Turkey’s First Satellite-Tracked Egyptian Vulture Covered More Than 20,000 Km In 7.5 Months

For the first time in Turkey, the intercontinental migration and return of an animal has been tracked hourly from the beginning to the end. However, only one of the three endangered Egyptian vultures tracked with satellite transmitters completed its migration and successfully returned to Turkey. Turkey’s first satellite-tracked Egyptian vulture covered more than 20,000 km in 7.5 months.

In August 2012, with my environmental organization KuzeyDoga, we caught and tagged three globally endangered Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) with satellite transmitters provided by Turkey’s Ministry of Forestry and Water AffairsGeneral Directorate of Nature Conservation and Natural Parks. This has allowed us to track their movements on an hourly basis over the last year.

The fascinating Turkey-to-Africa migration of the Egyptian vultures finished on April 5, 2013 when the only survivor IĞDIR (named after the province where he was caught), returned to the Aras River Bird Sanctuary in Tuzluca, Iğdır, 7.5 months after it left for its wintering grounds in Africa. However, even the Egyptian vultures that overcome many hazards during migration are not safe upon their return to their breeding grounds because the Aras River Bird Sanctuary is under threat of disappearing under 45 meters of water because of a proposed dam in the area. The Egyptian vulture has experienced one of the fastest declines in the conservation status of any animal worldwide, having gone from Least Concern to Globally Endangered in 2007 according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species is also declining and threatened in Turkey. The birds in Iğdır may now find their breeding grounds submerged when they come back from their next migration.

The migrations of Turkey's first satellite-tracked Egyptian vultures
The migrations of Turkey’s first satellite-tracked Egyptian vultures. Map by Evan Buechley, University of Utah

In August 2012, three Egyptian vultures named ARPAÇAY, ARAS and IĞDIR, were captured in Tuzluca, Iğdır and fitted with satellite transmitters by KuzeyDoğa science coordinator and biologist Emrah Çoban and KuzeyDoğa volunteers. Only one of these three vultures successfully completed its return migration to the Aras River Bird Sanctuary. GPS data analyzed by Evan Buechley (Biodiversity and Conservation Ecology lab, Department of Biology, University of Utah) showed that IĞDIR, the sole survivor, covered more than 20,000 km from August 23th to April 5th, spending October to March near the Ethiopian city of Hergele (2500 km from Iğdır) in dry steppe along a river very similar to the habitat surrounding the Aras River. The 20,000 km that IĞDIR covered is equal to halfway around the world. Furthermore, we estimated that IĞDIR actually has covered a distance between 25,000-30,000 km during these 7.5 months, considering that the transmitters recorded the GPS locations hourly and in an hour a vulture usually covers a distance greater than the shortest distance between the two recorded locations.

Video: Releasing Turkey’s first satellite-tagged Egyptian vultures Aras and Arpacay

IĞDIR, which covered the distance of 4500 km from Turkey to Ethiopia in just 10 days from September 22th to October 2nd, showed a similar performance on its return migration by returning to Turkey on April 2nd, and to Tuzluca on April 5th. The most impressive of all is that IĞDIR, which is the oldest and the most experienced Egyptian vulture among the ones we tracked, followed almost the same path in the fall and the spring migrations. This perfect directional instinct can be better appreciated when considering that the vultures need warm air thermals to migrate and bad weather conditions may completely change their routes. IĞDIR reached a maximum speed of 59 km/hr during its migration and an impressive altitude of 7970 meters above sea level on March 31th.

ARAS, the youngest and least experienced of the three vultures, finished its fall migration in twice the time of IĞDIR’s migration. It spent the time from October to December in Yemen, then flew to Ethiopia at the end of April and stayed in the steppe northeast of the capital city of Addis Ababa until March 8th. There has been no signal from ARAS since this date. ARAS had covered a distance of at least 13,437 km as of March 8th. The hope that the transmitter failed and ARAS remains alive has faded because we have not seen Aras on its breeding grounds after months of searching, whereas we have seen IĞDIR regularly.

Unfortunately, the third vulture ARPAÇAY was found dead soon after initiating its migration, in the village El-Jawasm of the Necef Province in Iraq, after covering a distance of 2,004 km. After we got the final signal on September 28th, we emailed ARPAÇAY’s coordinates to the Iraq Nature Society, who immediately sent staff into the field and found the transmitter. They succeeded in recovering the transmitter in an extremely rapid and professional manner,  just 48 hours after our email. They gave us a detailed report on the bird and hand-delivered the transmitter to Istanbul. We thank them for their excellent support.

Turkey’s first satellite-tracked Egyptian vultures visited 13 countries during their migration: Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The travels of Turkey’s first satellite-tracked Egyptian vultures were extensively covered by Turkey’s media. Dozens of newspapers with a combined readership of over 6 million people wrote about this project, generating much awareness about the plight of the Egyptian vultures and the Aras River Bird Sanctuary.

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Story on our project in Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s major newspapers.

The return of only one of the three Egyptian vultures is a poignant reminder of the threats these globally endangered birds’ experience as their populations continue to decrease day-by-day. Aras and Arpaçay, which could live over 35 years, were in their first years of life when we lost them. These findings also show the importance of having a sample size of at least 10 birds, since only one bird out of three could return. Putting transmitters on more birds will help us learn about the species’ ecology and migrations and better protect their migration routes, wintering and breeding areas. With the support of the Whitley Fund, we are satellite-tagging three more Egyptian vultures this year.

Populations of the Egyptian vulture are declining more rapidly than any other bird species found in Turkey. The species has seen an extremely rapid global decrease in its population over the last several decades. The population decreased by half in the last 42 years in Europe and populations in India collapsed in the 1990’s after being poisoned by medicines used to vaccinate cattle, including diclofenac and ketoprophen. Threats to Egyptian vultures include habitat loss, intentional and unintentional poisoning, direct persecution, nest destruction, and collisions with power lines and wind turbines. Furthermore, the species is declining due to a reduction in the availability of suitable food. This has occurred with the loss of traditional animal husbandry practices, the closure of open butcheries and garbage dumps, and the decline of wild animals. For that reason KuzeyDoğa Society founded Turkey’s first “vulture restaurant,” with the support of the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Directorate of Environment and Forestry of Iğdır within the Iğdır Green Belt Forest Preserve. The vultures that come to this area to feed from butcher leftovers and road kills can attract nature photographers and other nature tourists to this area. But the future of Turkey’s first vulture restaurant in Iğdır is uncertain, as government support is needed to keep it running.

One of the species’ global strongholds is in Eastern Turkey, where they breed in the Arpaçay Canyon and Aras Valley in Kars and Iğdır provinces. An emerging threat in Iğdır is the planned Tuzluca Dam that will destroy these very breeding grounds in the Aras River Bird Sanctuary, where KuzeyDoğa Society has identified 249 bird species so far. These constitute 52% of Turkey’s bird species, 25 species of which are in globally threatened or near threatened with extinction, with the most Endangered being the Egyptian vulture. 40% of Turkey’s land vertebrate species (birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles) have been recorded from the Aras River Bird Sanctuary. Next year when they come back, the vultures might not find their breeding area and they might not survive after having completed their hazardous intercontinental migration. According to Turkey’s environmental laws, the Aras River Bird Sanctuary needs to be protected, as it is a home for birds, mammals and reptile species that are globally endangered. However, KuzeyDoga’s years of petitioning the government have been ignored. In order to help protect this area, your support is needed. The campaign to stop the construction of this dam has been signed by nearly 8,500 people. To protect this area, we need your signatures.

Leaving road kill at Turkey’s first vulture restaurant. Mt Agri (5137 m) in the background. September 2009.
KuzeyDoga biologist and science coordinator Emrah Coban releasing Aras

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Dr. Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu is a professor of conservation ecology and ornithology at the University of Utah Department of Biology. He is also the president of the non-profit environmental organization KuzeyDoğa (www.kuzeydoga.org) in Kars, Turkey. Born in İstanbul, Şekercioğlu is a conservation ecologist, ornithologist, and Turkey’s first tropical biologist. An award-winning photographer, Şekercioğlu’s photos have been published by National Geographic, BBC, and hundreds of magazines, newspapers, books, and other publications. After graduating from İstanbul’s Robert College in 1993, Şekercioğlu won a silver medal at the International Biology Olympics and started Harvard University. In 1997, he graduated with degrees in Biology and Anthropology, magna cum laude, receiving a summa cum laude for his honors thesis. Before starting his Ph.D. in ecology at Stanford University, he took a year off to work in Alaska for the USGS National Biological Survey, to climb in the Andes, photograph, and explore in South America and Antarctica, and do wildlife photography in Africa for his first book “Vanishing Africa”. In 2001, he was chosen one of the 100 leading academics of Turkey by Aktuel magazine. He received his Ph.D. in 2003 from Stanford University Department of Biology, with the thesis Causes and Consequences of Bird Extinctions. He was chosen 2003 Outstanding Young Person of the Year in environmental and ethical leadership by Junior Chamber International of Turkey and he initiated his community-based conservation, biodiversity research, ecological restoration, and ecotourism projects in northeastern Turkey. As his projects expanded in scope, he founded the Kars-based environmental non-profit organization KuzeyDoğa (www.kuzeydoga.org) in 2007. He directed KuzeyDoğa pro-bono while working as a senior scientist at Stanford University. For his community-based conservation, research, restoration, and ecotourism work at Lake Kuyucuk of Kars (www.kuyucuk.org), he received the Whitley Gold Award of the United Kingdom from Princess Anne in 2008. Following the award, Şekercioğlu succeeded in getting Kuyucuk declared eastern Turkey’s first Ramsar wetland, had the lake chosen the 2009 European Destination of Excellence, and helped create Turkey’s first bird-nesting island in the lake. As a result, Princess Anne invited Şekercioğlu to the Buckingham Palace for her 60. birthday party in 2010. Same year, Şekercioğlu joined the faculty of the University of Utah Department of Biology. Also in 2010, was chosen one of the 100 Hopes for the Future of Turkey by Newsweek Turkiye and Turkey’s Scientist of the Year by NTV, Radikal and MSNBC Turkey. In 2011, he was chosen a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and received Turkey’s two wetland conservation awards for his individual efforts and for the work of his NGO KuzeyDoğa. In 2011, Şekercioğlu and colleagues published the books "Conservation of Tropical Birds" and "Winged Sentinels: Birds and Climate Change" (www.wingedsentinels.com). In 2013, he was chosen a National Geographic Risk Taker and received the Whitley Fund 20. Anniversary Gold Award for "Putting Turkey on the Conservation Map". Şekercioğlu’s achievements in ecological research and community-based conservation have been commended by Turkey’s president Abdullah Gül, the former prime minister Erdal İnönü, and various government ministers. In addition to his long-term work in Turkey, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Utah, Şekercioğlu has visited over 70 countries on all continents for research and has seen over 60% of the world’s bird species in the wild. He is a board member of the Society for Conservation Biology, an ornithology associate of the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology, Fellow International of the Explorers Club, Elective Member of the American Ornithologists Union, and a full member of the Sigma Xi Scientific Society. His ecological research and conservation efforts have been covered by the world's leading media, including ABC, BBC, CNN, Fox, National Geographic, Nature, Newsweek, New York Times, Science and The New Yorker. Şekercioğlu’s three books and over 80 scientific publications have received more than 2600 citations. He is among the most cited 1% of the world's scientists of the past decade.