PAMPLONA, Spain — Vultures circling overhead have traditionally been a harbinger of death. But in Spain, their renewed presence after a long lull is being regarded by many as a good omen — the sign of a healthy eco-system.
"They're essential," said Luis Sances, a rancher with a flock of 600 sheep in the northern Spanish region of Navarre.
Vultures serve an important role in the environment, assisting in the clean-up and subsequent decomposition of animal carcasses, and Spain has long been considered one of the final holdouts of the bird, which has been persecuted elsewhere by misguided efforts to eradicate nature's "bad guys."
Spain's sparsely populated countryside and often clear skies are credited with creating the ideal conditions for the carrion-eaters to hone in and prey. When in recent years their numbers began dwindling, however, ranchers like Sances witnessed firsthand the negative consequences.
Particularly aggressive vultures attacked ewes while giving birth on at least two occasions at ranches adjoining his in 2006 and 2007 — atypical acts of violence for the scavengers that Sances said were driven by a breakdown in the food chain. The breakdown itself, he said, was the result of restrictions ranchers were forced to follow after the mad cow disease crisis peaked in Western Europe.
"The attack was because of human manipulation," Sances concluded. As a result of humans contracting mad cow disease, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in the early half of this decade, the European Union put in place many safety regulations. Millions of cattle were ordered slaughtered, for one, and in another, lesser-known regulation, there was a ban levied on the age-old farm and village custom of leaving dead animals for scavengers to devour. Instead, incinerators were fired up to burn animal cadavers. It was a misguided safety precaution, Sances maintains, with unforeseen costs.
With no carcasses left to devour, Spain's protected species of carrion-eaters — like the Griffon, Bearded, Black and Egyptian vultures — began to suffer malnutrition, particularly in the summer when newborns traditionally leave the nest to hunt for food of their own. From 1999 to 2003, the Native Fauna and its Habitat Rehabilitation Group (GREFA) reported up to a seven-fold increase in the number of scavengers it took in for rehabilitation from 12 in 1999 to a whopping 87 in 2003.
The ripple effect of these troubled birds was felt in subsequent years, when the vulture population in Navarre decreased by 11 percent between 2004 and 2007. The 2,751 nesting pairs recorded in 2004 were down to roughly 2,450 by 2007, according to the government of Navarre.
Vultures were showing more aggressive behavior as a result of the ecosystem being out of whack, and many ranchers saw corresponding changes in their cattle. "My cows weren't afraid of the vultures," said rancher Gregorio Girones, as we walked amid his herd of 200 Pyrenean cattle grazing on the grassy hills overlooking Pamplona last month. "But now they seek shelter in the trees before giving birth, and defend themselves from vultures with their horns."
From 2004 to 2007, Navarre saw a five-fold increase in vulture attacks on live animals. According to the regional government in Navarre, ranchers made 18 claims of such attacks in 2004 and 115 in 2007.
With the obvious imbalance in the ecosystem turning violent, the EU had no choice but to revise their original regulations to try and re-establish equilibrium. Elsewhere in Europe, EU restrictions began to soften by 2005, though it took Spain a couple of more years to reform their own laws. The new rules opened dumps for animal carcasses, so that their dead bodies would be contained but still available for scavengers to feed upon. Navarre opened nine new animal dumps in 2008, in keeping with the new rules. Five more are in the works, and officials said they ultimately hope to have between 25 and 30. There are currently dozens of animal dumps open in Spain, especially in regions like Aragon and Extremadura, that have notable vulture populations and have also suffered livestock attacks in recent years.
The result of these animal dumps is encouraging, conservationists say, though there aren't any exact numbers to go on. It appears a new equilibrium is underway. The last vulture census was in 2004 and there won't be another until later this year. Anecdotally, though, conservationists say the vulture population appears to be healthier. Only 31 vultures were taken into rehab in 2008 as compared with the 87 from 2003.
But it's not all good news, and the new measures certainly have their critics. With more than 6 million farm and ranch animals in Navarre, the controlled dispersal of dead animals cost a total of 4 million euros in 2008 — half of which came from local taxpayers. Ranchers and their insurance covered the remainder of the bill for a service that, critics point out, vultures used to do for free.
"We can't possibly be as efficient when trying to correct nature," explained Enrique Castiel, a biologist and technical director at the Navarre Wildlife Recuperation Center. "Picking up, testing, certifying and transporting the cadavers to a controlled site for the vultures is wasting money on something vultures have done in a sanitary way on their own for millennium."
Castiel maintained that the EU's hasty regulations back in 2002 actually cut off nature at the knees. Were nature allowed to play its course, he feels sure that studies would have shown the vultures' unique capacity to feed on infected carrion without spreading disease.
But many conservationists say the newly amended rules are better than none at all. After all, it only stands to reason that a problem started by human interference would demand human intervention in its solution.
With Griffon vultures especially, which benefited from conservation measures in the 1980s as well, the new animal dumps appear to ensure what the government of Navarre calls "an abundant population." The Spanish Society of Ornithology, otherwise known as SEO/Birdlife, released a census in 2004 that recorded 22,500 pairs of Griffon vultures in Spain. Environmentalists, together with Navarre and other regional governments, have been exporting Griffons to elsewhere in Europe where imprudent efforts over the years to shoot down and poison the "bad guys" led to their eventual extinction.
GREFA has its sights set on building a vulture corridor that stretches across southern Europe to Turkey and into Asia. The corridor would encourage migration of the opportunistic bird, and thus a wider gene pool that would strengthen their species.
But there is perhaps no better way to prove the vultures are back than going out and seeing for yourself. On an August kayak trip in Castilla y Leon, vultures circled over the San Frutos chapel standing at the end of a peninsular-shaped cliff overlooking the Duraton River on three sides. Soon after losing sight of them, our guide, Salvador Barkala, pointed out white strips in the jagged limestone rock face. These turned out to be droppings from the vultures — an easy reference point to begin singling them out from their camouflaged perches further up the precipice. By the time we lost count, our guide explained, we were floating through a sanctuary in the company of some 500 pairs of Griffon vultures.