Spain’s vultures receive 'five-star' daily feast
A vulture refuge set up in eastern Spain helps ensure there is enough food for the starving predators.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.
But his vulture refuge, complete with drinking trough and perches, did not always enjoy its current success, with 400 and 500 birds now turning up for the feeding on a good day.
At the beginning they stayed away.
"It took three years before the vultures descended to eat," he told AFP as he stood on one of two observatories on his property that are open to the public for a fee of between EUR 4 to 15.
"At the beginning it was like a game. 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," added Moragrega.
"Man is the only predator of the vulture. It is a species which has been persecuted since ancient Greece for cultural reasons, a species that is very afraid of us," he said.
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 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, which required the countryside be kept clear of dead livestock even if they died of natural causes.
Vultures virtually disappeared in the region
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.
In April, the 27-member EU modified the law, allowing farmers to leave dead livestock in their fields – providing conditions are deemed safe and hygienic.
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 as a pair of binoculars hand 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, they virtually disappeared in this region in the 1970s," he said.
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 takes 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."
1 June 2009
AFP / Expatica