The last documented shooting of a Bearded vulture, Gypaetus barbatus, in the Alps took place in 1912, in a valley which is now included in the Italian Gran Paradiso National Park (Western Alps). Exactly 100 years later, two pairs of vultures successfully bred in the same area. Those birds originate from an international project started in 1978, which continues to this day. The successful project was preceded by close to eight years of uncertainties and failures, evidence of the difficulties and great expense of time needed to reintroduce a species after its extinction.
This is a story 41 years in the making, which has led to the birth and take-off of the two Bearded vultures in 2012 in the Gran Paradiso National Park’s range, specifically in two side valleys of the Aosta Valley – Valsavarenche and Val di Rhêmes.
I first became interested in vultures during my university years, when I nourished a passion for bird-watching mainly with the Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by Peterson, Mountfort, Hollom (I am still using the 1954 edition) and the eight volumes of Les Oiseax d’Europe by Paul Géroudet. When I became Director of Gran Paradiso National Park - a 700 square kilometre protected area straddling Piedmont and Val d’Aosta - in 1970, I discovered that Géroudet was an occasional visitor and met him. We talked of birds, of course, but also of other extinct species.
The 19th century was lethal for some species of large alpine animals. The Ibex was saved at the last moment in 1821 by a law of the Piedmontese Kingdom. Wolves are mentioned as active near Aosta as late as 1862. The last Lynx was caught in Valsavarenche in 1894. The last Bear was caught in St.Rémy, 30 kilometres from Aosta, in 1856. I asked Géroudet for a preliminary evaluation of the reintroduction into the park of five species, and his judgements were the following -- roe deer: feasible, capercaillie: possible but very uncertain, lynx: possible but surely hazardous, bearded vulture: uncertain, otter: unadvisable. For the Vulture, Géroudet’s suggestion was to put at least one pair of adults in a large aviary in nature and to free them after some time, even if they had not bred. He foresaw artificial feeding and caretaking for at least ten to fifteen years.
However, very few Bearded vultures had been seen flying over Gran Paradiso, as well as the Alps, after 1912 and before their reintroduction. Their origins were probably the last European strongholds of the species: Corsica, the Pyrenees or the Balkans. The infrequency of the sightings and the little attention paid to this large bird similar to a Golden eagle accounts for the very scarce documentation about them.
Shortly after Geroudet’s evaluation, I asked IUCN and WWF for a detailed study of the Vulture. They charged Colin W. Holloway and Hartmut Jungius with the task and I accompanied them around the park. Their study was soon completed and was published in 1973. For this species, the authors suggested a method slightly different from Géroudet’s, as they envisaged two to three pairs of young birds to be kept ìn captivity only for breeding, and setting their offspring free. Apart from Géroudet’s evaluation, this was the first reintroduction study for the species.
In 1972 the chief of the Service des Eaux et de l’Espace naturel de l’Haute Savoie, Gilbert Amigues, got in touch with Géroudet and approved the offer of ordering ten birds through the Kabul Zoo. Four birds arrived in France in 1973, two adults and two two-year olds. Unfortunately, one of them died from a pulmonary infection and two escaped their aviary. The fourth was set free in 1975. Four more birds arrived in 1975. Two of them died immediately, and the others were given up to the 1978 project. Before 1978, the project could only be deemed ununsuccessful.
The conclusive project was born in a meeting sponsored by IUCN and WWF, held at Morges, Switzerland, in November 1978. The meeting included hosts Maarten Bijleveld and Peter Jackson, as well as Géroudet, and Jean-François and Michel Terrasse, authors of a reintroduction project for Griffon vultures in France’s Massif Central already underway, as well as several more vulture lovers and experts. A few years before 1978, Hans Psenner and Ellen Thaler had succeeded in breeding a pair of Bearded vultures in their Innsbruck Alpenzoo in Austria. Therefore, Hans Frey from Wien University and Winfried Walter from WWF Austria proposed breeding the remaining caged birds of consenting zoos and placing their offspring in proper natural sites in the Alps before freeing them.
Notwithstanding some doubts of about this way of release and of the food availability for a hoped-for sustainable population, there were three main tenets followed in the Austrian plan: no taking from wild populations, breeding in a controlled environment and a possible increase of breeders. The Austrian plan was approved at the meeting and financed by WWF and the Frankfurt Zoological Society. The planners carried it out with skill and openness, soon enjoying growing help from both professionals and amateurs from all over the Alps and Europe.
The first release of birds occurred in 1986 in Austria, the second release was in 1987 in Haute Savoie in France. This was followed by releases in 1991 in Graubunden, Switzerland, and in 1993 in the Maritime Alps in France and Italy. The first birth and takeoff of free born birds occurred in 1997 and 1998 in Vanoise in France, with 19 births recorded up until 2011, and, in 1998 in Stelvio national park, Italy, with 22 births recorded up until 2008. Eventually, two birds were born in 2012 that called Gran Paradiso National Park home. Of course they were not alone in the Alps, as other Bearded vultures have been born this year in other mentioned sites.
As far as I am concerned, the story I began 41 years ago has ended up in the happiest way. It was a small part of a large venture involving people of the entire Alps and beyond. It is not trivial to note that all the present Bearded vultures’ nests, i. e. their Alpine population strongholds, are inside or close to several alpine national parks. Today, about 150 bearded vultures fly over the Alps, half of which were born free. There’s nothing left for me to do, but to watch them soar and thank Gèroudet, Frey and Walter, all the people mentioned here and the many more who contributed to this inspiring success story.