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Turkey Celebrates World Vulture Day by Satellite-tracking Its First Egyptian Vultures

The migration of globally endangered Egyptian vultures is under high-tech surveillance

Eastern Turkey environmental organization KuzeyDoga celebrated September 1 International Vulture Awareness Day at Turkey’s first vulture restaurant in Igdir with another first for Turkey’s vultures.  

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On August 17,  we started satellite-tracking globally endangered Egyptian vultures for the first time in Turkey, in collaboration with Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs, General Directorate of Nature Conservation and Natural Parks and the University of Utah. The transmitters are communicating with the satellites, all three birds are flying actively, and one of them may have already started its migration south.

My team and I have been monitoring Egyptian vultures in Kars and Igdir provinces since 2003. We showed that they breed near the intersection of the Aras and Arpacay rivers, especially in the 88 km long and spectacular Arpacay canyon that forms part of Turkey’s border with Armenia. KuzeyDoga has observed two to three dozen vultures in the region regularly and with the collaboration of Igdir Directorate of Forestry and Environment, established Turkey’s first vulture restaurant in Igdir in 2009. Our research and conservation efforts received a major boost and international recognition in 2010 with a grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.

Leaving road kill at Turkey’s first vulture restaurant. Mt Agri (5137 m) in the background. September 2009.

Working near the vulture restaurant close to the town of Tuzluca, the vultures were trapped with specialized and harmless methods. We placed three GPS/Argos satellite transmitters provided by Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs on three Egyptian vultures ranging in age from immature to breeding adult. The operation was successful. Each of the vultures is behaving normally and the transmitters are working without problems, sending the daily GPS locations of the vultures . Thus Egyptian vultures’ habitats, their migration routes, seasonal movements and feeding strategies will be better understood. We also hope to track their fall migrations from eastern Turkey southward and back. The data will be used to improve vulture conservation in Turkey.

As a result of KuzeyDoga team’s committed work, the first satellite transmitter was placed on an immature Egyptian vulture weighing 1840 grams. The individual was named ARAS after the Aras River in the region and KuzeyDoga’s bird banding station there. The data ARAS will send will let us know the locations that he visits, the migration route he takes and the sites he uses. A white wing tag with TR01 was placed on his wing for people to recognize him and ARAS’ transmitter started to send data on the same day. Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is the smallest of Turkey’s four species of vulture and is globally endangered. They feed on carcasses, garbage, eggs of other birds, small vertebrates and insects. Their numbers declined rapidly worldwide due to poisoning from the diclofenac drug given to cattle in India, from the decline of wild and domestic animal carcasses in the wild, and from powerline collisions and poisoning from bait left for carnivorous mammals in Africa. Fortunately, Egyptian vultures are still breeding in Turkey in good numbers although we need a good estimate of their population in the entire country. Eastern Turkey provides some excellent locations because it is the livestock capital of Turkey and most of the livestock are free-ranging. Diclofenac is not a problem although stray dog poisoning campaigns may have adverse effects. Aras Valley and Arpacay Canyon in Kars and Igdir provinces in eastern Turkey are the two hotspots where Egyptian vultures breed regularly, but neither of these two sites are protected.

Video: Releasing Turkey’s first satellite-tagged Egyptian vultures Aras and Arpacay

We are excited to have achieved another first for ornithology, wildlife ecology and nature conservation in Turkey. KuzeyDoga team, led by our field biologist Emrah Coban, has worked hard and showed impressive commitment by waiting to catch these vultures during the hot summer days of Igdir where temperatures can reach 45 C in the shade. We finally succeeded in catching these wary and clever birds without harming them, fittem them with GPS/Argos satellite transmitters and released them back safely. ARAS, which is our first bird, has not started its autumn migration yet. Even so, while feeding around the Tuzluca district of Igdir, with occasional forays into neighboring provinces and Armenia, ARAS has already covered nearly 1000 kilometers in two weeks. Our second vulture, ARPACAY, apparently began its southerly migration only 2 days after it was tagged on August 22. It is about 300 km southeast of where it was tagged and has already traveled through Armenia, northern Iran and parts of Azerbaijan. We are curious to see if it will head further south to Africa. Our third Egyptian vulture, a beautiful adult bird we named after the IĞDIR province where we work, has not started its fall migration yet. The project has already grabbed the public’s imagination and has been covered by the national news agency, national TV, and some of Turkey’s leading newspapers. We hope that the migrations of the Egyptian vultures will be followed by the public and will engage young people, students, and the rest of the public in Egyptian vultures and their conservation.

First three days of satellite tracking of the Egyptian vulture Aras

In 2007, the global status of Egyptian vultures crashed from Least Concern to Endangered, dropping three levels, one of the worst one-year declines in conservation status among more than 10,000 species of the world’s birds. Among all the bird species in Turkey, the Egyptian vulture has shown the worst recent decline in global conservation status.

The populations of Egyptian vultures, one of planet’s most distinctive vulture species with their white feathers and yellow faces, are declining rapidly in India, Europe and Africa. The medication given to some Indian livestock, whose carcasses comprise an important part of the Egyptian vulture diet, cause lethal kidney failures. The other threats to Egyptian vultures are lead poisoning, intentional poisoning, poaching, the disturbance of the nests, power lines, wind turbines, disappearance of their prey and habitat destruction. It is estimated that the world population of Egyptian vultures is 21,900-30,000 individuals. Their European population declined by half in the last 42 years whereas the Balkan population declined by half in the last 8 years. Egyptian vultures suffered from food shortages when traditional livestock breeding ended in Europe, slaughter houses and garbage dumps were closed and the wild animals disappeared from large parts of Europe. To help Turkey’s four vulture species breeding in the region, in 2009 KuzeyDoga Society and the Igdir Directorate of Forestry and Water Affairs established Turkey’s first vulture restaurant in the Green Belt Forest of the Igdir province. The vultures coming to this restaurant to feed on the carcasses of dead animals and leftovers of slaughter houses may attract wildlife photographers and nature tourists. However, the future of Turkey’s first vulture restaurant is unclear due to the lack of support.

With this satellite tracking project, supported by Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water AffairsGeneral Directorate of Nature Conservation and Natural Parks and the University of Utah, KuzeyDoga’s goal is to improve the conservation of Turkey’s Egyptian vultures, understand their breeding, migrating and wintering locations, and draw attention to their plight. Arpacay Canyon and Aras Valley where these vultures breed have no conservation status. It is extremely important for Turkey’s four vulture species breeding in this region to have official protection status for these two canyons and to expand the scope of the vulture restaurant that provides a safe food resource for the region’s vultures.