New life for Croatia's griffon vultures

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Rescued and nurtured for nearly a year, then fitted with a satellite transmitter, Letricia appeared reluctant at first to leave its island sanctuary and embark on its long, uncertain migration.

The last of eight griffon vultures to be released into the wild last month from the northern Croatian island of Cres, it eventually took wing searching for food.

Griffon vultures are extinct in many European countries and are endangered in Croatia, but this sanctuary at the picturesque village of Beli has rescued, healed and released 95 birds since it was set up in 1993.

For the first time, two of those climbing high into the sky - including Letricia - have been equipped with satellite transmitters which can stay on for years, providing data on their location, altitude, speed and course.

Others are marked with cheaper rings and wing-tags for identification and monitoring, which is how one of the Croatian birds was discovered in Chad, in central Africa.

"When I saw them flying for the first time, I was fascinated," said Goran Susic, a 51-year-old ornithologist who runs the sanctuary.

When the project began there were only around 20 pairs of vulture griffons on Cres. It has now been raised to some 70 pairs, more than half the species' total number of pairs in Croatia where they live on four northern islands.

Still, their survival is at risk on several fronts. One is the decline of sheep farming, as the scavengers eat mainly sheep carcases.

Another is creeping urbanisation which is destroying their habitat, while tourists often disturb their nests and they also suffer the collateral damage of farmers trying to poison wild boar.

Croatia's griffon vultures are the only ones which nest as low as 10 metres above sea level, often secreted in high cliffs from where their young all too easily fall into the waves below.

The first shelter at Beli was far too small for these birds of prey, which have a wingspan of 2.4 to 2.8 metres (eight to nine feet).

"They were kept in rather poor conditions - in an overcrowded cage where they could not fly - until they reached a sufficient weight to be released. Although we were saving them, it was a kind of torture," Susic recalled.

A new shelter, more than 20 times bigger, opened in May, and visitors can observe the birds from close range from a special viewing room.

Their release into the wild has also been made less traumatic.

"Before we transported them in boxes or bags to the top of the island where they were kept in small cages overnight prior to be released," Susic said.

"It was an enormous stress that we wanted to diminish."

This year the eight birds were separated on the eve of the big event in a part of the sanctuary to make their departure less stressful.

Four birds will remain in Beli, as for various reasons they cannot survive in the wild. Eleven will be cared for and then released in 2010, by when they should have learned to eat, fly and behave in a group.

The birds of prey fly across Europe and parts of Asia at a height of 6,000 to 7,000 metres (19,800 to 23,100 feet) and speeds up to 160 kilometres (100 miles) per hour, until they are five years old.

Then the survivors return to nest on Cres, where a pair, mating for life, has one young every two years on average.

Griffon vultures do not have a sense of smell but compensate for that with perfect sight. They communicate using wing signals at a distance of up to 10 kilometres.

Letricia was rescued in Poland and recovered at Warsaw zoo before it was returned to Croatia. Another vulture, named Neven, was injured in a car crash on a road in southern France, where it remained with a mate.

And there was Banco, eaten by leopards after landing in an unroofed cage at Salzburg zoo in Austria.

"Maybe their troubles are just beginning as they go back in the wild," said Angela Flemming-Pedersen, a Swiss visitor to the sanctuary, as she watched the birds fly away.

"Vultures are a symbol of cleansing your soul and letting things go," said Mieka Dado, another visitor from Maastricht in the Netherlands.

"We all have to do that at some point in our lives," added the 47-year-old holistic therapist, who plans to stay in Beli for a month as one of dozens of volunteers from across Europe.

Griffon vultures are endangered in all European countries except in Spain, home to 18,000 pairs representing 95 percent of the species in Europe.

Many countries where they were extinct, such as Bosnia, Bulgaria, France, Israel and Italy, have programmes to reintroduce them.

Despite Susic's enthusiasm, he worries authorities are not so keen on his project.

"If it was a 'good-looking' attractive species like dolphins, it would be different," he lamented. "Sometimes I feel like we're begging for mercy, and actually we are fighting to preserve a species that is to Croatia's honour."

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