The plight of the Egyptian Vulture . . .
. . . and hopes for the future
Independent ecologist and volunteer
Group for Research and Protection of Birds in Morocco
Significant population of Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus found in Morocco. Amezian, M. & El Khamlichi, R. 2015. Ostrich.
DOI: 10.2989/00306525.2015.1089334. View
Despite the unfavourable conservation status of the Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus and other vulture species, it is still possible to save these much maligned species. But more studies are necessary, because, as the saying goes, “we can’t conserve what we don’t know”.
Lack of recent studies about vultures
Most of the available information about vultures in Morocco and the rest of northwest Africa is decades old. Indeed, the field study of Moali & Gaci (1992) in late 1980s remains one of the last studies about breeding vultures in the three Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia). Since then studies are few and far between, such as a 2002 road survey in search of Griffon Vultures Gyps fulvus in northern Morocco (Garrido et al. 2005), and various field expeditions in search of Bearded Vultures Gypaetus barbatus in the High and Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco (Godino et al. 2006; Cuzin et al. 2009).
This lack of dedicated field studies in recent decades means that a considerable amount of information about vultures is outdated. For example, population size estimates were not based on recent surveys and were either optimistic (e.g. different vulture species in Morocco; Thévenot et al. 1985, 2003) or underestimates (e.g. Egyptian Vulture in Algeria; Isenmann & Moali 2000).
Making assumptions, such as ‘probably extinct’ or ‘few pairs remain’, without real knowledge about the species, is not recommended (e.g. Cherkaoui 2005 for Bearded Vulture in Algeria, and El Agbani & Qninba 2011 for Egyptian Vulture in Morocco), because such references may become the only available recent information and could be considered as an excuse for inaction.
In their review paper about the worldwide vulture crisis, Ogada et al. (2012) wrote: “The situation for vultures in North Africa is dire, particularly in Morocco, where two species, Cinereous and Lappet-faced vultures, have been extirpated. Others are predicted to follow, and the rest of the region offers little hope for long-term vulture”. While this sentence best describes the situation in Morocco with respect to the two named species, which went extinct decades ago, and populations of Griffon and Bearded vultures, which are very small, I believe that the situation in Algeria is probably much better, at least for the Egyptian Vulture, which is still well distributed across many parts of the country, and the Griffon Vulture, which is also still present at least in the Kabylie and other areas in northeast Algeria. The reason for mentioning this is not to criticise the authors but to auto-criticise ourselves, the ornithologists and the conservationists of the region, who fail to study or at least publish what is already known locally, but only partially known to Government agencies and totally unknown outside the region. Needless to say that lack of up-to-date information affects or will affect the proper conservation of these species.
Egyptian Vulture in Morocco
The Egyptian Vulture is an Old Word vulture species with one of the largest distributions. However, the species severely declined in the past or continues to decline in most of its range, with a few exceptions (e.g. island populations in the Indian Ocean and some Iberian subpopulations). For this reason the species has been classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 2007.
The Moroccan breeding population of the Egyptian Vulture has declined rapidly since the 1980s (Thévenot et al. 2003). Recent observations of the species in breeding areas become so rare that some authors considered it on the verge of local extinction as a breeding species (El Agbani & Qninba 2011). In this context, the observation of four birds and successful breeding of a pair in the northern limit of Tazekka National Park in 2013 (El Khamlichi & Prat Duran 2014) was received with excitement among the Moroccan ornithological community and beyond.
To follow up on this observation, my friend Rachid El Khamlichi and I set up a self-financed expedition to the Middle Atlas Mountains in late June 2014 to search for Egyptian Vultures in the region. During the six-day survey, we found two occupied breeding territories and a communal roosting site that hosted 40 vultures of different ages. The roosting site is the first of its kind to be found in Northwest Africa.
Figure 1 Rachid El Khamlichi counting and studying the behaviour of the vultures at the communal roosting site © Mohamed Amezian.>
We know that locating two or three nests does not represent great data. Nevertheless, the communal roosting site is very important, because it is known that such roosts receive the production of a large number of territories from the surrounding area, but also from distant populations (e.g. Donázar et al. 1996), and because of their role in the maintenance of the species in the areas where the roosts are located (e.g. Carrete et al. 2007). This means that the roost we discovered is indicative of a probably healthy population within the surrounding area in the Middle Atlas Mountains. The next challenge is to locate the breeding territories, in order to estimate the breeding population, locate and study other possible roosts and feeding places, and identify and address the threats that the species is facing in the region.
Communal roost of Egyptian Vultures, Morocco
Hopes for the future
Despite the lack of recent studies about vultures and the unfavourable conservation status of some species, there is still hope that the situation may improve through conservation efforts. Indeed, there is a recent interest in studying the Egyptian Vulture and other raptors in Algeria by the Algerian National Association of Ornithology (ANAO), among others. Also, recent observations of Bearded Vultures in the Theniet El-Had National Park in Algeria (Djardini et al. 2014) prove that the species is not extinct there, at least for those outside the region (because the species is most likely still breeding in the Kabylie).
In Morocco, a workshop was organised in October 2015 to develop an “Action plan for the conservation of the Bearded Vulture in Morocco” and I very much hope that the concerned parties will begin to implement the action plan sooner rather than later, in order to save this endangered population. For the Egyptian Vulture, although we didn’t carry out any surveys in 2015, my friend Rachid and I are determined to return to the Middle Atlas this year and continue our study.
Funding is very scarce and difficult to access, especially for young people, and the study of raptors, especially territorial species in remote places, is time and resource consuming. In this case, I think that the best approach to follow is to study aspect by aspect and region by region. And simultaneously we, the ornithological community, must conserve and disseminate what we already know.
Amezian, M. & El Khamlichi, R. 2015. Significant population of Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus found in Morocco. Ostrich. DOI: 10.2989/00306525.2015.1089334. View
Carrete, M., Grande, J. M., Tella, J. L., Sánchez-Zapata, J. A., Donázar, J. A., Díaz-Delgado, R. & Romo, A. 2007. Habitat, human pressure, and social behavior: Partialling out factors affecting large-scale territory extinction in an endangered vulture. Biological Conservation 136: 143–154. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2006.11.025. View
Cherkaoui, I. 2005. The Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in Morocco. Vulture News 52: 37.
Cuzin, F., Thévenot, M. & Mokhtari, S. 2009. Bearded vulture in Morocco: past, present, future? Presented at ‘II International Congress on the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) in Europe: new challenges for its conservation‘, 15th to 19th September 2009, Jaen (Spain). View abstract
Djardini, L. Ouar, D. & Fellous, A. 2014. Le Gypaète barbu dans le ciel du Parc National de Theniet El Had. Atlantica 1: 3-4. View
Donázar, J. A., Ceballos, O. & Tella, J. L. 1996. Communal roost of Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus): dynamics and implications for the species conservation. In: J. Muntaner & J. Mayol (Eds.), Biología y Conservación de las Rapaces Mediterráneas. Monografías, no 4. SEO, Madrid, pp. 189–202. View
El Agbani, M.A. & Qninba, A. 2011. Les oiseaux d’intérêt patrimonial au Maroc. Publications du GREPOM No. 3. GREPOM, Rabat.
El Khamlichi, R. & Prat Duran, J. 2014. Reproduction du Vautour percnoptère Neophron percnopterus près du Parc National du Tazekka en 2013. Go-South Bulletin 11: 31–32. View
Garrido, J. R., Camiña, A., Guinda, M., Egea, M., Mouati, N., Godino, A., & Paz de la Rocha, J. L. 2005. Absence of the Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus) in Northern Morocco. Journal of Raptor Research 39: 70–74. View
Godino, A., Paz, J. L., Mouati, N. & Simón, M. Á. 2006. Three years of Bearded Vultures’ surveys in Morocco. In: H. Frey, G. Schaden, & M. Bijleveld van Lexmond (Eds.), Bearded Vulture Annual Report 2005. Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture (F.C.B.V), Wassenaar, pp. 98–102.
Moali, A. & Gaci, B. 1992. Les rapaces diurnes nicheurs en Kabylie (Algérie). Alauda 60: 164–169.
Isenmann, P. & Moali, A. 2000. Oiseaux d’Algérie / Birds of Algeria. SEOF, Paris.
Ogada, D.L., Keesing, F., Virani, M.Z. 2012. Dropping dead: causes and consequences of vulture population declines worldwide. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249: 57–71. DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06293.x. View
Thévenot, M., Bergier, P., Beaubrun, P. 1985. Present distribution and status of raptors in Morocco. In: I. Newton & R.D. Chancellor (Eds), Conservation studies on raptors. ICBP Technical Publications no. 5. International Council for Bird Preservation. Cambridge, pp 83–101.
Thévenot, M., Vernon, R. & Bergier, P. 2003. The birds of Morocco. BOU Checklist No. 20. British Ornithologists’ Union, Tring. Details
About the author
Mohamed Amezian studied marsh-dwelling passerines for his PhD, but more recently is focused on the study of raptors: their migration across the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as their breeding distribution, ecology and conservation. His work on birds of prey is developed almost always in collaboration with his friend Rachid El Khamlichi.
Top right: Pair of Egyptian Vultures carrying food to the nest, 26 June 2014 © Rachid El Khamlichi.
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