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Four black vultures inaugurate acclimatization cage - pioneering conservation program in Portugal

On European Natura 2000 Day, the largest network of protected areas in the world, marked on May 21, the acclimatization station for black vultures (Aegypius monachus) was inaugurated in the Douro International, as part of the LIFE Aegypius Return project. Four juveniles are already acclimatizing and will be released in the fall.

Acclimatization with a view over the cliffs

The acclimatization station was built in Fornos, in the municipality of Freixo de Espada à Cinta, and consists of a large cage (18 meters long, nine meters wide and six to eight meters high), adjacent to a feeding field for scavenger birds (CAAN).

The NGO Palombar - the LIFE Aegypius Return partner responsible for building and managing the structure - planned the cage in detail to ensure the birds' well-being and socializing. Inside the cage, the vultures have perches, ramps, branches on the floor and even a swimming pool - all with a breathtaking view of the Douro river canyon. Outside, in front of the cage, there is a fenced CAAN of around 2 hectares (which we worked on), where food is placed to mimic the availability of carcasses in the wild (black vultures are exclusively scavengers). Thus, from inside the cage, the black vultures that are acclimatizing will be able to observe and interact with their counterparts and other species, socializing and learning natural behaviours such as feeding and identifying dangers.

The Douro International was the area selected for the acclimatization of black vultures under the LIFE Aegypius Return project, as it is home to the smallest, most fragile and isolated colony in the country. In 2022 only two breeding pairs were known in the region; in 2024 seven are known - four on the Portuguese side and three more on the Spanish side - but the isolation of the colony makes natural expansion difficult.

Acclimatization cage for black vultures, built in Fornos - Douro International © Leonor Carvalho/Palombar

Pioneering conservation technique in Portugal

Acclimatization corresponds to a period in which the birds get used to a particular region, in this case the Douro International, and is part of a process generally known as soft release, which has not yet been applied in Portugal with any species.

Soft release programs have been applied in various regions of Europe and have been duly described and tested with various species of vultures. Compared to other techniques used in conservation programs, soft release allows birds to remain loyal to the release area and is a recommended procedure for accelerating settlement and increasing the viability of a population.

In LIFE Aegypius Return, the black vultures that enter acclimatization will be juvenile birds exclusively from Fauna Recovery Centers. In other words, they are birds that were born and raised in the wild, but due to injury or weakness had to enter a Recovery Center, without having established breeding territory yet (which in black vultures only happens at five or six years of age). After their rehabilitation, instead of being returned directly to the wild, they will be sent for acclimatization which will last between five and nine months. After this period, they will be released by opening the cage and without contact with humans, and it is hoped that they will remain in the region of the Douro International Natural Park and establish their nesting territory there.

Four black vultures await freedom

The acclimatization station was inaugurated with the reception of four black vultures, three females and one male. These vultures were rescued in Évora, Montejunto and Belmonte, and then transferred to the Center for the Study and Recovery of Wild Animals (CERAS), located in Castelo Branco and managed by Quercus, where they have been recovering. The introduction of the vultures into the cage was monitored by teams of veterinarians from CERAS and the Wild Animal Recovery Center of the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro (CRAS/HV-UTAD). The birds have been ringed, biological samples have been taken and, before they are returned to the wild - which is expected to be next fall - they will receive GPS transmitters.

The birds are now being monitored via the video surveillance system installed at the acclimatization station. In the event of an emergency, CRAS/HV-UTAD veterinarians will be able to quickly rush to the scene and provide assistance, using a small infirmary attached to the cage.

By 2027, the LIFE Aegypius Return project plans to return 20 black vultures to the wild through soft release. Naturally, all these procedures require licensing from the national nature conservation authority, the ICNF - Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas, which is accompanying the initiative.

Black vulture in acclimatization. Image taken via the video surveillance system.

LIFE Aegypius Return partners would like to thank all the people and organizations involved in the construction, management and inauguration of the acclimatization station - a fundamental milestone for the success of the project and, consequently, for the consolidation of black vulture populations in Portugal.

Group photo - Inauguration of the acclimatization station on 21/05/2024. © Leonor Carvalho/Palombar

The LIFE Aegypius Return project is co-financed by the European Union's LIFE program. Its success depends on the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, and the collaboration of the partners, the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF), the coordinating beneficiary, and the local partners Palombar - Conservação da Natureza e do Património Rural, Herdade da Contenda, Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves, Liga para a Protecção da Natureza, Associação Transumância e Natureza, Fundación Naturaleza y Hombre, Guarda Nacional Republicana and Associação Nacional de Proprietários Rurais Gestão Cinegética e Biodiversidade.

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