The Threatened Griffon Vulture

With a wingspan of almost 3m, measuring about 1m from end to end, and weighing 7kg to 9kg, the Eurasian griffon vulture looks big enough to take passengers. It cruises comfortably at 40km/h to 75km/h, reaching speeds of up to 160km/h. The vulture’s powerful beak and long neck are ideally suited to rummaging around the entrails of its meal, which is most likely to be a dead sheep.

Finding precious sheep carcasses is a team effort for griffon vultures. Usually a colony of birds will set out and fly in a comb formation of up to 1km apart. When one of the vultures spots a carcass, it circles as a signal for its neighbours to join the feast. Shepherds don’t mind griffons, reasoning that the birds prevent whatever disease or infection killed the sheep from spreading to other livestock.

According to a 2017 census, the total known number of griffon vultures in Croatia was 108 breeding pairs (down from 140 a few years earlier) and 76 nestlings. More than half of them live on the coastal cliffs of Cres, the others in small colonies on Krk and Prvić Islands. The birds’ dietary preferences mean that they tend to follow sheep, although they will eat other dead mammals, though this is perilous: the last remaining birds in Paklenica National Park died after eating poisoned foxes.

The griffon population enjoys legal protection as an endangered species in Croatia. Killing a bird or disturbing it while nesting carries a €5000 fine. Intentional killing is rare, but because the young birds cannot fly more than 500m on a windless day, tourists on speedboats who provoke them into flight often end up threatening their lives: the exhausted birds drop into the water and drown.

Breeding habits discourage a large population, as a pair of griffons only produces one fledgling a year and it takes five years for the young bird to reach maturity. During that time the growing griffons travel widely: one tagged in Paklenica National Park was found in Chad, 4000km away. When they’re about five, the vultures head home to Cres (sometimes to the same rock where they were born) to find a mate, who will be a partner for life.

Captive vultures can live for more than 55 years, but in the wild 20 to 30 years is more normal. The dangers facing young Cres vultures include the guns of Italian hunters, poison and power lines, but by far the biggest issue is the massive decline in sheep farming in Cres, which is reducing the birds’ food source day by day.

If you want to find out more about Croatia's griffon vultures, visit the Rescue Centre for Griffon Vultures in Beli.