The oldest wild Egyptian vulture known to date is 30 years old and lives in the Pyrenees. It is a male marked in 1993 in the Bardenas Reales (Navarra) that had not been heard from again until it was recaptured last year within the framework of a project of the Research Institute on Hunting Resources (IREC-CSIC). His name is Twelve (the mixture of the first two letters of the surnames of the biologists who ringed him: José Antonio Donázar and Olga Ceballos) and in his entire life he has traveled at least 166,535 kilometers, the equivalent of circling the Earth 4.15 times. This is how the researchers have calculated it from their migratory route back and forth every year to the Sahel (the transition zone between the Sahara desert and the Sudanese savannah). In Spain there are 32% of the European population of this species of vulture – about 1,500 pairs – classified as vulnerable due to the significant recession that it has endured in recent decades. About 50 couples lived in the Bardenas Reales natural park area when they were captured the first time, and now there are only 20.
José Antonio Donázar, a researcher at the Doñana Biological Station-CSIC who marked the Egyptian vulture three decades ago, remembers the moment perfectly. “We had a stroke of luck, we captured 21 specimens and put metal rings and other plastic rings on them, the latter with an alphanumeric code that allow remote identification with binoculars,” he explains. The marking was carried out as part of a long-term research project that began in 1986 and that still continues with the support of the Community of Bardenas Reales de Navarra, made up of 22 municipalities.
The specimen, which was then a two-year-old juvenile with dark plumage, flew and no one had found it again. The surprise came in June 2020, when another group of scientists recaptured it. Antoni Margalida, a scientist at IREC-CSIC, describes: “We verified that he was still wearing the metal ring and thus we were able to know which individual he was and how old he was.” Margalida is the principal investigator of the project, in which the Generalitat of Catalonia and the Government of Aragon collaborate. Twelve It was 175 kilometers from where it was marked for the first time, on the border between Huesca and Lleida. The researchers have described the finding in an article published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and Environment.
After its last capture, the researchers installed a GPS on the Egyptian vulture, which has allowed them to know its migratory journey step by step. Of all the species of vultures, griffon vulture, black vulture, bearded vulture and Egyptian vulture, only the latter migrate. Despite its age, the recovered specimen still travels the 4,000 kilometers that separate the Pyrenees from Mauritania in 20 days. On September 8 of last year it took off the flight to its African winter quarters, six days later it crossed the Strait and on September 26 it landed at its destination. Nor did he have any setbacks on the return, at the end of February.
The specimen breeds in a small town on the Pre-Pyrenees fringe, on the border between Huesca and Lleida. And that’s where he must have lived all this time. Margalida comments: “In 2002 I saw an Egyptian vulture with a PVC ring, but I couldn’t read the identification with the binoculars.” He kept trying without success, until one day the Egyptian vulture lost the plastic ring and had no choice but to leave it as impossible, because the metal cannot be read if it is not in hand.
There are other species that reach similar ages, such as the bearded vulture, of which the existence of a 32-year-old female is known. The longest documented bird is a 70-year-old female albatross, which has continued to be an active breeder. With large scavengers, scientists are faced with the problem that the information they have is very partial because long-term studies are scarce and because most populations are subject to high unnatural mortality. They are especially affected by the illegal use of poisoned baits and collisions with power lines and wind farm mills.
The researchers claim continued monitoring, which they consider “essential to understand the ecology and establish correct estimates of the viability of the population of a group of species such as vultures, threatened worldwide.” Something complicated, they say, because “they are very expensive projects to maintain and it is difficult to find money.”
Moment of the release of the Egyptian vulture ‘Twelve’, after installing a radio transmitter.