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Volunteering for Vultures

Croatian Ecocenter Protects Endangered Griffons

Volunteer for Vultures
Close-up of a griffon nesting

Yet another timeless pocket of paradise. But this is not "The Beach," though there is a small, rather nice one. What sets this place apart is its stunning Adriatic scenery and one of the world’s largest flying birds—the impressive griffon vulture. What’s more, this island is neither secret nor exclusive and is actively trying to become better known.

A brief mention in a guidebook about an ornithological reserve in Croatia led me to contact the ecocenter there and eventually visit this fascinating place. Cres, one of Croatia’s largest islands, retains its traditional culture and many beautiful, and rare, species of plants and wildlife.

The main attraction and purpose of the Eco Center Caput Insulae is the protection of the endangered griffons (Gyps fulvus). The birds nest on coastal cliffs generally less than 50 meters high and sometimes as low as 8 meters above sea level, making it easy for viewing and researching. The ecocenter takes a holistic approach to studying and preserving the culture and natural history of the area, spending much time and effort on its volunteer and public education programs.

Renata, one of the team members from the ecocenter, collected me from the bus stop in Cres Township. On the drive to the center, located near the medieval village of Beli at the northern end of the island, she gave me a little background information.

"Over the centuries, with the spread of people, griffons came to depend more and more on the carcasses of domestic animals for food, rather than those of wild animals," she explained. "On the rough, rocky terrain of Cres, shepherds cannot easily find or bury dead sheep, so the griffons actually help by disposing of carcasses that might otherwise spread disease. But they never attack live animals." However, traditional shepherding as a way of life is dying out and the griffon’s food source is again in jeopardy.

The griffon is found in North Africa, parts of southern Europe, India, Central Asia, and Tibet, but their numbers and distribution have drastically diminished; the majority of all Eurasian griffons are now concentrated in Spain. Once widespread in Croatia, they are now found almost exclusively on Cres and a couple of other nearby islands.

Weighing up to 30 pounds, with an average wingspan of nine feet, the griffon is one of the largest flying birds in the world and as graceful in flight as an eagle or condor. Contrary to their unpleasant reputation, the griffons are handsome, proud birds with a quiet, reserved manner, hence their historic use as heraldic and religious symbols in Egypt and Europe. They are indeed regal. And they are the masters of the air. They can reach speeds of more than 70 mph and travel 400 miles in a day. The closely related Ruppell’s vulture holds the world record for the highest-flying bird: 37,000 feet. Rarely flapping their wings—an energy-draining exercise—they instead use thermals and updrafts to gain altitude. During a tour of the island’s two ornithological reserves, we watched mesmerized from a hilltop as one griffon rose effortlessly and surprisingly quickly on one such thermal, a magnificent, inspiring sight.

The day I arrived, Admira, the public relations specialist on the team, took me on an introductory walk along one of the ecocenter’s nature trails. As we paused on a lovely grass-surfaced stone bridge, she told me of the area’s history.

"We are standing on the only intact Roman bridge of its type in the eastern Adriatic." She pointed at the hillside. "The walls and terraces you see everywhere are repaired and added to using the same traditional dry-stone methods used to construct them. This is one of the projects our volunteers take part in."

She went on to explain that the path we were walking follows an old Roman road that once ran the length of the island. The original cobblestones remain in many parts and the grooves worn in the stone from centuries of cartwheels are still visible.

The town of Beli is a historic artifact itself. Built on foundations of Roman origin—in turn possibly built on even older remains—and perched on a hill overlooking the idyllic Adriatic Sea, it could not be more picturesque.

The ecocenter hosts more than 150 volunteers each year, mostly during the peak summer travel season, when there are waiting lists of people waiting to join a project. However, in spring and fall—actually a more pleasant time to visit Croatia—there are not enough volunteers to start larger projects, such as building dry-stone walls, clearing ponds, or helping gather data for zoological research.

Volunteering here has all the usual attractions: the sense of satisfaction in meeting and working with like-minded people from all over the world, enjoying the wonderfully therapeutic environment (there’s a cozy bar in the local pension hotel), but it is also much more affordable than many volunteer programs.

When I first arrived in mid-April, there was only one volunteer. Tiziana, a veterinary science student from Italy, spent much of her time on the nearby beach with a telescope aimed at the cliff-face, recording the movements of the griffons.

Maks, a regular returnee volunteer, arrived two days after. Together we fed the sick vultures in the center’s recovery cages. One poor bird had eaten from a sheep carcass that was laced with poison in order to kill scavenging foxes. Its sense of balance had suffered as a result and it would sometimes lie on the ground rather than sit on the perch.

Later, I spoke with Dr. Goran Susic, the scientist from the Institute for Ornithology who first established the ecocenter in 1996. He found the island so fascinating and the plight of the griffons so urgent that he moved from the capital Zagreb to Rijeka on the coast so he could visit Beli more often. He described the wonderful opportunities, and need, for research on Cres.

"For example, there are five officially recorded sites of ancient settlements, probably Celtic or Liburnian," he told me. "But the dense foliage in this area only looses its leaves twice a year for about two weeks at a time. During one of these periods we made a reconnaissance flight and I counted about 20 more as yet unexplored and unlisted sites."

The flora and fauna here is particularly rich, partly due to the overlap of continental and Mediterranean climates. Along with Losinj, an adjacent island once connected to Cres, the archipelago has more native species of flora than the whole of Great Britain. Recently, a regular botanist visitor even discovered a new species of orchid.

With eagles, owls, tortoises, brightly colored reptiles, butterflies, and 1,000-year-old chestnut trees, to name just a few, there is enough to awaken the amateur naturalist in anyone.

The island has a huge potential for ecotourism, if developed and managed carefully. The Croatian Ministry of Environmental Protection and Physical Planning helps finance the ecocenter and does have proposals for developmental research. However, it does not have enough people or resources to fully realize the possibilities of the area. Other local and overseas organizations provide some funding—the zoological institutes from Budapest and Vienna are semi-regular visitors and donors—but there is a desperate need for more donations and self-funded researchers.

One of the larger costs facing the ecocenter is feeding the griffons. It sometimes receives donations of meat but must pay to have it transported to the island. In summer, with more volunteers and tourists visiting the center, there is a little more money for feeding the birds. However, for long periods of the year, scarce funding means an intermittent food supply. At times, the Caput Insulae team members have even postponed their own meager salaries in order to feed the birds.

Frantz, the center’s only full-time warden, drove us up to see the feeding site. There is a simple hide for observing the birds unobtrusively. On the windswept hilltop bare bones and skulls lay among the long grass, but no food and no griffons. It would be an ideal location for wildlife photographers and bird-watchers during feeding times.

When it was time to leave the island, we drove along the winding, precipitous road to the ferry terminal, and I looked down on the Adriatic. Orange evening sunlight broke through gaps in the clouds, dappling the sea. A few soaring griffons would have completed the vision of a fantasy isle. With help and hard work that vision will one day become common along these spectacular island cliffs.

Visiting Cres

Contact the ecocenter a few weeks before you want to visit—months before if you plan to come in summer. The center provides beds, two bathrooms with hot showers, and a large kitchen. Meals, prepared communally, are not included in the price.

Contact: Eco Center Caput Insulae Bel, www.supovi.hr/english/index.php.