The Rüpell’s Vulture (Gyps rueppelli) is an African species whose distribution range locates in the equatorial fringe and Eastern open areas of the continent. It largely resembles our Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus), specially the juveniles and immature birds, being slightly smaller in size. The adults are quite distinctive, with pale spots all over the greyish plumage. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has recently listed it as “Critically Endangered”, the last category before global extinction. The main threat hovering over Rüpell’s as well as the rest of African Vultures is the widespread use of poison, that is depleting wild populations across the continent over the last ten years. Experts foresee a rather sooty future in the short term if poisoning events are not kept under control soon and this seems to be far from realistic.
In consequence Rüppel’s are becoming alarmingly scarce in Africa but, surprisingly, in Andalucía it has become a regular visitor to the point that today the observation of the species in not unusual any longer. Over the last few years this vulture can be recorded at most feeding stations, alongside with the local counterpart the Griffon, with some 2.900 breeding pairs in the region.
From Sierra Pelada in the Western Province of Huelva to the East like Castril in Granada, the African visitor has made itself comfortable on these realms and today it can be spotted at feeding stations the whole year, not necessarily depending on migration peaks. Furthermore, in Andalucía all age classes are present from juveniles to adults. The IUCN includes part of Spain and Andalucía within the area of regular presence of the species, where it can be found as resident, in the same degree in can be in the breeding colonies in Eastern Africa. Colonization of new areas by vultures is not unknown in our country, as the Griffon Vulture has recently arrived in the Balearic Islands, where it is now a new breeding species to add up to the local wildlife.
Vulture experts support the idea that the arrival of this African species to Andalucía at first instance was triggered by the dispersal movements by European Griffons (mainly Spanish) bound for Africa through the Gibraltar Strait. Once in Africa, scattered individuals of Rüppel’s join their flocks not only for foraging activities but also for the trip back to Spain flying over the Strait, where observations are particularly frequent on both sides. Some specialists have also linked its presence as far North as the Mediterranean Basin to possible effects of climate change, as a consequence of what has been called “Africanization” of climate, as recorded for some other avian species that have recently colonized our country. However this has not yet been confirmed.
Today the numbers of Rüppel’s in Africa has plummeted, since the merciless hands of poison has brought many local populations to extinction and thus it seems less likely that individuals of the species may join Griffons on the journey back to Europe.
In addition, the African species is recorded in Andalucía throughout the year and all age classes which makes experts suggest that this vulture may have already settled down in Spain and/or Andalucía, given the bio-strategic location regarding the African continent. Not surprisingly there are several breeding attempts in the Iberian Peninsula both in Spain and Portugal. Rüppel’s are cliff-nesters and potential regular reproduction in Spain should not be fully discarded as they might already be breeding inconspicuously in small numbers within Griffon colonies, which are numerous, remote and not easy to monitor in detail.
Either with or without regular breeding in our region, it is a fact the Rüppel’s is a new member of the Andalusian wildlife, to the point that today the observations are even more regular and predictable than those of other seasonal visitors that are included in the official list of protected bird species.
Including the Rüppel’s within the official list of Andalusian vultures is positive for several reasons and it remarks that conservation plans must not be static in time, but adaptive to new challenges in an ever changing world. On the other hand, this initiative outlines the commitment of Junta de Andalucía in conservation, as approved in both the regional Vulture and the Andalusian Antipoison Programmes. Ever since Andalucía heads up a national and international training program focussed on the fight against poison, that up to date has addressed 500 participants from 23 countries from Europe, Africa, North and Latin America.
Last but not least, may we underline once again the serious and negative effects of poisoning for wildlife and Public Health in general, as well as the need to act in liaison at international level against this kind of global threats.
By means of this conservation initiative the Rüppel’s (Gyps rueppelli) becomes the first African Vulture to be recognized as a local species in Europe. In Andalucía it joins the Griffon, the Cinereous (Aegypius monachus), the Egyptian (Neophron percnopterus) and the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a land where it is welcome and looked after.