Watching Vultures at Vitachevo
These hills history has made
A clean, repletive ossuary,
It stirs with corpses laid,
Ranged: prone and propiatory.
We watch and wait on a crest,
The ravens are mocking our vigil,
Trespassing over Tikveš
Like bored renegades. The still
Day’s cumulus begins to move,
Fresh, hoped-for and soft,
They are circling now, above,
The survivors whom we’d lost:
They are flying with their kith
To Demir Kapija, Mariovo, Niš.
'The survivors whom we'd lost': Vulture Conservation in the Balkans
During my time as a lecturer in English literature at South East European University, Macedonia from 2007-2016, I had the good fortune to become involved in vulture conservation in the Balkans and to assist with the valuable work of professional conservationists in Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria. Republic of Macedonia is a small country of approximately 2 million people which neighbours Bulgaria to the east, Serbia and Kosovo to the north, Albania to the west and Greece to the south. Its location and political situation present immediate dilemmas to conservationists. In Macedonia, there is negligible governmental support for conservation groups and, not being an EU member, accessing funding from European projects can be difficult. So, while vultures may criss-cross the whole Balkan peninsula, conditions on the ground vary considerably. However, there is a good level of co-operation between like-minded conservationists so that tagged birds which may visit different locations across this geographical range can be identified and tracked by ornithologists.
Poisoning remains the single biggest cause of vulture mortality worldwide. In Asia, over 95% of the once-abundant vulture populations have been poisoned by inadvertent use of the veterinary drug diclofenac leading to serious health and sanitation issues in countries like India, Pakistan and Nepal. In Africa, there is an ongoing epidemic of poisoning of whole vulture populations while in the Balkans, a major poisoning incident at Kresna Gorge, western Bulgaria in March 2017 destroyed years of conservation work in one afternoon. In Europe, the historic range of the four indigenous vulture species – Griffon vultures, Egyptian vultures, Black vultures and Bearded vultures – has been greatly reduced and in Macedonia, only Griffon vultures and Egyptian vultures remain in small numbers. The long-term conservation objective of the ambitious Vulture Multi-Species Action Plan for African-Eurasian vultures, pioneered by the Vulture Conservation Foundation, is to improve the conservation status of 15 species of old-world vultures. Such concerted international action has already been attempted in the Balkan region via the Balkan Vulture Action Plan (2002-2012) which has fostered current major regional initiatives: Recovery of the Populations of Large European Vultures in Bulgaria (the reintroduction of Griffon vultures to Bulgaria and support for Black and Bearded Vultures in Bulgaria) The Return of the Neophron (to save Egyptian vultures in Bulgaria and Greece) and Bright Future for Black Vultures (to expand the range of Black vultures in the region). The medium-term objective of all these initiatives is to sustain and increase the four European vulture species in the Balkans via support for traditional agricultural practices, support for conservation of large carnivores (brown bear, wolves) and the maintenance of a network of feeding sites in order to reduce the risk of poisoning. However, the goal of full restoration of vulture species in the Balkans and the linking of populations in the Alps with populations in the Black Sea region and Turkey remains a distant prospect.
On the local level, much valuable work continues to be done and in Macedonia, vulture conservation work has been led by Aquila Nature Conservation Association, based in Kavadarci ably assisted by the Macedonian Ecological Society in Skopje. Emanuel Lisichanets of Aquila - an Association founded by Emanuel’s father Tome - has provided an inspirational example of single-handed dedication to conservation in the face of many setbacks and amid widespread political and social indifference in Macedonia. Emanuel maintains the feeding site at Vitachevo, a scenic location in the Tikveš region in central Macedonia, which is the focus of efforts to support the surviving colonies of Griffon vultures in Macedonia. In the recent past, over two hundred birds populated this area with large colonies situated on the edge of Tikveš lake and also at Demir Kapija and Mariovo, as well as other historic nesting sites. No more than thirty birds remain, and breeding success remains moderate with twelve fledglings recorded in 2017.
Nevertheless, Vitachevo remains the main focus of conservation effort for vultures in Macedonia and it serves several ecological purposes. By providing a safe, regular food source for vultures, it reduces the ever-present risk of poisoning while also providing a valuable food source for other endangered raptors, notably golden eagles, kites and buzzards. It also enables local livestock farmers to dispose of unwanted carcases in an environmentally-friendly way and it serves as a fulcrum for awareness in the local community on conservation issues. In addition, vultures from neighbouring Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia are often seen at the site and so observations can help document the movement of regional vulture populations.
Although vultures’ natural role as scavengers can be disconcerting to some observers, when viewed in their natural habitat, their presence often borders on the sublime. My own response mirrors that of the Collector in J.G. Farrell’s novel The Siege of Krishnapur (1973):
The Collector was fond of vultures and did not share the usual view of them as sinister and ominous creatures. By their diligent eating of carcases they had probably spared the garrison an epidemic or a pestilence, but that was not what the Collector liked about them . . . though clumsy on the ground, their flight was extraordinarily graceful. They climbed higher than any other birds, it seemed; they ascended into the limitless blue until they became lost to sight or mere specks, drifting round and round in a free flight in which their wings scarcely seemed to move. They more resembled fish than birds, gliding in gentle circles in a clear pool of infinite depth. The Collector would have liked to watch them all day. Their flight absorbed him completely. He thought of nothing while he watched them, he shed his own worries and experienced their freedom, no longer bound by his own dull, weak body.
I would like to especially thank Emanuel and Svetlana Lisichanets and their family for their generous hospitality during many visits to Kavadarci and for making possible bird-watching trips in Macedonia and in Bulgaria and Greece. I would also like to thank the following conservationists for generously sharing their expertise on vultures with me: Jovan Andevski, Jana Barsova and the staff at the Vulture Centre (Madharovo, Bulgaria), Stoyan Nikolov, Hristo Peshev, Ksenija Putilin, Emilian Stoynov and José Tavares.
J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur (Fontana, 1985)
Thom Van Dooren, Vulture (Reaktion, 2012)
International Vulture Awareness Day
Vulture Conservation Foundation
Macedonian Ecological Society
Recovery of the Populations of Large European Vultures in Bulgaria
Return of the Neophron
Bright Future for Black Vultures
The Fund for Wild Flora and Fauna (FWFF) / Life for Kresna Gorge
Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds (BSPB)
Benjamin Keatinge is a Visiting Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. He has co-edited France and Ireland in the Public Imagination with Mary Pierse (Peter Lang, 2014) and Other Edens: The Life and Work of Brian Coffey with Aengus Woods (Irish Academic Press, 2010) and he has published widely on contemporary Irish poetry. He is currently editing a volume of essays on Richard Murphy titled Making Integral: Critical Essays on Richard Murphy which is forthcoming from Cork University Press. From 2007 to 2016 he worked as Assistant/Associate Professor of British and Irish Literature at South East European University, Macedonia and he has traveled widely in the Balkans. In 2016 he received a special award from the Macedonian Ecological Society for his contribution to vulture conservation in Macedonia. His poetry has previously appeared in Icarus and Kore Broadsheets, both publications based at TCD.