Poachers killing 'sacred' vultures as cruel trophy hunting game sees population plummet

A spectacular vulture held sacred by the ancient Egyptians and held in high regard by scientists is being blown out of the skies by trophy hunters.

Black and white Egyptian vulture in flight

Adulated Egyptian vulture now a target for trophy hunters (Image: GETTY)

Despite being one of the few birds capable of using tools to survive, the Egyptian vulture has little defence against the deadly hazards faced on its annual migrations. Poisoned by farming chemicals, electrocuted on powerlines and shot down by poachers to be stuffed as macabre trophies, the vulture has been classed as Endangered on the Red List of vanishing species. Conservationists are launching a new campaign to save the so-called Pharaoh’s Chicken as it begins its annual flight to Europe this spring.

Today, the writing is on the wall for the bird held so symbolic by the ancient Egyptians. Running the gauntlet of poison baits and power lines on their seasonal migration from Africa, then facing the fervour of hunters shooting them down to sell as trophies on the Western European black market, the population of the vulture has plummetted by 80 percent in three decades. Another threat is losing their eggs and chicks to thieves who sell them to private collectiors.

BirdLife International, one of the largest conservation partnerships in the world, has chosen the vulture as one of seven flagship species in its new Flight for Survival campaign challenging the mass slaughter of birds. Each year an average of 25 million birds are illegally massacred across the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Caucasus.

For such an intelligent bird as the Egyptian vulture, falling to gunfire at the end of a 4,000-mile epic flight from Africa or having its nests plundered, is a tragedy. The vultures, with their snowy white plumages, astounded zoologists in the 1960s when they were seen using stones to smash ostrich eggs to get at the nutritious contents. Another tool skill that puts the vulture among an elite group of species is using twigs to gather strands of wool which can be used to insulate nests.

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Egyptian vulture showing its yellow face

Ugly or majestic? Egyptian plumage displaying its bare, yellow face and dazzling white plumage (Image: GETTY)

Thousands of years earlier, the ancient Egyptians were adulating vultures for their association with the goddess Isis as well as using them as hieroglyphic symbols in tombs and on wall inscriptions.

With only one in seven Egyptian vultures surviving to adulthood to pass on genes to further generations, BirdLife explains how its partners in Bulgaria are making every effort to safeguard the birds on their soil. As few as 70 pairs now survive across the Balkans.

The Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB) has set up nest-guarding schemes, satellite-tagged birds to track their movements and organised captive-release programmes to bolster numbers. Along with 13 other countries, BSPB is also establishing a chain of "vulture safety zones" on their migration routes which supply food and are also free from poisoning threats.

Vulture symbol used by Ancient Egyptians

The vulture appears frequently in Egyptian inscriptions (Image: GETTY)

Vulture eating small rodent

Egyptian vultures are scavengers but also eat small rodents and use stones to smash ostrich eggs (Image: GETTY)

A BirdLife International spokeswoman explains why preserving these iconic birds is vital. She said: “Egyptian vultures put a huge amount of effort into breeding and raising their young. Couples perform magnificent aerial courtship displays and work together to care for their brood.

“After all this effort, having their young stolen from the nest or poisoned before they have the chance to breed themselves is unthinkable.

“It’s true that Egyptian vultures occasionally feed on ostrich eggs, but only ones that are infertile or have been abandoned by their parents – they certainly don’t deserve a fate like this.

“We will not accept a one in seven survival rate. We will not rest until all juveniles have the chance to live a long and natural life.”

For more details, see: flightforsurvival.org