A mountain restaurant and the amazing Bojana

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  01. 10. 2021

During our trip to the Eastern Rhodopes, we received news that the restaurant we intended to visit was very well stocked. Although none of the pastoralists or any of the surrounding villages had any fallen livestock to give, the abundance of offal from the nearest abattoir was more than enough to replace them. I should point out that this “restaurant” was for vultures, one of several that are run in the Bulgarian mountains. One of the major reasons for the decline in vultures is the lack of safe food, i.e., food that has not been poisoned as a bait or has not been contaminated with agrochemicals or veterinary products. Vulture “restaurants” are a solution to this problem, at least to some extent – that is why our zoo finances one of them.

Griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture in the “Grand Restaurant Potočnica”. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo Griffon vulture and Egyptian vulture in the “Grand Restaurant Potočnica”. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

We visited the “Grand Restaurant Potočnica” on Saturday, September 4th, 2021, which happened to be International Vulture Awareness Day. We got there early in the day, still in the depth of night, and waited quietly in a stone building not far from the “table” on which the vultures’ food had been laid out. As dawn broke, we heard the rustling of wings. The first griffon vultures flew in and began to feast. From such a short distance, they were a truly impressive sight: stretching their long, goose-like necks, they held their food with their powerful talons and picked at it with their massive beaks, now and then they would spread their wings that spanned almost three metres. As time went on roughly seventy of them gathered in front of us! Considering that thirty-five years ago there were only about ten pairs left in the whole of Bulgaria and that today there are just under one hundred and twenty pairs, this was an incredible number.

Not long after the griffon vultures there came the much smaller Egyptian vultures. For us they were even more interesting. Not only are they rarer – there are less than thirty pairs in Bulgaria – but our bird curator, Antonín Vaidl, also manages their EAZA ex situ programme and Prague Zoo is significantly involved in returning them to the wild in Bulgaria. Six “Egyptians” paraded in front of us: young, black and brown coloured individuals, and white, adult birds with hackles on their heads. We waited intently to see if an “Egyptian” with remnants of brown plumage and a transmitter on its back would appear. It would be the female Bojana, who is truly exceptional.

We reared Bojana at our zoo in 2017. At the end of the same year, she set off for Bulgaria for delay releasing. This method involves keeping the captivity-raised birds in an aviary until the following spring and only then are they released into the wild. This means they do not fly to Africa until their second year, when they are much stronger and more experienced. This increases their chances of survival from 30 to 75%. Bojana was one of the first four “Egyptians” to be returned to the wild in this manner. That was back in May 2018 and near Potočnica. In September 2018, she flew off to Africa, where the “Egyptians” spend the first years of their lives. She mainly stayed in Chad, but in all she visited more than two dozen countries – and this year, on the 4th of May, she came back to the Rhodopes! She was followed by other vultures who had been released using the delay method, but Bojana was the first in the record books.

Most of the morning we spent waiting in vain for Bojana in the “Grand Restaurant Potočnica”. Her absence was at least made up for by the arrival of a representative of the third species of vulture living in Europe, the cinereous vulture, which was once extinct in Bulgaria. When we left our hiding spot, I felt I’d had a great experience, but still felt a small pang of disappointment: to have seen our Bojana once again!

But it was Vulture Awareness Day – so I guess that's when vulture miracles happen. A few hours later we watched as Bojana and the other vultures circled over the slopes near the “Grand Restaurant Potočnica”. It was absolutely captivating! For me, it was one of the most powerful experiences in my professional career. As she soared majestically, Bojana, our amazing Bojana, was a living answer to the question why we put so much time and effort into our work.

Bojana circled over the slopes near the “Grand Restaurant Potočnica”. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo