European Wilderness Society

The return of the bearded vulture in the Alps

This posting is written by Aurélien Rinaudo.

The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is the largest bird in Europe. Recognizable by the adults’ orange plumage, resulting from their mud baths, their bright eyes rimmed with red, and the feathered “beard” from which their name derives, these birds are truly distinctive. As a necrophagous raptor, the bearded vulture feeds exclusively on dead animals, with a particular preference for bones. When the bones are too large to swallow, the vulture will drop them from great heights to break them into smaller, manageable pieces. This scavenging role is crucial for the ecosystem, as it helps prevent the spread of diseases by cleaning up carcasses.

However, it remains the rarest vulture in Europe due to the extensive hunting it faced during the 18th and 19th centuries. This hunting was driven by the belief that it was a ferocious beast, even to the extent of kidnapping children. These unfounded rumors, along with its striking appearance, led people to see it as a devil’s emissary. Additionally, efforts to control other predators such as wolves and bears using poisoned baits also contributed to its decline. Today, the European population is estimated between 1,200 and 1,600 individuals (LPO), thanks to several reintroduction campaigns and reinforced protection measures.

The bearded vulture began to benefit from protection starting in the 1980s. In France, its protection status has fully safeguarded it since 1981. In parallel with this protection, a European-wide reintroduction program began in 1985. This program relied on breeding bearded vultures in zoological parks. The challenge was to ensure that the reintroduced vultures could feed themselves, having lived in captivity all their lives.

Once successful breeding was achieved, suitable reintroduction sites had to be found to allow these birds to settle in their preferred habitats. Among these sites are the Vanoise National Park in France, the Grisons National Park in Switzerland, and the Rauris Valley in Austria.

Today, the state of the bearded vulture population in Europe has improved thanks to these reintroduction campaigns. Currently, there are around fifty pairs in the Alps, originating from the reintroduction efforts (LPO). This population is expanding, with increasingly large areas of presence. Preservation efforts must continue as the species is quite sensitive to disturbances caused by human activities. For example, it is crucial to avoid disturbing the nests of these raptors, as they are particularly sensitive and there is a high risk of abandonment if there is contact. They are also victims of high-tension power lines or lead poisoning when they consume animals killed by hunters. They remain susceptible to poaching, particularly from consuming poisoned baits intended for large predators (notably in the Pyrenees).

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© Fotolia

The reintroduction of the bearded vulture is a successful example of reintroduction efforts. Today, its status in Europe is considered “near threatened.” Similar to the reintroduction of the griffon vulture in France, the bearded vulture’s reintroduction has succeeded in preserving a species with high environmental interest. In France today, it can even provide services to humans. When livestock animals die, there are designated areas where carcasses are deposited to be consumed by griffon vultures and bearded vultures. This practice helps farmers avoid disposal costs. The awareness campaign around the vulture’s reintroduction has been successful, leading to acceptance by various stakeholders and reducing poaching.

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