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25 April, 2024
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Cyprus welcomes 15 griffon vultures in battle for survival

New griffon vultures arrive to counter Cyprus' extinction threat

Source: CNA

In a renewed effort to save the endangered Cypriot Griffon Vulture, fifteen new arrivals from Spain landed in Cyprus in December. The population of these birds, which has faced the threat of extinction in Cyprus, currently stands at a mere 29, a stark decline from the hundreds that once inhabited the island just 60-70 years ago. While the recent Spanish arrivals, scheduled for release in six to eight months, bring a glimmer of hope, experts warn of the imminent danger posed by the widespread and uncontrolled use of agricultural poisons in Cyprus.

Of the 29 vultures in Cyprus, 25 were introduced from Spain in previous years, while the remaining four are descendants from local or Cretan origin brought to Cyprus through earlier programs. The initiative is part of the European program "Life with Vultures," which involves importing vultures from centers abroad, such as Spain or, previously, Crete, Greece. After a brief adjustment period, the vultures are released, equipped with rings and transmitters for monitoring. The program also encompasses public and farmer awareness campaigns regarding hazardous pesticides and poisons.

According to Dr. Konstantinos Antoniou, a vet and external collaborator of the Game and Fauna Service, Cyprus once had a significant Griffon vulture population, but their disappearance can be attributed mainly to pesticides. Between 1996 and 2023, BirdLife Cyprus recorded 70 vulture deaths. Out of these, 56 were due to poisoning, 4 from collisions and electrocution on the electricity network, 4 from unknown causes, 3 from gunshot wounds, 2 from lead poisoning, and one from misorientation and exhaustion.

BirdLife Cyprus notes that for every poisoned animal found in the wild, many others are likely poisoned and never detected.

In May 2022, a mass poisoning incident in the Cypriot countryside resulted in the elimination of half of the vulture population in Cyprus. According to Melpo Apostolidou, the Program Coordinator of BirdLife Cyprus, a dead vulture equipped with a monitoring transmitter was found during this incident. Toxicological examinations revealed that the cause of death was poisoning with methomyl (the well-known pesticide Lannate). The next day, inspections of the colonies revealed that two nests contained dead chicks, and a population survey conducted in the following days indicated the loss of nine birds. At that time, it was estimated that half of Cyprus's vulture population was lost.

Dr. Antoniou explained that vultures move in groups, and if they come across a poisoned corpse, they can all be lost collectively. Farmers facing issues with foxes or hunting dogs might soak a dead animal in Lannate poison, hoping that the animals consume it and get poisoned, although this practice is strictly prohibited. The possession of such poisons is also prohibited, but there is a significant surge in their illegal acquisition, because it can be bought from the Turkish occupied areas of Cyprus, which are not controlled by the Republic of Cyprus.

Efforts are being made to identify and punish those engaging in this practice, but it remains challenging to pinpoint the lawbreakers and prove their involvement in poisoning. Dr. Antoniou emphasized the need for a change in legislation, as despite high fines for poisonings, penalties for the possession of illegal poisons are not sufficiently deterrent.

Furthermore, the competent Provincial Officer of Paphos at the Game and Fauna Service and the person in charge of monitoring the satellite transmitters placed on vultures, Charis Hatzistyllis, told CNA that all Griffon vultures currently present in the Cypriot ecosystem are young, and it will take another four to five years for them to reach reproductive maturity.

He further said that the vultures introduced to Cyprus in the last two years are mainly Spanish. There was a population of Cypriot vultures and vultures from Crete that entered the reproductive stage over the last ten years. However, along the way, the six parents were poisoned, leaving Cyprus once again without a reproducing population.

Hatzistyllis pointed out that current management measures are significantly improved, with advanced monitoring technologies allowing for the immediate detection of a poisoned vulture. Monitoring transmitters are not only carried by vultures but also by eagles.

He also said that the fines imposed by the Game and Fauna Service in cases of poisoning are particularly high. Already, there have been reports of the illegal use of poisons, and in one case, a penalty order of 21,000 euros was issued.

Hatzistyllis further stressed the need to strengthen legislation beyond game legislation, as other services are involved in the possession and use of illegal pesticides.

"It is crucial for everyone to understand that the placement of poison remains in the environment forever and has consequences for the entire food chain," he noted.

According to a study conducted by the Vulture Conservation Foundation, it is predicted that the Cypriot population will disappear within the next 15 years if the frequency of poisonings remains at today's high levels, i.e., four poisoning incidents every five years. However, with conservation actions, such as addressing the use of poisoned baits, the most severe threat to the species, reducing the frequency of poisonings by 90% (i.e., one incident every 10 years), and simultaneously bolstering the population with the introduction of birds, it is expected that there will be a recovery of the population within the next 25 years.

Cyprus  |  voltures  |  animals  |  birds  |  wild

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