My first stop in this story was a shoot with Dr Alex Llopis at the breeding centre in Lleida, Spain. Alex is the coordinator of the Bearded Vulture Captive Breeding Network. I was nervous to finally be here and to film one of the first critical moments … the hatching.
As I arrive, I am met with large screens displaying live cameras on nests. Alex explains that it’s feeding time and that I should go to the screens to watch him with a bird I have been eager to meet. Kazajo. Alex and Kazajo, an accidental human imprinted male, have been paired for many years and Kazajo is an excellent foster parent. While he is an unusual part of the story he is also really important for us. When it’s time he will be responsible for raising our chick that hatches.
The Vulture Conservation Foundation have been carrying out this work for over 40 years. As a charity they are responsible for the successful bounce back of this species. Almost pushed to extinction, these Vultures in the 1920’s nearly disappeared from Europe due to persecution and poisoning. It takes Bearded Vultures around 10 years to start breeding in the wild, which makes them particularly sensitive to persecution.
In the office we watch the cameras nervously. The chick is big enough to be transferred into the nest of a captive foster parent which means that Kazajo, if accepting of the chick, will do the rest of the work until the chick is ready for a wild release. Every step of this process is meticulously thought out and the risks around their survival vary for each individual. I have already seen how these chicks are continuously monitored and fed for the first few weeks of life and it’s important the chicks don’t imprint on humans or associate themselves with those who feed them. Alex carefully places the chick into a small satchel bursting with wool, and closes the lid. He enters the frame on the camera, waits for Kazajo to look away, removes the dummy egg and places the chick into the huge nest. After Alex has left, all we can do is wait. I hold my breath as I watch Kazajo curiously approach the chick. He is unsure on what to do and how to behave. The tension in the office is indescribable. Suddenly it all becomes so clear, this is not just a ‘fingers crossed and hope for success’ moment. This is the moment where the future conservation of this species hangs in the balance. A moment of true risk in conservation.
After 10 painful minutes Kajazo starts feeding the chick. It’s a success. This is just one chapter of many, with twists and turns in how to protect a species on the edge. Observing these Vulture is a reminder of the poignant relationship between life and death. The focus of this project is to redefine what the Bearded Vulture stands for and seeing a bird come back like this is helping us redefine this landscape. Bearded Vultures are a symbol of the hope that underlines the vision of all rewilding projects, and the work of the Vulture Conservation Foundation has built a new idea of extraordinary possibilities when it comes to rewilding. I can’t wait to share this story with the world.
Learn more about the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF).