Interview with Emilian Stoynov about the Eurasian Griffon Vulture in Bulgaria

Date of the interview: 19 April 2011

In this interview Emilian Stoynov talks the current situation of the Eurasian Griffon Vulture in Bulgaria and an ongoing reintroduction program.
Emilian was born 1976. He studied Geography in Sofia University. He was volunteering and working for Bulgarian Society for Protection of Birds for 10 years on birds of prey and vultures monitoring and conservation. To work for the reintroduction of vultures and traditional livestock revival, he created the FWFF in 2000 and since then he has been working as its director and projects manager.

Emilian Stoynov watching migration of birds of pery in Burgas.
© Yordan Hristov

Markus Jais: What is the current status of the  Griffon Vulture in Bulgaria?
Emilian Stoynov: Just this year the Griffon Vulture has passed the number of 50 pairs in Bulgaria following 30 years of increase. It now can be observed permanently in four regions of the country- Eastern Rhodopi, Eastern Balkan Mountain, Vrachanski Balkan and Kresna Gorge of Struma Valley. Just until two years ago the species has survived only in Eastern Rhodopi.

Markus Jais: How has the population developed during the last decades?
Emilian Stoynov: Abundant in beginning of the XX century, following dramatic decline in the early 1970s the species was considered extinct from the country. In 1978 small colony of 1 nesting pair and 16 immature birds was discovered in Eastern Rhodopi. After that with direct conservation measures the Bulgarian conservation community succeeded to stabilize the colony and it started to grow slowly, reaching 10 pairs in early 1990s, 30 pairs in 2003 - and nearly 50 pairs in 2011 - all in Eastern Rhodopi. This year out of the biggest number recorded in Eastern Rhodopi there are also 5 pairs in two other regions of the country (Kresna Gorge and Eastern Balkan Mountain) thanks to re-introduction projects. So the recent national population slightly exceeds 50 pairs. In 1990s there where more Egyptian Vultures than Griffon Vultures in Bulgaria. Today it is opposite.

Markus Jais: What where and are the main threats to the Griffon Vulture?
Emilian Stoynov: In mid XX century the very mass and well organized on state level use of poison baits for predators’ control as well as the direct persecution of birds of prey in that time has led to decline of the populations of all birds of prey. In that time all carcasses of dead livestock were collected and incinerated. So there was a very serious combination of factors - lack of food combined with mass poisoning - so almost any carcass accessible for vultures was poison bait. In the period of 1950-1970 all three species of large vultures - Griffon, Cinereous and Bearded Vulture have been extirpated. Only the Egyptian Vulture has survived in that time. It is believed that it survived because could well feed on smaller carcasses and may be because as migratory species it missed the strong poisoning campaigns that predominantly took place in winter. Recently although illegal, the poisoning is still a threat, but it could be minimized as threat for vultures through providing poison free food at feeding sites and preventive measures against poison baits use. It appears that modern threats are wind turbines and electrocution. In 2010 out from 5 documented cases of dead Griffon vultures in Bulgaria - 2 died by poison, 1 was killed by wind turbine, 1 electrocuted and 1 hit by car.

The aclimatization aviary in Kresna Gorge.
© Hristo Peshev

Markus Jais: There is now a reintroduction program underway in Bulgaria. Can you tell us more about it?
Emilian Stoynov: The Griffon Vulture survived naturally only in Eastern Rhodopi, where it forms a common sub-population with the colonies of the species in North-eastern Greece. Seeing that the population of the Griffon Vulture in Greece is declining and that the increase of the species in Eastern Rhodopi in Bulgaria does not lead to re-colonization of other historical breeding sites in the country we decided to multiply the French, Italian and Israeli way of supporting the species through translocation and re-introduction. Griffon Vultures bred in captivity, rehabilitated and wild caught from Spain, France, Chech republic and Bulgaria were used to create new colonies in four areas in Balkan Mountain to the north and Kresna Gorge to the south. The method used is the well known “French" one, using acclimatization aviaries, where large groups of vultures spend quite some time to bond and to get accustomed to the area.

Markus Jais: Who is involved in that program?
Emilian Stoynov: The Bulgarian NGOs - Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna works in Kresna Gorge, and Kotel Mountain (Eastern Balkan Mountain); Green Balkans work in Sinite kamani Nature Park (Eastern Balkan Mountain) and Birds of Prey Protection Society is working in Vrachanski Balkan and Central Balkan. All projects are part of Balkan Vulture Action Plan, where more national and International NGOs are partners. The International partners are Frankfurt Zoological Society, LPO/FIR, BVCF, FCVB, VCF, RSPB etc. For Kresna Gorge birds were imported by GREFA, for all other sites by BVCF. The project "Vultures return in Bulgaria" is focused on releases of Griffon Vultures in four areas along Balkan Mountains and is co-financed by LIFE+ programme of EU and Frankfurt Zoological Society and DBU.

Markus Jais: What is the long term goal for this project?
Emilian Stoynov: In long term it is planned the Griffon Vulture to become common species in Bulgaria, with stable population of about 250 pairs with colonies in at least 10 regions of the country. Also it is believed that the re-introductions of Griffon Vulture and the related actions will improve the situation of the other three species of European vultures.

Emilian Stoynov watching vultures in Eastern Rhodopi.
© Nadya Vangelova

Markus Jais: Do you think it would make sense to do a similar project in the future for the Cinereous Vulture?
Emilian Stoynov: Yes. This is exactly what we would like to achieve - the Griffon Vulture to be used as indicator for suitability of certain area to support large vulture populations. Exactly like it was done in Massif Centrale in France. After the Griffon Vulture, it was reintroduced the Black Vulture and soon the Bearded Vulture will be re-introduced there as well. There the Egyptain Vulture return on its own attracted by the Griffon Vultures and the permanently supplied feeding sites. The same has happened in Kotel Mountain in Bulgaria. Unfortunately the Egyptian Vulture is very fast declining in Bulgaria and we may be should re-introduce it one day as well. The problem with Cinereous, Bearded and Egyptian Vultures is deficiency of birds for release. So their re-introduction will be slow and very long process.

Markus Jais: Is illegal persecution and illegal use of poison a problem?
Emilian Stoynov: They are now more or less controlled and if the population is big enough it will overcome the impact of these threats.

Markus Jais: Do you think that electrocution and lead poisoning can be a problem for the vultures?
Emilian Stoynov: Electrocution is a problem, but it could be well managed through insulation of dangerous powerlines. Unfortunately last year a Griffon Vulture released in Kresna Gorge was electrocuted some 220 km to the north of the release site. Lead poisoning is believed to be a serious threat, but fortunately not as strong as it seems to be for the Californian condor. The main difference is that in Bulgaria the Griffon Vultures feed on domestic livestock and wolf victims and rarely on shot animals.

Markus Jais: In Bulgaria, as in most other European countries, more wind farms are built. Are they a threat to the Griffon Vulture?
Emilian Stoynov: Yes. A Griffon Vulture was killed by wind turbine in NW Bulgaria, where is not a usual place to see Griffon Vulture. May be less than 10 Griffon Vultures are seen there on passage and one got killed. What if wind parks will be erected in traditional vulture areas? Unfortunately there are many such projects. I am optimist that this problem could be solved with the new generation wind turbines with vertical axis that is developed by Hungarian company and will soon be presented on the market.

Marked Serbian Griffon Vulture attracted to Kresna Feeding site for vultrures.
© Hristo Peshev

Markus Jais: What is the main food source for the Griffon Vulture in Bulgaria?
Emilian Stoynov: The Griffon Vulture in Bulgaria feeds mainly on livestock animals. In Eastern Rhodopi there is a game reserve with big concentration of Fallow Deer, which is highly preferred food source for the vultures. The population of the wolf in Bulgaria is stable and the wolf kills are important food source. But in this case it is problematic the conflict with livestock breeders and potential use of poisoned baits. That is why we implement a compensation and prevention programs to keep this conflict minimal. However as Benny Gensbol writes in its last edition of Birds of Prey to maintain Griffon Vultures in modern Europe it is necessary to provide food. In Bulgaria at the same time there is and there is not enough food for vultures. There is, because the statistics show sufficient number of livestock and dead animals, but they are hardly accessible for the vultures. Thus feeding sites should be established as it was ones with the so called “Horses cemeteries" near every village. This is more or less a natural way of providing food for vultures in the same time minimizing the carbon emitting through avoiding long distance transportation of carcasses and incineration. Recently 10 permanent feeding sites for vultures have been established in six regions of Bulgaria managed by 4 NGOs and few state institutions, while some 20 years ago there were only two managed by Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds. Several more feeding sites are temporarily used to support Imperial Eagles and Egyptian Vultures.

Markus Jais: How important are traditional livestock farming activities for the  Griffon vulture?
Emilian Stoynov: The traditional farming is very important, not only as a source of food, but also as source of high quality food for vultures and habitat management. Unfortunately the larger source of food could be expected by intensive pig farms, where antibiotics and other medications are widely applied. My organization is working on re-establishment of Transhumance and has about 700 sheep and goats. But we see that this practice is hardly competitive and thus could not be wide spread in market oriented economy. Such herds bred in this manner could only be managed by NGOs, where financial profit is not expected, but the profit is the conservation of nature. The application of Agri-environment schemes for subsidizing such actions is a good idea, but it does not work in Bulgaria.

Poisoned Griffon Vulture died on its roosting site.
© Emilian Stoynov

Markus Jais: How is the development of the Griffon Vulture populations in neighbouring countries?
Emilian Stoynov: In Greece the situation is sad. The species was wide spread until 1990s. Now it survived only on Crete (about 100 pairs) and NE Greece (20 pairs) thanks to feeding project in Dadia and across the border in Bulgaria. Two-three small colonies on the bring of extinction in W Greece (10-12 pairs). In (FYR) Macedonia the species has fluctuated a lot in the last decade. But after two big poisoning incidents it is now less then 20 pairs. I admire the efforts of the conservation NGOs in Macedonia to provide food and educate the general public on conservation of nature. In Serbia the species is doing very well in recent years reaching the number of nearly 100 pairs thanks to a feeding project in Uvats Gorge. However it is still found only in one region and our colleagues there should start thinking on supporting colonization of other historical breeding areas too. In Romania the species is extinct, but plans for re-introduction in Carpathian Mountains are underway. In Turkey the situation is unclear, but surely the species is not breeding in the European part. I would like to mention the importance of the Israeli Griffon Vulture population and the conservation efforts of our colleagues in this country. It appears that almost all young Griffon Vultures from the Balkan countries are wintering in Israel or at least spend quite some time on their migration to Africa and back. The system of feeding sites and against poison activities implemented there are in the base of improving the situation in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia and Eastern Greece.

Markus Jais: How do you see the future for the Griffon in Bulgaria?
Emilian Stoynov: Bulgarian landscapes and rural areas are very much suitable for Griffon Vulture so I hope the population of the species will recover. The best would be to see vultures flying over large transhumant herds in the mountains, but seeing them at the feeding sites around villages will be also considered success. I hope and I believe we will count 150 pairs in 2020 and 250 in 2025.

Flying vulture in Kresna Gorge.
© Hristo Peshev

Markus Jais: How can people support your project and vulture conservation in Bulgaria?
Emilian Stoynov: The zoos and rehabilitation centers could help through providing releasable birds. Everybody could buy a transhumant sheep to graze in the mountains. We also need to purchase more land to use as pastures in the mountains. If interested see more about these projects and contact us on www.fwff.org.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with Griffon Vultures?
Emilian Stoynov: Just now I learned that the first chick of Griffon Vulture in Kresna Gorge hatched. It is the first one for the last 50 years outside the Eastern Rhodopi in Bulgaria. It is really great, but as with any newborn, one could not be really happy until seen it grown. That is why I consider the most amazing experience for me was to see Griffon Vultures soaring in areas where they have been missing for decades. There are many beautiful landscapes in Bulgaria that seem suitable for Griffon Vultures, but their skies are empty. Now this is going to change.

Markus Jais: Emilian, thank you very much for the interview.

More information

Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna

Balkan Vulture Action Plan