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Vultures are making a comeback

Spain finds out that it needs nature’s “bad guys” after all.

A young Egyptian vulture receives personal care at the Navarre Wildlife Recuperation Center. (Michael Moffett/GlobalPost)

PAMPLONA, Spain — Vultures circling overhead have traditionally been a harbinger of death. But in Spain, their renewed presence after a long lull is being regarded by many as a good omen — the sign of a healthy eco-system.

“They’re essential,” said Luis Sances, a rancher with a flock of 600 sheep in the northern Spanish region of Navarre.

Vultures serve an important role in the environment, assisting in the clean-up and subsequent decomposition of animal carcasses, and Spain has long been considered one of the final holdouts of the bird, which has been persecuted elsewhere by misguided efforts to eradicate nature’s “bad guys.”

Spain’s sparsely populated countryside and often clear skies are credited with creating the ideal conditions for the carrion-eaters to hone in and prey. When in recent years their numbers began dwindling, however, ranchers like Sances witnessed firsthand the negative consequences.

Particularly aggressive vultures attacked ewes while giving birth on at least two occasions at ranches adjoining his in 2006 and 2007 — atypical acts of violence for the scavengers that Sances said were driven by a breakdown in the food chain. The breakdown itself, he said, was the result of restrictions ranchers were forced to follow after the mad cow disease crisis peaked in Western Europe.

“The attack was because of human manipulation,” Sances concluded. As a result of humans contracting mad cow disease, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, in the early half of this decade, the European Union put in place many safety regulations. Millions of cattle were ordered slaughtered, for one, and in another, lesser-known regulation, there was a ban levied on the age-old farm and village custom of leaving dead animals for scavengers to devour. Instead, incinerators were fired up to burn animal cadavers. It was a misguided safety precaution, Sances maintains, with unforeseen costs.

With no carcasses left to devour, Spain’s protected species of carrion-eaters — like the Griffon, Bearded, Black and Egyptian vultures — began to suffer malnutrition, particularly in the summer when newborns traditionally leave the nest to hunt for food of their own. From 1999 to 2003, the Native Fauna and its Habitat Rehabilitation Group (GREFA) reported up to a seven-fold increase in the number of scavengers it took in for rehabilitation from 12 in 1999 to a whopping 87 in 2003.