In 2002, an action plan for the ‘recovery and conservation of vultures on the Balkan Peninsula and adjacent regions’ was drafted by national and international NGOs. The plan defined actions and encouraged the fostering of links between vulture recovery projects across the Balkan states. Greece and Bulgaria jointly host almost 70% of the Balkan vulture population (62-71 pairs). Importantly, the LIFE project represents one of the last opportunities to prevent the extinction of a surviving subpopulation of the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) in northern Bulgaria, which declined rapidly from 22 pairs in 2003 to just 8 pairs in 2010. The extinction of this subpopulation would effectively shift the distribution boundary for the species southwards by some 300 km.
The goal of the Return of the Neophron project was to secure the survival and improve the conservation status of Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) in the northernmost part of its European range, in 15 Natura 2000 network sites in Greece and 12 in Bulgaria. These sites host 76-93% and over 90% of the Greek and Bulgarian populations, respectively; the aim was to directly benefit more than 90% of these national populations. Project actions addressed the most relevant threats and problems for the conservation of the species, namely, high mortalities caused by poisoning and contaminated food, and direct persecution and accidents due to human infrastructure along the species’ migratory flyway from Europe to its wintering grounds in Africa.
Return of the Neophron stabilised the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) population in Bulgaria and Greece. The project team established supplementary feeding sites, nest guarding operations and anti-poison dog units, and insulated electricity infrastructure.
The project team analysed Egyptian vulture population trends, distribution and mortality factors in Bulgaria and Greece, and toxicological, parasitological and genetic analyses from a total of 56 fledglings. Satellite tagging was implemented for 22 juveniles and 5 adults, which improved knowledge on migration routes and bottlenecks, mortality hotspots and wintering areas. The satellite telemetry data showed for the first time the entire flyway and wintering grounds of the Balkan population. The project team also analysed the vulture’s diet, and developed a habitat model for 87 breeding territories in Bulgaria and Greece to identify critical habitat features for territory selection and abandonment.
Over five years, the project provided additional safe food for about 50% of the breeding pairs in Bulgaria and Greece annually (about 500 feedings, totalling 10 tons of meat, per annum). The project team restored a supplementary feeding station (“vulture restaurant”) and set up two more in Greece, and produced guidelines for the establishment and management of supplementary feeding sites. The project’s nest-guarding programme, for 60% of the breeding pairs in Bulgaria and Greece, saved 7 juveniles and prevented 6 fatal disturbances. Fledgling success was increased by 6%. After 2013, nest guarding was continued with volunteers (average 25 each year). Over three years, the project operated two anti-poison dog units in Greece. These units found 48 poison baits and 39 dead poisoned animals, thus directly reducing the risk of poisoning for Egyptian vulture and other birds of prey. The project created a key stakeholders’ network against the use of poison (including farmers, livestock breeders and beekeepers). In 2016, there were two more Egyptian vulture pairs recorded, while the number of incubating pairs was the same, compared to 2014.
The project mapped 9 496 pylons and assessed the risk of electrocution in a 5 km radius around active nests in Bulgaria and Greece (using an algorithm for prioritising pylons for insulation developed during the project). A total of 4 663 pylons were also mapped in African wintering sites, particularly in Afar, Ethiopia (where the highest concentration of wintering vultures occurs). A total of 464 critically-dangerous pylons were insulated in 17 Egyptian vulture territories (397 pylons in Bulgaria and 67 in Greece), with the support of electricity distribution companies, which significantly reduced the risk of electrocution. A powerline in Sudan that kills dozens of Egyptian vulture annually (hundreds or even thousands since the 1950s) was disconnected thanks to a collaboration between BSPB, BirdLife Jordan and BirdLife Sudan.
In total, the project helped improve the conservation status of 96 000 ha of semi-natural grasslands within Natura 2000 network sites, to the benefit of Egyptian vulture and biodiversity generally. The project developed a National Species Action Plan for Greece, as well as a National Strategy Against Poison and a National Task Force. Importantly, the project mobilised the international conservation community for the elaboration of a Flyway Action Plan for Egyptian vulture. This complies with global treaties (e.g. CITES, Convention on Migratory Species). The project advanced the objectives of the Birds Directive, within which Egyptian vulture is a priority species for conservation, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020.
The project produced and distributed 86 types of information material, including a Bird Crime Handbook for Custom Officers, an annual calendar (2013-2017) and four mobile exhibitions. The project erected information boards at 27 sites. Its website, which included a video stream from a camera installed in an Egyptian vulture nest and the routes of satellite-tagged birds, received 114 759 visits from 183 countries. The project attended 24 conferences, and produced over 35 technical reports and scientific papers. It organised 104 training seminars/workshops (attended by 1 475 participants) that increased expertise and capacity (e.g. to detect and prevent bird crime) among stakeholders, such as farmers, foresters, police and customs officers, prosecutors, conservationists, and decision makers; and 80 public events (attracting over 67 000 people). As a result of project activities, Egyptian vulture became a well-known endangered species and perceptions changed positively, with the birds now considered as harmless and useful due to their cleaning services.
In terms of socio-economic benefits, the project created over 130 jobs and hired locally for various actions. In addition, more than 1 400 farmers submitted applications for subsidies under agri-environmental and Natura 2000 measures.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).