaken it will probably turn out that the Eastern Rhodopes in Greece and Bulgaria, followed by South Macedonia are the best sites for future reintroduction of the Bearded Vulture on the Balkans.
Not limited by the abundance of cliffs, the Black Vulture was once the most widespread species in Bulgaria, sometimes even outnumbering the Griffon Vulture. It nested throughout the country from the Danube River to the high mountains. In Bulgaria the last remaining pairs which bred along the Bulgaria-Turkey and Bulgaria-Greece borders (Eastern Rhodopes) and in East Stara Planina Mountain, went extinct in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For last time in Bulgaria there was an isolated confirmed breeding of single pair in 1993 in the Eastern Rhodopes. Now in the whole Balkans the species remained breeding only in Dadia National Park, situated in the Greek part of the Eastern Rhodopes, where due to the intensive conservation measures conducted since 1990s by the colleagues from WWF Greece (but also by BSPB and Green Balkans in Bulgaria through supplementary feeding and awareness raising) it is now slowly increasing reaching 25-27 pairs in the last years.
The Griffon Vulture, another historically widespread and abundant species is now still surviving due to the intensive conservation measures in the last 20 years. It had been on the brink of extinction in the 1970s when probably only 10-20 pairs remained in the Eastern Rhodopes and Northeast Bulgaria. In mid 1980s the first voluntary supplementary feeding program was initiated and since then the conservation efforts continued especially after 1994 when the Vulture Conservation Center was built by BSPB in the Eastern Rhodopes. Green Balkans also significantly contributed to the preservation of the species through providing of feeding at one place close to the Greek Border. Currently the Griffon Vulture population is localized only in the Eastern Rhodopes, slowly increasing and numbering 40-45 pairs in the last years. Moreover there is just starting effort to reintroduce the Griffon vultures in 5 former breeding sites in the country undertaken by Wild Flora and Fauna Fund, Green Balkans and the Birds of Prey Protection Society.

Ivaylo Angelov


2 juveniles in nest in the Eastern Rhodopes near Madjarovo in 2009. This is the most productive breeding territories in Bulgaria with 11 fledged juveniles in the last 7 years. The nest is one of the very few that is not known to have been changed in the last maybe 20 years.© Volen Arkumarev

Markus Jais: How to you see the future of vultures in Bulgaria?
Ivaylo Angelov: Difficult and very challenging. Till now we were almost helpless in the saving of the Egyptian Vulture in Bulgaria and it is the same in the neighboring countries. The operating threats in and especially outside the breeding areas seem to be far above the limited capacities of the NGOs working with extremely limited resources till now. However since the Balkan populations are strongly interdependent we all need to additionally strengthen the international cooperation and continue with bigger, better focused projects and hopefully stop and subsequently reverse the extinction process.
Besides of the direct conservation actions I believe one of the most important things is to significantly enlarge the awareness raising and education activities including work with children. Doing this continuously will be one of the most important requirements for the long term success.
For the other species now the Griffons are on increase in Bulgaria and we should put many efforts to maintain this.
Concerning the Black Vulture, hopefully the future increase of the colony in Dadia, Greece will make possible the natural recolonisation of the species in Bulgaria. Finally considering the continents wide restoration strategy for the Beaded Vulture I believe that one day in the not too distant future reintroduction of this species on the Balkans will be started and after much hard work on it we will see again this magnificent birds flying safely in the skies connecting the populations in the Alps and Asia Minor.

Markus Jais: How can people help BSPB?
Ivaylo Angelov: Mostly welcome and highly important will be providing of any unpublished information regarding threats during the non breeding season especially on the territories of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and the East and Central African countries in the Sahelian belt. Any financial contribution for the conservation of the species in Bulgaria and for work in the Middle East and Africa will be of major help. We would like to thank to the donors who made our work possible in 2009: Rufford Small Grants Foundation, Vulture Conservation Foundation and Frankfurt Zoological Society, UNDP funded Rhodope Project, Barbara Cross & Michael Roberts from UK, Ed Keeble from UK, BSPB members from RSPB, Svetoslav Spasov from BSPB.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Egyptian Vultures?
Ivaylo Angelov: I think it was the saving of one nest in the previous year. An unbelievably inappropriate tourist bridge was built by local municipality and allowed entering directly into the nest niche, which was situated in an ancient cliff monastery. We were lucky to find the pair with very recently laid two eggs. We immediately started the nest guarding and in the following months more than 700 "tourists"were redirected from visiting the cliff. After 122 days the juvenile already flied safely around. It was amazing to feel that by our efforts we secured the live to the eggs up to which, when first discovered, one could literally walk to.

Further Information

Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB)

www.vulturecenter.com

To contact Ivaylo, please send an email to: ivailoangelov (at) abv.bg