Every day during the summer months, dozens of tourists visit the Vulture Centre and Lookout — Belvédère des vautours — in the Cévennes in France. With the help of telescopes, they observe a majestic aerial ballet performed by 30 or so vultures soaring on the hot air currents flowing through the gorges of the Jonte, a deep canyon in the region’s vast limestone plateaux — known as causses.
Before reaching this extraordinary lookout point built over the gorges, the tourists visit a museum dedicated entirely to vultures. Built into the rock so as to preserve the natural landscape, the museum, set up in 1998, has already received 150,000 visitors. Several thousand of them have taken part in hikes organised by the League for the Protection of Birds to observe the local wildlife.
Teaming with Life
This year marks a milestone in the campaign to promote birdlife in the region. In summer 2003, seven young black vultures were released in the gorges of the Jonte, bringing to an end a reintroduction programme launched 35 years ago by bird-lovers and spearheaded by Michel Terrasse. A French biologist and wildlife film-maker with 22 documentaries to his credit, Terrasse explains: "About 60 black vultures are now living freely in the Cévennes. The survival of this flock is assured through natural reproduction. As for the griffon vultures that we started reintroducing 20 years ago, today there are almost 400."
Although vultures are now protected by law and have become a subject of enthusiastic interest for both visitors and local residents, this was not always the case. It took the sensitivity, commitment and perseverance of environmentalists such as Michel Terrasse to make vultures the leading tourist attraction in a region straddling the Cévennes National Park (PNC) and the Grands Causses Natural Regional Park.
Misunderstood Bird of Prey
Until the 1940s in France, vultures were hunted, poisoned or simply allowed to starve to death because shepherds were forced — on pain of a fine — to bury animal carcasses, even though this action ran the risk of contaminating local sources of water. For centuries in France and many other countries, people were terrified of vultures.
Le Petit Buffon de la Jeunesse, a children’s reference book published in 1806, is typical of the period: "Vultures are generally cruel and ferocious; they are the tigers of the bird world. The vulture is so cowardly that at the slightest sign of resistance, it bands together with others of its kind to inflict certain death.”
Such descriptions demonstrate complete ignorance of the behaviour of vultures, which feed exclusively on dead animals. Their claws cannot kill a sheep or even a lamb.
In 1924, a French hunting magazine declared: "Buzzards, vultures, falcons, sparrow hawks — none of these birds is any better than the other, despite the specialists who classify them according to ‘degrees of harmfulness’," the writer says. "I put them all in the same bag. Being even slightly harmful is reason enough for me to get rid of them!"
Today it is well known that vultures compete with neither hunters nor shepherds. While these birds do indeed depend on animal meat, they feed on the carcasses of sheep and goats — and sometimes those of wild animals. This "cleaning service" is invaluable as it prevents the spread of diseases, especially among animal herds.
But largely because of long-standing ignorance, the decline of the vultures was inevitable in the Cévennes. The last nesting pair was seen in the 1920s in the Gorges of the Jonte. In France, a few pairs survived in the Atlantic Pyrenees. Greater numbers survived in Spain. Still others lived on in European zoos and aviaries.
Then, 30 years ago, Michel Terrasse, along with his brother Jean-François and two friends, created the Fund for the Protection of Birds of Prey to rectify the mistakes of the past and reintroduce vultures into the Cévennes region.
"Let’s be clear about this," Michel Terrasse says, "the limestone plateaux could very well do without vultures. It’s so easy to get used to the emptiness — but I can’t help getting involved. I am simply obsessed with preserving animals in their natural habitat, and birds of prey above all."
Slow Steps Forward
Terrasse’s fund built the first aviary on the upper reaches of the gorges of the Jonte. In 1970 it became home to four young vultures, brought from Spain where they had been found by Jesús and Ramón Elósegui, who were to play a pivotal role in the reintroduction process. Released the following year, the vultures seemed to be adapting well to life in the wild until one was shot by a hunter, and another was electrocuted by a high-tension line. The two other vultures chose to roam elsewhere. After eight months the site was deserted.
Michel Terrasse then took a new approach. He decided to acclimatise the vultures by keeping them in an aviary until adulthood (at the age of seven or eight years), when they are settled. The ornithologist hoped that by ensuring the first generation grew attached to the region their descendants would decide to make it their home.
This marked the start of cooperation with the newly created Cévennes National Park, in particular with park officials Jean Bonnet and Jean-Louis Pinna. New, bigger aviaries were built to house young griffon vultures, some of them brought to the Cévennes after being found sick or lost and starving in the Pyrenees and Spain. Others came from European zoos.
"We did not remove a single healthy bird from its natural habitat," explains Terrasse. "You do not rob Peter to pay Paul. Such was our code of ethics."
The Human Element
At the same time Terrasse and other colleagues mounted a campaign to change local people’s attitudes to vultures. Le bal des charognards (The dance of the vultures), a film defending the birds and made by the Terrasse brothers in the Pyrénées, was shown hundreds of times, with screenings held even in the smallest villages.
"Human relations were the key to success," says Constant Bagnolini, who was involved in the work from the very beginning and is now director of the Vulture Centre. "Thanks to this initiative, not even one vulture has been shot since they were reintroduced. The lookout itself was set up after requests from local people and the authorities. This proves that the project has indeed been adopted by the local community."
Twelve griffon vultures were released into the wild in December 1981. Eight of the 12 birds formed couples in the gorges of the Jonte. One of them produced a chick in May 1982. Four months later, the Cévennes griffon vulture took wing, the first born in the wild in the region in half-a-century. Never before had vultures or any birds of prey been successfully reintroduced into a region from which they had disappeared. Since then this technique of acclimatisation and settling has been copied elsewhere with vultures as well as other birds.
"On the strength of our initial success, I submitted my project to the Rolex Awards 1984," Michel Terrasse recalls. "I felt like I could win. And I did! The Award enabled me to finance the griffon vulture reintroduction programme up to its conclusion in 1986. Altogether, 61 birds were released. Natural reproduction is progressing well, and we counted about 100 pairs in the wild last year. Ninety-eight layings have been observed, and 66 young birds have taken wing."
Undertaking sometimes dangerous ascents of the local cliffs, Jean-Louis Pinna visited hundreds of nests to tag the young birds before they took flight. At the same time, he dabbed bleach on some of their feathers to make them identifiable in flight — at least until the first moulting. Thanks to these procedures, the fund’s staff have recorded 25,000 sightings and identifications since 1981, some of them showing that young vultures roam as far afield as Switzerland, The Netherlands, Latvia and even Senegal. Yet almost all of them return to nest in the Cévennes.
Two More Vultures
Following his success with griffon vultures, Michel Terrasse then turned his attention to the European black vulture (or monk vulture), which had disappeared from France in the 19th century. Working with Martin Bijleveld of the Black Vulture Conservation Foundation, which manages the breeding in captivity of this endangered species, he demonstrated that the bird had inhabited the Cévennes in the past. After a four-year acclimatisation programme, the first birds were released into the wild in 1992. The reintroduction programme was recently completed, proving highly successful.
In the 1980s, Terrasse and his colleagues were surprised by the spontaneous return to the region of the Egyptian vulture. This relatively small bird of prey had not been seen in France for 30 years. Terrasse believes the bird was attracted by the return of the griffon vultures. The number of Egyptian vultures has grown slowly — eight birds were observed in 2002. Three pairs were formed, of which two have nested. Unfortunately one chick died after falling from the nest.
Since the start of the programme, the home territory for the Cévennes vultures has gradually expanded around the gorges of the Jonte. Starting at about 500 square kilometres, it now stands at 3,500.
A Cooperative Culture
The vultures from any one colony share the task of searching for food over their entire territory. Able to distinguish a sheep at rest from a dead sheep more than 300 metres away, griffon vultures are often the first to reach a carcass. Within minutes, 10 or 15 show up for the spoils, quickly eating the most tender parts. But they leave immediately afterwards, making way for the more imposing black vultures that tackle the tougher and stringier bits of the dead animal. Finally, the Egyptian vultures arrive, making do with the leftovers. Within a total of about 15 minutes, a whole carcass has been transformed into a clean skeleton.
The only bird of prey missing from the Cévennes to complete the process is the barbed vulture, which feeds on bones and marrow. Michel Terrasse, who took part in a programme returning barbed vultures to the Alps, dreams of the day when these impressive birds too will fly above the gorges of the Jonte. For him, this desire is part of his long-standing goal to maintain a "world teeming with wildlife".
The Carcass Problem
When vultures disappeared from the region many decades ago, the carcasses of dead animals caused major problems. The authorities responded to this by forcing farmers to bury, burn or transport their carcasses to treatment centres.
"For the purposes of settling the vultures released back into the wild, we were given permission to create open-air feeding sites," Terrasse explains. "There were four sites, which we supplied with dead animals collected from farmers in the region. No mean task."
Today only a couple of these feeding sites are needed, thanks to the efforts of Terrasse and another admirer of vultures, veterinarian Guy Joncour. Together they led an 18-year battle that yielded success in 1998 when the law was amended so that farmers could set up feeding sites on their farms. About 20 of them have already done so, with help from the fund and Cévennes National Park.
Decentralising feeding sources encourages the vultures’ natural behaviour — they now have to explore the entire region in search of food. However, dangers remain. Over the past 50 years, the electricity network has spread across the region, even to the farthest-flung villages. High-tension wires have killed 50 vultures since 1982, and this is now the leading cause of death for vultures and many other large birds such as storks and cranes. Often the birds collide with a line, breaking a wing or getting electrocuted. At other times they perch on a poorly insulated pole, and are killed. The electricity supplier, EDF, has taken action to improve the visibility of 13 kilometres of lines identified as dangerous by affixing, at regular intervals, red and white indicators that are visible from afar. The company has also checked the insulation of hundreds of poles, and many have been modified so that they cannot be used as perches.
Looking Back and Ahead
"For those who have followed the reintroduction of the vultures from the beginning, this project is not only a success for the environment, but also a success in human terms," says Bagnolini.
"Our achievement is the sum of the skills, both great and small, contributed by hundreds of participants. It is also the sum of their boundless goodwill."
In this complex and demanding campaign, Michel Terrasse has played a key coordinating role. And even after all that has been achieved, he is not ready to give up his obsession with wildlife in general and birds of prey in particular. Today as vultures in the Balkans face problems similar to those in France in the 1930s — being hunted and poisoned, with a resulting decline in their numbers — Terrasse is assisting a programme to preserve birds of prey in the region. At the same time he is keeping a watchful eye on the vultures of the Cévennes.
Published in 2003