(Marcus Holland-Moritz)
Article Words : Lyn Hughes | 01 August

The griffon vultures of Cres, Croatia

Undisturbed by mass tourism, the Croatian island of Cres is a scenic refuge for the spectacular griffon vulture, as Lyn Hughes discovers

"When I saw my first griffon, I fell in love!”

Dr Goran Susic’s eyes shone as he rattled off fact after fact about his beloved griffon vultures. How they can fly at 11,000m (higher than the Himalaya) despite the lack of oxygen. How their eyesight is eight times better than that of humans. How they mate for life, but will also take any opportunity to have a bit on the side. How a ‘helper’ will often co-rear a chick in a sort of menage a trois. And how they have no sense of smell, so are able to eat toxic and decaying meat.

We were on the island of Cres, at the Eco Centre Goran founded in 1993 to protect the island and its most famous inhabitant, the Eurasian griffon vulture. Ruggedly beautiful Cres (pronounced ‘Tsress’) is the most biodiverse of Croatia’s islands, mainly thanks to the 45th parallel passing through it; the island’s north is a temperate zone, while the south is tropical. It has 1,500 plant species – double that of any other Adriatic Island – and the surrounding, pollution-free waters are home to a permanent population of dolphins.

Mainland Croatia is rich in wildlife – including bear, lynx, wolf and golden jackal – but on Cres it’s the birds that are of interest, with golden eagle, short-toed eagle, peregrine and kestrel all thriving. Goran took me into the Eco Centre and pointed to some life-size cutouts of these raptors. He didn’t need to labour the point that, with a wingspan of 2.8m, the griffon dwarfs even the golden eagle. When Goran first visited the island in 1982 there were just 25 pairs of griffon vultures; now there are 70 breeding pairs.

At the back of the building I was startled to see a ten-year-old boy inside a cage, stroking a griffon with a short stick. “Meet Koleda,” said Goran. “She was poisoned as a young bird, and will probably have to stay here for life, not least because she’s lost her sense of fear.”

Koleda certainly seemed to be enjoying the attention, nuzzling the stick in ecstasy to ensure every bit of her head and neck was being massaged.

I joined young Marin, who was here for a week as part of the centre’s new family volunteering programme. He was totally relaxed around the massive bird, and asked if he could stroke her with his hand. “Yes, now she’s used to you,” said one of the long-term volunteers. I, too, stroked Koleda’s soft, downy head and neck; if she was a cat she’d definitely have been purring.

Nearby, out of bounds behind a gate, was a much larger enclosure, home to several more vultures – a quarantine for rescued griffons, some of whom will eventually be released. Goran explained that these vultures had either been poisoned or were youngsters that had been picked up out of the sea. The poisonings were not deliberate, but a result of eating baited carcasses intended to kill wild boar.

Boat rides & forest trails

We went down to the pretty local harbour and beach, looking across towards the snow-capped peaks of Slovenia. Out of season the bay was deserted, but with just a small campsite, a handful of tasteful beach huts and a couple of houses, it was hard to imagine it ever being overrun. With around 12,000 visitors a year, Cres has been spared mass tourism.

The water was a startlingly crystal-clear green as we chugged alongside the steep cliffs in a small boat. Goran explained that, uniquely on Cres, the griffons actually nest on these sea cliffs, sometimes less than 10m above the water. This is probably the only place in the world where you can view them from above, below and, depending on the height of your boat, eye-level.

However, this special access brings its own problems. Although the area is an ornithological reserve, and in theory protected, pleasure boats often stray too close to the nests, and passengers clap their hands to startle the vultures into flight. As a consequence, the youngsters panic and attempt to fly out of the nest, landing in the water. If they are not rescued within an hour, they drown, so the Eco Centre regularly patrols the cliff during the summer.

While the coastline is spectacular, it is the forest that is Goran’s greatest passion (next, of course, to the griffons). Indeed, dressed in browns and greens, he seems a creature of the forest himself. The northern part of the island, where the Eco Centre is based, is called Tramuntana, and much of it is forested with several species of oak and sweet chestnuts.

I delved among huge, ancient oaks on one of several circular walking trails marked around the Eco Centre. Coming down a leaf-strewn path I caught a glimpse through the trees of a square pattern of white stones in the meadow below.

“It’s a labyrinth,” Goran smiled. “We’ve built several in the forest. This one follows an ancient Roman design. We encourage people to remove their shoes and walk barefoot in the labyrinths – it’s a tool to bring people’s souls close to nature – to feel the air on their face, hear birdsong.”

Back in the car, we set off south to explore the island, passing rugged limestone rocks and natural meadow. Goran pointed out villages that had been deserted, or had their population reduced to a handful of people. Even the drop-dead gorgeous village of Beli, next to the Eco Centre, has a permanent population of just 15. It seems that the griffons are not the only endangered species on Cres. “It’s hard to make a living here,” acknowledged Goran. “The Eco Centre is already providing incomes; I hope ecotourism will be the future.”

Into the Mediterranean

We continued south, and pulled up at the narrowest point of the island; a view down to the sea stretched away each side of the road. Above us, six griffon vultures traced lazy circles in the thermals. Carrying on towards the 45th parallel, the roadside vegetation started to change dramatically. Suddenly everything was so much greener, the bare deciduous trees of the northern part of the island giving way to the pines and olives of the Mediterranean.

After a diversion to the island’s charming town, also called Cres, we headed to the island’s southern colony of griffons, perched on a cliff some 100m above the dazzling sea. I was so busy watching the incredible swoop of a peregrine that I almost missed the griffon flying low below, its shadow huge on the water.

There are more vultures in the southern part of the island, thanks to more prolific sheep farming. I had never thought of sheep as an endangered species but Goran rattled off the stats.  A century ago there were 75,000 sheep on the island; 15 years ago it was down to 35,000. Now there are only 15,000.

Sheep carrion provides the griffons’ main food, so they are struggling. The current population of griffons needs 7,500 carcasses a year; from 15,000 sheep, around 1,500 die each year – a huge shortfall of carcasses.

As a result the griffons need supplementary feeding, especially at the end of summer, when the young griffons compete for food. In the past, all the young griffons migrated to find food; today, though, the mortality rates among those that do migrate is as high as 90%. With supplementary feeding during autumn and winter, about a quarter of the young birds are now staying. Feeding female griffons before breeding also increases their chances of producing eggs.

The Eco Centre buys carcasses and also keeps a small herd of sheep to feed the griffons. We drove up to a designated ‘vulture restaurant’, a hilltop meadow littered with sun-bleached sheep bones, interspersed with the odd donkey or cow skeleton. A small manmade pool provides a bath for the vultures to wash the blood off their faces and necks when they finish eating.

Outside the fence was evidence of wild boar. Introduced to the island by hunters, the boar compete with the griffons for carcasses, and will also kill young lambs. The farmers try to kill them by laying poisoned carcasses – but, with their negligible sense of smell, the griffons are more likely to eat the poisoned meat than the boars. In one recent incident 20 griffons were killed. Croatia’s hunting lobby is powerful; it sees Goran’s work as a huge thorn in its side. So the griffons still face challenges. As Goran said, “It’s not the end of the story, it’s the beginning.”

What can the average traveller visiting this unique island do to help? Supporting the Eco Centre financially is an obvious action; volunteering is another. Goran smiled as he suggested another simple solution. “The biggest problem the griffons face is the drop in the number of sheep. We need to encourage the farmers – so if you’re an eco-tourist, order lamb!”

Lyn Hughes is Wanderlust's Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief

The Eco Centre Caput Insulae in Beli is open from April to October. The centre now has its own log cabins as accommodation or there is a pension next door.  The centre runs a volunteer programme and the minimum stay for a volunteer is seven days.

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