Migratory birds and conservation: a collaborative challenge case of Egyptian vultures

Read here the first article of Sandscript 31st issue

Through their travels, migratory birds connect countries and continents and are the symbol of an interconnected world. They cross thousands of kilometers each year in search of favorable ecological conditions to feed and reproduce. However, they pose a particular challenge in terms of conservation, as the occurrence of events in one geographical region can have an impact on the populations in distant regions.

Migratory birds

Migratory birds pass through regions where the nature of the threats varies, and across countries with different legislation and conservation actors. Many migratory bird populations have seen their numbers drastically decline, primarily due to the widespread expansion of infrastructure and human activities, and the deterioration of their habitat.

Classified as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is declining across almost all its range, that includes Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Most of the individuals from Northern populations are long-distance migratory birds, spending the winter in Sub-Saharan
Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula.
Using thermal currents to fly, their migration itineraries are largely determined by geographical characteristics. As a result, the total migration distances vary from one population to another.
The population of the Balkans, for example, travels distances up to twice as long as other Egyptian vulture populations. Each year, the birds cover more than 8,000 km to reach their wintering grounds in autumn and return in spring.

The Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project: an international collaboration to conserve the Eastern European population of Egyptian vultures
The Egyptian vulture population in the Balkans has declined by more than 80% over the past 30 years.
The reasons for this decline originate in their breeding grounds, as well as all along their migratory route. To meet the challenge of coordinating measures to conserve this population, actors and organisations from 14 countries on three continents, all located along the migration path, have pooled their efforts within the framework of the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project, launched in 2017 and co-funded by the European Union’s LIFE program.
Analysis of the causes of mortality of individuals fitted with transmitters has revealed some of the main threats. For example, without the guidance of birds of the same species, young vultures frequently make the wrong choice of migration route that involves crossing of large bodies of water that can be fatal. The recent rapid decline of the population seems to be due in part to fewer of vultures migrating, for example. Other threats linked to human activities such as poisoning, cases of electrocution or poaching have also been observed. However, the effective alleviation of these threats depends on an understanding of their breadth and geographical scope.
Migratory Egyptian vultures generally spend the winter in regions where non-migratory breeding populations are also present, making it doubly important to implement actions to conserve the species.

The case of Niger
Thanks to studies carried out by our Birdlife partners in Bulgaria and Greece, Niger has been identified and documented as one of the wintering sites of the Egyptian vulture population from the Balkans, in the same respect as other countries in the Sahelian region such as Chad, Sudan and Ethiopia.

The case of Paschalis, a young Greek vulture fitted with a transmitter and killed during its first migration by a Nigerian hunter in Niger, highlighted the importance of including Niger in the list of partner countries to the Egyptian Vulture New LIFE project.
Within the framework of this project, direct and indirect proof of the poaching of these birds and their use in traditional medical practices has been gathered from different sources in the country. The results of these studies have made it possible to understand the roots and the ins and outs of these practices and to draw up a targeted conservation strategy.
Due to the complexity of the threats to be dealt with and their cultural footing in the community, the action’s success lies in the implementation of complementary activities involving a wide array of stakeholders.

Capacity-building sessions dedicated to the competent authorities were organised, in conjunction with meetings bringing together the main stakeholders involved, namely hunters and traditional practitioners. The involvement of local leaders, active awareness-raising among the local populations and an introduction to environmental education for the younger generations have increased the public’s commitment to vulture conservation.
Through an interconnected approach, our aim is to initiate global awareness-raising, hold the different stakeholders more accountable for vulture conservation in Niger and further develop the different players’ local capacities to combat these threats.

Conservation of these migratory birds requires coordination between the multiple countries linked by the movements of these species. The EV New LIFE project has intensified Sahara Conservation’s work on vultures in Niger, providing the necessary proof and allowing unprecedented conservation actions to be implemented. A comparative study of the markets in 2019 and 2022 in the targeted regions of Niger highlighted the reduction in the number of vultures for sale, benefiting migratory Egyptian vultures such as Paschalis, as well as all vulture species present in Niger.

Cloé Pourchier
Program Officer – Sahara Conservation

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