Securing the Egyptian Vulture Flyway
The Egyptian vulture is one of few emblematic species of major cultural value in the world. It lived close to mankind from the beginning of history and has been celebrated in many tales and legends and is considered sacred in many cultures. The ancient Egyptians revered it as a sacred being and its appearance is immortalized in the hieroglyphic alphabet as the letter “A”. The use of the vulture as a symbol of royalty in Egyptian culture and their protection by Pharaonic law made the species common on the streets of Egypt and gave rise to its nickname: ” the pharaoh’s chicken.” Back in ancient times, the Egyptian vultures nested on the pyramids in Giza but today your only chance to see them there is as hieroglyphs on the stone walls.
Breeding and Migration
The Egyptian vulture is a typical long-distance migrant. In autumn, both young and adult birds leave their nesting territories and start a long journey towards their wintering places in Africa. They migrate in small groups, mainly over land, avoiding long distances over open sea. Along the migration routes, they gather in great numbers at places with an abundance of food such as dumpsites and feeding stations. In spring, the Egyptian Vultures cover over 4000 km (2500 mi.) back to their nesting territories – it takes them about 30-40 days. Older vultures are responsible to teach younger ones which areas to fly over and how to migrate safely. Tagged birds show the great variation in these vultures’ migration patterns, there is so much diversity in the routes they take while migrating.
Despite the variation, Egypt remains an important passageway for this magnificent bird. Egyptian Vultures are amongst the more passive flying soaring birds; they take advantage of thermal lifts to glide and soar. They therefore prefer land crossings which are more likely to have the thermal columns they need to soar efficiently. The Suez land bridge is particularly important for the species and is the main crossing point between Africa and Eurasia.
The Egyptian vulture is a globally endangered species, included in the IUCN Red List as “Endangered.” Its global population is estimated at 21 000-67 000 individuals with a steady negative tendency. It is strictly protected by the Bern and Bon International Conventions, as well as by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Along their journeys, the Egyptian vultures face many threats to their species’ survival such as poisoning, electrocution and collision with power lines, and even direct persecution through illegal hunting.
Egyptian vultures often search for food on dumpsites and can ingest almost anything due to the high acidity of their stomachs. The variety of its food sources makes this vulture particularly vulnerable to poisoning in areas with large, open dumpsites that end up having discarded poisonous waste. Such waste can be excess or rotten produce from farms that overuse pesticides. It can also be the corpses of rodents, stray dogs or wild animals that were killed by poison baits to control for their populations. Similarly, poisonous waste can be the corpses of livestock that were poisoned due to an unregulated high usage of Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID) or other veterinary drugs that can prove fatal in high doses. If any of the above poisonous wastes are not disposed of correctly and end up in open dumps, they are likely to become the Egyptian vulture’s last meal. Better waste management and disposal systems are crucial to mitigate this threat.
Vultures and other soaring birds use air currents to achieve height without spending too much energy. This smart and efficient soaring is the key to their long, yet fast migrations. Unfortunately, sites with strong and constant wind currents are usually the best places for wind farm projects. The construction of windmills along the Egyptian vultures’ flyway can produce extra air currents that attract the soaring bird to come closer to the windmill but suddenly obstruct them and cause collision. The extra currents the huge windmills generate, their large size as well as their location along the vultures’ journeys can lead to their death. Shut on demand programs are a great way to avoid this threat.
The Egyptian vultures quite often use electricity poles as resting or roosting sites. This behaviour can have fatal consequences if done over poorly insulated low-voltage distribution lines which are extremely dangerous to birds; when perching, or taking off. Low voltage distribution lines are particularly dangerous for young vultures. The first days after leaving their nests, they are still unconfident in the air, especially when perching or taking off, so they are likely to crash in the electric cables. An efficient way of avoiding electrocution is by using proper insulators.
It is illegal to hunt Egyptian vultures because of their highly declining numbers. Illegal Killing of Birds (IKB) unfortunately affects these birds negatively. In Egypt, Lake Nassr is a hotspot for Egyptian vulture hunting.
To save this magnificent bird, institutions and organisations from 14 countries spanning the Balkans, Middle East and Africa have joined forces. They united under the project “Urgent Actions to Strengthen the Balkan Population of the Egyptian Vulture and Secure Its Flyway” abbreviated to Egyptian Vulture – New LIFE Project, launched in July 2017 with financial support from the EU’s LIFE Programme Union and the co-financing AG Leventis Foundation, Green Fund and the MAVA Foundation. The aim of the project is to address major known threats at breeding grounds and also along the flyway of the Egyptian vulture to reinforce its population.
In the winter of 2019-2020, Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) conducted desk research on the status and usage of Veterinary medicinal products like Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAID) and pesticides in Egypt: two sources of poisoning of Egyptian vultures. The aim of the research was to begin to understand the threats NSADs and pesticides pose on Egyptian vultures.
In March 2020, Jenny, Aoos/Vjosa and Boris: three tagged Egyptian vultures along with other untagged magnificent vultures crossed Suez for their Spring migration to Europe. Suez is known to be an important area for migrating Egyptian vultures. To ensure a safe crossing, NCE planned a research trip to collect data on the effects of identified threats (electrocution, collision and poisoning) on migrating Egyptian vultures that cross the governorate. The team did line surveys of distribution lines along identified hot spots as well as conducted interviews with farmers, locals and government officials in the area.
Read the summary field report here