A bird's-eye view: bearded vultures in the Alps
"The bearded vulture has a really calm way of approaching life – and that's what fascinates me," says Jürg Paul Müller. The biologist from Chur is one of those campaigning to resettle the bearded vulture in the Alps. Together with his team from the 'Pro Bartgeier' Foundation, he is making sure that these sedate birds, which were wiped out at the end of the nineteenth century, once more glide through our realms.
Jürg Müller, why are you so interested in bearded vultures?
The bearded vulture is not only impressive to look at but is also right at the top of the food chain: apart from man, it has no enemies. The bearded vulture is a very leisurely creature; it does not hunt but is a scavenger and can survive for days without eating. It becomes sexually mature very late on – basically, the bearded vulture takes its time in everything it does. I find this slow pace, this calm way of life, a very pleasing contrast to our hectic society.
Why did the bearded vulture disappear from the Alps?
Big predators, such as wolves, lynxes and bears, were eliminated from the Alps at the end of the nineteenth century. As were virtually all freely roaming hoofed animals – apart from the chamois. The bearded vulture depends on these animals – or rather, their cadavers – for its food. But it was also deliberately hunted. You see, the bearded vulture used to have a bit of a bad image: it used to be termed a child eater or lammergeier. And, as a scavenger, the bearded vulture is pretty easy to attract. The last bearded vultures bred in Graubünden in around 1885.
With the Pro Bartgeier Foundation, you are
campaigning for bearded vultures to
resettle in the Alps. Why?
I have various reasons: one of them is ethical because we simply do not have the right to wipe out another species. The second reason is ecological: bearded vultures are scavengers and thus make a contribution to the ecological balance of nature. And thirdly: the bearded vulture is particularly suitable for returning to the wild because it is visible to the public. That is incredibly good in terms of conservation, as it makes people engage with the bearded vulture and get to know it. It gives people a positive experience of nature – they are thrilled if they see a bearded vulture in the wild. And that is 'nature-marketing' at its best.
What is most important when releasing them back into the wild? The first question is of course: where do we get the birds from?
We only work with breeding birds and we need Eurasian bearded vultures from a large breeding system – because it is our aim to broaden the genetic basis of the bearded vulture so that we get strong, healthy animals ideally without inbreeding. And then there is the question of where to release the birds. The best places are those where bearded vultures used to live. The bearded vulture needs an area where there are cadavers, nesting opportunities and good thermal lift – and authorities and the local population also have to be in agreement.
Where do these conditions exist – where can you find bearded vultures today?
So far, the bearded vulture has been released in the following Alpine regions: from 1986 in the Austrian National Park Hohe Tauern, then in the Haute Savoie region of France, followed in 1991 by the Swiss National Park in Engadin and finally the Maritime Alps on the French/Italian border. Between 2000 and 2008, bearded vultures were released in the Stelvio National Park and since early summer 2010, we have also been reintroducing birds to the Calfeisen Valley in St. Gallen. They come from lines that were not greatly represented in the natural population to date and thus make a considerable contribution to the genetic diversity of the bearded vulture. And the best thing about it is they sometimes fly right up near my office window in Chur – almost moving me to tears each time.
When exactly do you reintroduce breeding birds?
We release the young birds just before they are fully fledged – that is extremely important. Because bearded vultures commit their environment to memory when they start to learn to fly when they are just over 100 days old. Then they know where they live. If you released old bearded vultures, they would fly off.
What is the most difficult thing about resettling?
Resettling is always a long-term project. Bearded vultures do not reach sexual maturity until they are about six or seven, so we don't see any success until late on – we have to be patient. But preparing the aeries and reintroducing the birds is not really the most difficult thing – it can be strenuous at times, yes. The most time-consuming thing – and also the part that biologists such as myself like least – is certainly collecting money for the project.
Against the odds: how successful is the reintroduction project of the 'Pro Bartgeier' Foundation?
Together with other organisations we have released a total of 189 bearded vultures in the Alps since 1986. And then there are around ten bearded vultures born in the wild every year. At the last census in the Alps, around 150 bearded vultures were sighted, but the real number is bound to be much higher because you can never hope to find all the birds.
Bearded vultures were first rereleased in the Swiss Alps in 1991 in the Swiss National Park in Engadin. Together with the nearby Stelvio National Park, it is generally considered to be an El Dorado for bearded vultures. This makes Switzerland an important centre for resettling bearded vultures. However, the National Park is not only home to the bearded vulture but to lots of other animals, too: red deer, ibexes, adders, golden eagles and brown bears have adopted it as their natural habitat.
Pioneers in conservation
The founding of the first National Park in Central Europe 100 years ago can certainly be classed as pioneering. The project was masterminded by members of the Swiss Society for Nature Research, including Fritz and Paul Sarasin, Carl Schröter as well as Steivan Brunies from the Engadin. They were concerned about the progressive exploitation of the mountain world and increasing industrialisation at the start of the 20th century and founded the Swiss Society for the Protection of Nature to counteract this development. It was their goal to stop a piece of original mountain landscape from being used by man and to preserve it forever. They also wanted to scientifically document the natural development of the nature reserve. And this was how the first Alpine National Park was founded on 1 August 1914. The Swiss National Park will be celebrating its 100th birthday with a whole range of events and anniversary celebrations on 1 August 2014.