The Cypriot population of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus), the island’s largest bird of prey, has seen its numbers dramatically fall in the last decades. This was caused both by poisoning and changes in farming techniques, which has left them short on food. Spanish griffon vultures were released in Cyprus in an attempt to boost a once-thriving population now virtually extinct.
A population decimated by threats
Because of the slow breeding rate of the species, loss of adequate habits and constant threats, the griffon vulture population in Cyprus is now the smallest in Europe. Changing farming techniques and decreasing food availability are partly to blame for its decline, as well as the loss of natural habitats and collisions with overhead power lines. The most frequent and impactful threat is represented by poisonous bites, which is extremely worrying for the future of the species on the island.
In Cyprus, using banned poisons to reduce perceived pests is a very common phenomenon which has led, over the last decades, to the dispersal of a large number of poison baits in rural areas. This illegal non-selective method is used today for what some would define as “pest control”, to protect livestock animals from other predators – such as foxes and stray dogs – or for deliberate poisoning of other domestic animals in retaliation. According to the latest figures, poisoning is one of the main causes of a dramatic reduction and almost extinction of vultures which has brought the population on the island down to 8 individuals as the scavengers have fed off poisoned carrion.
Spanish griffon vultures released in Cyprus
To fight the massive loss in numbers and revive what was once a thriving population, 15 Griffons were released into the wild in September. With timing being crucial to saving this species from complete extinction, another 15 birds will be released in November which will be followed by further releases in spring 2023.
The released individuals come from Spain, home to Europe’s largest population of griffon vultures. The imported animals go through an acclimatisation phase in a specific aviary on the island before being released. Once in nature, each bird is closely monitored thanks to GPS transmitters that allow tracking of every movement. The Spanish griffons are juveniles, which is important to foster their integration in the new environment and with the local birds. So far, even if early to say with certainty, the releases have been successful and have shown good results of adaptation.
Community engagement to save the griffon vultures
Restoring the species population in the country would be good for nature and indicative of the local ecosystem’s overall health, conservationists claim. Griffon vultures play a vital role as “a cost-effective and environmentally beneficial carcass disposal service” and help regulate the spread of diseases such as rabies.
It is clear that the reintroduction efforts have been crucial to avoiding the extinction of the Griffon vulture in Cyprus, but only when the use of poison will be effectively addressed the bird will start to thrive again. Indeed, continuing with releasing birds from elsewhere without taking any measures to counteract and reduce the frequency of poisoning incidents would only mean delaying their extinction on the island. Eradicating this problem is a group effort which requires the involvement of interested stakeholders that are affected by this matter, rural communities, law-enforcement groups and decision-makers.
In the meanwhile, local authorities and NGOs are setting up feeding stations for the birds and, earlier this year, dog units specially trained to detect poison bait and poisoned victims have begun patrolling rural areas.