Ural Owl returns to Austria
In 2014, Ostrava Zoo became involved in a new reintroduction project. The Zoo has a long history of providing bred young for reintroduction, and now it directed its efforts to Ural owls. The breeding pair of Ural owls raised two young, born at the end of March. The results of the DNA analysis showed that they are male and female. The female was selected for reintroduction and transported to Vienna Woods (Wienerwald Biosphere Park), west of Vienna. The male will strengthen the population bred in human care to pass on the genes of its parents.
In the past, this species became extinct in many European areas because of human impact. Šumava mountains in Czechia are among the places where the Ural owl had their native home. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the species could still be seen in the Šumava mountains; however, the reasons for the population extinction include hunting and climate change, especially the loss of mixed and deciduous forests, and finally, food shortages and genetic isolation. However, today we can encounter Ural owls in the Šumava mountains thanks to The Bavarian Forest National Park reintroduction project (from the ´70s). In the 1980s, a small population found a home in Moravia thanks to another reintroduction project of Slovakia Republic which has a stable population of the Ural owl.
Efforts to reintroduce the Ural owl began between 2006-2007. Two areas were later identified as most suitable: Wienerwald Biosphere Park (“Biosphärenpark Wienerwald”) a Dürrenstein Wilderness area (“Wildnisgebiet Dürrenstein”). The first reintroduction took place in 2009 while the first rearing was observed two years later. Since the beginning of the project, about 150 birds were returned to the wild while the Vienna Woods population is increasing. The project is expected to continue; therefore, we believe that our female Ural owl will have companions in near future.
Ostrava Zoo has been involved in several vulture conservation projects by providing reared individuals free of charge for reintroduction. Until now, we have provided 20 reared young of the bearded vulture, cinereous vulture and griffon vulture. In 2022, for the first time, we joined an international reintroduction project to save the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus percnopterus).
The international rescue project, The Egyptian Vulture New LIFE was launched in 2016. It strives to strengthen the breeding population of the Egyptian vulture in the Balkans. Many institutions, from not only Europe but the Middle East and Africa, have become the project´s partners. Ostrava Zoo is a new partner which provided the first reared young Egyptian vulture for reintroduction to the wild. The zoo young will strengthen the population of its species in southern Bulgaria where these scavengers faced a significant decline in recent decades.
The Egyptian vulture is the smallest and the most endangered European vulture species. It can be found in northern and eastern Africa along the equator (isolated population in southern Africa), southern Europe, the Middle East, up to the north to the Caucasus mountains and east to India. Egyptian vultures generally prefer dry open plains but are also found near where humans live. They feed on dead animals (carcasses), and eggs, but also prey on smaller animals, such as fish, reptiles, and insects. They are one of the few species that use tools, they break the big thick-shelled eggs like ostrich eggs by tossing a rock onto them. The nest, located mostly on rocks, is relatively large for the size of the vulture and looks untidy. The females lay one or two eggs which are incubated for about 42 days. Young vultures are distinguished from their parents by their brown colour.
Recovery of the Northern bald ibis population in the wild
Since 2017, the Ostrava Zoo has become involved in an international reintroduction project to rescue Northern bald ibis. This species ranks among the most endangered in the world. The population in the wild is about 600. Zoos and other conservation organizations strive to strengthen their populations by reintroducing their reared young into the wild. Ostrava Zoo provided 10 free-of-charge reared young.
International reintroduction project Proyecto eremita is sponsored by Zoo Botanico de Jeréz in Spain and Junta de Andalucia, the Environment Department of the Andalusian regional government. Its mission is to restore the critically endangered populations of northern bald ibis in the Andalusia region by releasing the zoos´ reared young in the wild. Ostrava Zoo has been the project´s partner since 2017.
In the past, the northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) could be seen in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy, also in Africa and the Middle East. Due to the loss of the natural habitat, illegal hunting, and setting of poisoned baits, the species was wiped out in many places. Towards the end of the twentieth century, other threats emerged, such as insecticide use and power lines. There are around 500 or 600 individuals in the wild making the northern bald ibis one of the most endangered birds in the world. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessed this species as critically endangered. About 95 % of the northern bald ibis population lives in Souss-Massa National Park and Tamri National Park, Morocco; less than a hundred birds can be found in the semi-wild population in Turkey; and the rest, around 5 birds living in Syria are probably already extinct.
Thanks to reintroduction projects in Spain and Austria, smaller populations have finally returned to Europe. Between 2004 and 2009, 190 northern bald ibises were reintroduced to the wild while the reintroduction continues. The mortality rate of released young birds is high, yet the first breeding pair was formed in 2008 and followed in 2011 by a small, independent, and non-migratory colony.
Cinereous Vulture Returns to French Alps
In 2009, the first zoo-bred young cinereous vulture was reintroduced in the Verdon gorge area, French Alps. The male was provided free of charge through the reintroduction program to strengthen the population in French Alps where they had been hunted to extinction. Cinereous vultures are now found here again thanks to rescue projects and the reintroduction of young birds bred in human care.
Like other birds of prey, cinereous vultures face a rapid decline in the wild. The population of Mallorca was about 20 in 1980, however, the released zoo-bred individuals strengthened the population to today´s 70 vultures. In France, where the cinereous vulture died out, the reintroduction program was launched in 1992 and in 1997, the first birds laid their eggs.
Natural breeding of birds of prey is a challenging task for several reasons. They mature relatively late; therefore, the whole process is long and there is even a possibility that the pair will not be compatible or that one of them might die before the age of maturity. Females lay about 1 to 3 eggs and siblicide is a very common phenomenon – one of the siblings, usually the older and stronger, kills the other. Therefore, the pair often rear just one young. Furthermore, they need a suitable place to build a nest and to sit on the egg for a long period, during which they can lose the egg (by crashing it during careless handling, or due to an attack by wild animals...). Another critical period occurs after the hatching of the young, where the experience of the pair plays a central role. On top of that, it is important to always ensure maximum quiet for rearing, as cinereous vultures are relatively shy and sensitive to disturbance.
Breeding of these species is not a routine matter – Ostrava Zoo waited five years for a young, although the zoo´s pair had been successful before. However, it was not until May 2014 that a young hatched, which both parents took care of and successfully reared.
Griffon Vulture Returns to Bulgaria
A five-year project LIFE08 NAT/BG/278, coordinated by the non-governmental organization Green Balkans, was launched in 2010. Its mission is to reintroduce the Griffon vulture in selected areas of Bulgaria where they have been extirpated by human persecution. Most of the vultures were provided by rescue stations in Spain, but European zoos have also become involved in this project. Upon arrival in Bulgaria, the vultures are placed in the Wildlife Rescue Station in Stara Zagora town, which is managed by Green Balkans. All the birds are given a health check and spend here 30 days. After then, they are transferred into one of the four adaptation aviaries in the Stara Planina mountains. These aviaries can be found along the entire Stara Planina mountain range: near the towns Vratsa, Sliven and Kotlenska Planina areas.
The birds spend more than three months here to get used to the climate, familiarise themselves with the surrounding terrain and conditions, and locate water and food sources. Before release, all birds are marked with special wing tags. More than 160 Griffon vultures have been reintroduced since the beginning of the project, and more than 30 were released in the spring of 2014. After an agreement with the European coordinator of the ESB programme for Griffon Vultures, a young male was recommended for reintroduction, hatched on 5 May 2012 in Ostrava Zoo. He was given the name Matěj.
Our vulture was moved from the Rescue Station in Stara Zagora to the adaptation aviary in Sinite Kamani Nature Park on March 24 2014. He was given the wing tag K88. On 22 July, he was released from this adaptation aviary into the wild (in a “non-stressful way”, simply by opening the aviary, so that the three vultures, with our Matěj among them, could fly out when ready). Matěj was a strong and healthy vulture who thrived. Unfortunately, at the end of September, the Rescue Station staff received a call concerning a dead griffon vulture under a utility pole. It was about 500 metres from the adaptation aviary, and the animal was identified as our Ostrava male. These unsafe utility poles had previously been the cause of death of six other griffon vultures and for several years the rescue station staff had been trying to get the responsible authorities to fix this issue.
However, it was only after this latest incident, that the rescue station staff took matters into their hands, causing the power company to finally secure the poles.
For more information, please visit: www.greenbalkans.org