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The griffon vultures of Cres

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The white-headed griffon vulture (bijeloglavi sup) formerly lived all over the Kvarner region, coexisting with a local sheep-farming economy that guaranteed the carrion-eating birds a constant supply of food. With the decline of sheep-rearing in the twentieth century, vulture numbers fell dramatically and communities of the birds are nowadays only found on the northeast coast of Cres and in a few isolated spots on Krk and the mainland. When conservationists first came to the area in the mid-1980s there were 24 pairs of vultures on the island; that number has now risen to about seventy.

Fully grown griffon vultures have a wingspan of 2.5m, live for up to sixty years and can spot a sheep carcass from a distance of 6km. Their nesting area in the cliffs south of Beli is protected by law: it’s forbidden to sail within 50m of the cliffs, as young birds may fall out of their nests if startled. The vultures nest in December and produce one egg per pair, the young bird staying with its parents until August, when it begins a five-year roving period – which could take it to other vulture colonies in the Balkans or Near East – before returning to the island to breed. The main threats to the vultures are telephone wires, electricity power lines and contact with man-made poisons, such as the bait left out for vermin; the vulture population of Plavnik, an uninhabited island off the east coast of Cres, disappeared completely after the food chain had become contaminated in this way.

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