The CERM Centro Rapaci Minacciati (Endangered Raptors Centre) is located in southern Tuscany, in the province of Grosseto, and houses the world’s largest number of Egyptian vultures in captivity. On the whole, these birds are irrecoverable (i.e. no longer suitable for life in the wild) but valuable for breeding Egyptian vulture chicks to eventually be released into the wild. The CERM has 18 aviaries that are home to individuals born in captivity which are intended for ex-situ reproduction or release in future years.
The Centre was built by the Amiata Grossetana Union of Montani Municipalities thanks to a LIFE Nature project and was the fulcrum of a programme for the reintroduction of the Red kite (Milvus milvus). This resulted in a new population of the species in southern Tuscany, which had been extinct in the region since the 1960s (LIFE08 NAT/IT/000332 Save the Flyers).
The CERM is managed by the CERM Associazione Centro Rapaci Minacciati (Endangered Raptors Centre Association), whose members have been responsible for the captive breeding of the Egyptian vulture for years and manage operations for the release of fledglings born at the centre and juveniles born in other European centres (more information on the activities of the CERM can be found at www.capovaccaio.it).
Captive breeding of the Egyptian vulture is, unfortunately, extremely difficult and complex; despite the availability of about 120 pairs over 42 European centres, less than 20 chicks are born per year.
Up until 2017, 42 Egyptian vultures had been born at the CERM, and the productivity of the centre has significantly increased in recent years, recording the birth of five chicks in 2016 and six chicks in 2017.
The reproductive period of the Egyptian vulture begins in February with courtship of the pairs; egg laying takes place from early April and is followed by a 42-day incubation period. Thanks to a video surveillance system in the aviaries, the entire reproductive period is constantly monitored in order to check the harmony between the partners, the phases of mating, laying, incubation, hatching and rearing.
Whenever possible, pairs are left to hatch eggs and breed offspring autonomously, but sometimes problems arise that lead to resorting to artificial incubation (inexperienced pair, relationship problems between partners, abnormal behaviour of females, etc.).
Chicks born after artificial incubation are, if possible, promptly entrusted to the care of their parents, other pairs or single adoptive parents. In the event that this is unable to happen, in the days immediately following the hatching, special measures are adopted to avoid them imprinting on their handler.
The CERM association has managed the release of 23 young Egyptian vultures born in captivity (as at 2017). 16 of these were born at the CERM, two came from a seizure of stolen eggs carried out by the State Forestry Corps, two were born in Jerez de la Frontera zoo in Spain and three in the Zlín-Lešná and Prague Zoos in the Czech Republic. These individuals were mostly released in Apulia and, in smaller numbers, in Tuscany, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicily.
With one single exception, the complex release operations were carried out using the hacking method, which simulates the natural flying conditions as much as possible: When they are around 80 days old, juveniles are placed inside a rock cavity or in a large nest-box in a panoramic position. Cavities, crates or aviaries are appropriately equipped to accommodate juveniles, to feed them and to monitor their behaviour (thanks to a video control system).
Each released individual was fitted with identification rings and a VHF radio on their tail to follow their short-range movements. Some of the specimens have also been equipped with GPS satellite radios or GPS/GSM data loggers to make it possible to monitor their long-distance movements, including migration, for a few years.
After a period of in-situ settling that lasts about five days, the net that closes the cavity or the aviary is removed and the animals are free to fly. This usually happens at the end of the summer; later, the juveniles start the dangerous migration to Sub-Saharan Africa – their wintering and residence area for about two or three years.
In 2017 the CERM association adopted a different system, which saw two one-year-old juveniles released in Basilicata after a settling period of about a month in the aviary.
Many institutions and associations have contributed to the various release operations of juvenile Egyptian vultures. The release operation conducted in 2017 was supported by Federparchi-Europarc Italy with the sponsorship of Co.Ge.Di S.p.A. (company distributing the brands of the famous drinks Uliveto and Rocchetta) and relied on the collaboration of the Centro Studi Appennino Lucano Onlus, Centro Studi Naturalistici Nyctalus Onlus, Ardea association and Technosmart Europe S.r.l.. Previous releases have occurred thanks to the support of LIPU, Apulia region, the Municipality of Laterza (TA), and the Storcal association.
The VCF Vulture Conservation Foundation and the EEP European Endangered Species Programme of EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria), coordinated by Antonin Vaidl from Prague Zoo, have been collaborating with the CERM for years on the release and monitoring operations
Thanks to GPS devices, the movements of some of the released juveniles have been followed step by step. Some juveniles died during migration, especially when crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach the African coasts, while others reached Sub-Saharan Africa. One of these was Arianna. She was released in Apulia in 2006, and after spending four years in Mali with periods in Niger, Mauritania, Algeria and Tunisia, was located and photographed in Italy a few kilometres from her release area in the summer of 2010. Sara and Tobia also arrived in the wintering areas after being released in 2015 in Apulia and Calabria respectively; Apollo, born at CERM in 2016, was released in Basilicata in 2017.