Hungry vultures get daily 'five-star' feast in Spain
Jose Ramon Moragrega has developed a vulture sanctuary, where the threatened animals are served a feast of rabbits every day. But is his initiative too little too late?Hundreds of vultures surround retired sailor Jose Ramon Moragrega before noisily feasting on the mass of dead rabbits he dumps from a red wheelbarrow onto a patch of gravel.
Fuelled by a passion for the large birds, the 57-year-old has repeated this ritual each morning for the past two decades at his property near the town of Valderrobres in the mountains of Aragon in eastern Spain.
Each day, "Vultureman," as he calls himself, feeds the predators between 100 and 200 rabbits not fit for human consumption that he gets for free at a local slaughterhouse.
It takes them only half an hour to devour the meal.
But his vulture refuge, complete with drinking trough and perches, did not always enjoy its current success. Now, 400 and 500 birds turn up for the feeding on a good day. At the beginning, however, they stayed away.
"At the beginning it was like a game,” said Moragrega. “I would lay down the food in the morning and I would collect it at night. When the first ones came to eat, I was really pleased."
For Moragrega, the birds’ reluctance was understandable. "Man is the only predator of the vulture,” he said. “It is a species which has been persecuted since ancient Greece for cultural reasons, a species that is very afraid of us.”
Spain is home to 80 percent of Europe's vultures, according to Aragon forest ranger Esteban La Torre Abella.
But the ranger said the birds, often described as "nature's cleaners," have been threatened by both urbanisation and by eating poisoned meat left in open fields by farmers seeking to kill pesky foxes.
Their woes increased in 2002 when the European Union adopted a law aimed at halting the spread of mad cow disease. The law required that the countryside be kept clear of dead livestock even if they died of natural causes.
The law forced some of the vulture population to embark on long-haul trips in search for food. Many of Spain's black vultures -- considered the largest birds of prey in Europe with a wingspan up to 2.5 metres (eight feet) -- starved to death.
But Moragrega said this is not enough to ensure the big birds' survival.
"If they have to feed themselves with what is left in nature, the little space of fauna which we have left them, they can't survive, we have to help them," he said, with a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck.
Abella said Moragrega's initiative was an example for the government to follow.
"His feeding trough is five stars," he said, describing vultures as "highly sensitive" animals. "A whole colony can disappear in a month. The vulture population has increased in recent years, thanks to food aid like this, but they had virtually disappeared in this region in the 1970s.”
Moragrega's wife Loly guides visitors to the feeding centre and also feeds the vultures herself on the rare days when her husband is not available to do so.
Guests are instructed not to get too close to the observatory's glass windows -- tinted to mask the human presence -- and not to make noise while the vultures feast on the rabbits.
Even after all these years, Moragrega said he must take great care when feeding the birds to avoid making any brusque moves that may frighten them away.
"They notice right away any sudden or strange movement, or if another person takes my place and shows signs of fear, they panic and go away," he said. "I've been successful in managing to mingle with them without causing them to panic ... even if it has taken 21 years."