Rare vultures survive on Croatian island
BELI, Jul 24, 2000 -- (Reuters) The sight of a majestic griffon vulture cruising low over the bay brought tourists and locals running from the bar, their drinks forgotten.
The visitors watched with admiration, the locals with concern as the bird, clearly in distress and pursued by hostile seagulls, lost altitude. Then suddenly it regained speed and glided back up and across the mountains.
Beli, on the island of Cres, is a Mediterranean setting which offers the visitor the sun, sea and a rare opportunity to see the vulture in the wild.
Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) - an endangered species in Croatia and virtually extinct in most European countries - have lived here, in the cliffs above the sea, for thousands of years. Now their plunging numbers have prompted people to action.
"There used to be so many vultures around when I was younger. You could see them everywhere and no one seemed to be bothered," said Dinko Kljucaric, a 66-year-old Beli native.
"Now there are fewer and fewer people and vultures here."
Say 'vulture' and people immediately picture blood-covered beaks tugging at the entrails of a dead animal.
Ornithologist Goran Susic, head of a local eco-center, which monitors and preserves the birds, wants to change that perception.
"We want to educate people, so they think of vultures as beautiful, majestic fliers which are a useful part of the eco-system," said Susic.
Few know the vulture was revered as deity by ancient Egyptians, as evidenced by their drawings and head masks, represented in a local museum.
Tibetans and Persians called it the royal bird, because of its size and the elegance with which it glides across the skies, at altitudes of up to 10,000 meters (32,810 feet) and speed often exceeding 60 miles (96 km) per hour.
LOCALS TRY TO HELP
The vultures on Cres are being hunted, killed by high-voltage transmission lines and poisonous bait laid out for other animals and gradually deprived of its main subsistence - dead sheep.
"When we started some 15 years ago, there were only 20 couples (of vultures) left here. Now we have managed to bring that number to 70 couples," said Susic. "But without us they probably would not survive as a species."
Local fishermen have taken the project quite seriously and often alert the center to any trouble, he said.
Vultures lay one egg a year but many young birds drown if they are startled by passing tourist boats and take off from the cliffs before they have learned to fly.
"Then it becomes quite exciting. We run in our speedboat to pick them up because they can only swim for half an hour and then drown," Susic said.
The penalty for killing a vulture is HRK 40,000 ($5,000). The government, while declaring its support for nature conservation, has offered the center no help, despite the unique nature of the project.
"Other countries are struggling to re-introduce the vulture. We here have no funds to pay guards to monitor the island."
Beli is the only place in the world where griffon vultures nest a few meters above the sea. Their usual habitat is in mountains and river gorges in warm areas, said Susic. They still abound in Spain, but have disappeared from other Mediterranean countries.
"Given that they have always lived in harmony with the local population here - they eat dead sheep which would otherwise decay and spread disease - our aim is to protect the entire eco-system on the island.
"We want to preserve and encourage traditional ways of life in the village, which includes sheep-raising. That will be more efficient than just focusing on protecting the vultures."
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS DIFFICULT
Cres, one of the most beautiful and under-developed Adriatic islands, is on average populated with just eight people per square kilometer. Telephone lines were scarce until a decade ago but more than 20,000 sheep still roam about freely.
The town of Beli, perched on top of a rock, has only 40 inhabitants left. Most of the population has left since 1945 - the majority to Chicago.
But thanks to the eco-centre, the town has found its way onto the map of nature lovers and scientists.
Those who want to see vultures in the wild need approval, and probably guidance, from the center. Vultures' nesting sites can be approached only from the sea.
Experienced alpinists are called in to climb the cliffs every spring, when the wings of the young birds are marked so their journeys can be traced.
Alternatively, visitors can sneak to their feeding point and, if they are lucky, witness the vulture's feeding ritual.
When a bird spots the prey - their eyesight is eight times sharper than that of a human - it starts circling in the air to attract other birds, which then descend on the carcass.
"They can eat an entire sheep clean within a half hour. But they approach it only after they have made sure it is dead. They will never attack anything that moves," said Susic.