Juanita, a female Rüppell's vulture, spreads her wings. / ANTONIO TAMAYO

African vultures are migrating to Malaga

Investigators at the University have identified Juanita, the first Rüppell's vulture to have settled in El Chorro because of climate change

IGNACIO LILLO MÁLAGA.

Her name is Juanita and she is part of Malaga's ecological history book. This female Rüppell's vulture specimen is the first of its kind to permanently settle in El Chorro, where she's already tried mating. Biology investigators from Malaga University have been able to identify the bird, briefly capture her and fit her with a GPS device to track her movement.

This is an important move, given that the hypothesis is that this African species, in danger of extinction, has begun migrating to Malaga, where climate change has generated the perfect conditions for it to settle down and reproduce.

Juanita is an adult vulture, at least six-years-old. Raimundo Real, a zoology professor, and Antonio Román Muñoz, an ornithologist and biology lecturer, are at the head of the investigation. "It's the only adult specimen of this species that lives in Europe," said Muñoz.

Juanita was named after the technician who dedicated the most amount of hours trying to capture her. It has been so difficult, before being able to trap her 812 Griffon vultures got caught in the snare first. Last year she already tried mating with a Griffon vulture, a pairing that had never been seen.

Until now it was known that some specimens came to Europe by following the Griffon vultures that spend the winter months in Africa. Between 8,000 and 9,000 cross the Straight each year, and some of the African specimens integrate into the species' groups that arrive on the peninsula.

However, Juanita's case is an extraordinary one, as she is the first adult that has stayed in a mating colony for more than a season. "It's a species that seems to have begun to colonise the European continent due to the effects of climate change."

It's similar to what happens to the high-range mountain birds in Sierra de las Nieves, some of which are already at height limit. The next step would be their disappearance due to the depletion of their mating areas; whereas in other summits, such as Sierra Nevada, they have more room for manoeuvre.

"We're going to study if this female returns to Africa or if she still tries to reproduce in Malaga. The GPS will give us quality clues which will help us interpret what's happening," he said.

Why are they coming back?

Contrary to what climate change usually entails, in this case it could help save the species.

The scientist said that their return can be explained by illegal elephant hunting, which depletes their food supply and the consequent electrification of the nature reserves on the African continent.

Raimundo Real added another opinion: "Thanks to climate change, this vulture species now finds a more favourable climate to settle down in, to the north of the Sahara. That is what we think is making it advance towards Europe. Even though it could affect and interfere with other species, it could be good for its survival."