The population of cinereous vultures continues to decline in the wild. By utilising a European breeding programme (EEP) and releasing animals that have been bred into the wild, zoos want to make a contribution to the survival of the species.
The cinereous vulture is one of the largest Old World vultures. With a wingspan of 250-295 centimetres, they soar above the mountains of southern Europe and central Asia. They subsist primarily on carrion, which they tear to shreds with their large beaks. During mating season, which runs from February to April, one egg is typically laid. Only sixty percent of the population breeds in the wild, which means that animals do not generally breed annually. After an incubation period of roughly 55 days, the young hatch. After 100 days, they have a beautiful coat of black feathers and are ready to fly. At the zoo, there is a strong urge for the young to return to the nest, which may disturb a new egg clutch.
The Royal Zoological Society of Antwerp (The Planckendael and Antwerp Zoos) in Belgium holds the breed registry for the cinereous vulture breeding programme. In Planckendael, a special ‘dating aviary’ was built for these vultures, where young animals from zoos across Europe are brought together to choose a partner for themselves. Research has revealed that freedom of choice contributes to the success of breeding. When a couple pairs together, they are separated from the others to mate in peace at the Belgian zoo or another European zoo. During the first two years, the animals will not seek out a partner, but at the age of three they will begin to approach other animals. After five years, they become sexually mature and are able to care for young from this point on. At the same time, there is a striking change in their feathering—it turns from black to brown.
The breeding programme is also aimed at placing some of the animals bred into the wild. In 2005 and 2011, two animals of ours were released into the south of France. When this occurs, the animals are placed into special release cages at the location, which allow them to better adapt to their freedom. However, the hatchling from 2014 remained with the population at the zoo in order to contribute to subsequent generations.