Fascinated by Vultures – Bettina’s Story

1.Tell us about yourself.

Bettina Boemans
Bettina Boemans

Hi, I am Bettina Boemans, 36 years old. I come from Duisburg, Germany where I with my parents and sister. I studied mechanical and environmental engineering and  I work as an engineer for a steel production company in my city. When I was younger I enjoyed taking part in lots of sports like tennis and volleyball, but now I am spend most of my time doing vulture awareness activities and reading good books which I am passionate about.

 

 

 

2.When and how did your interest in vultures start?

Even as a young kid I loved watching vultures at the local Zoo. In North-Rhine Westphalia, the area where I’ve spent most of my life, many big cities have zoos and during the school holidays I often went there with my family. I remember that I always wanted to see the vultures first and it took my family a long time to get me away from the enclosures. In the zoo of my hometown there has always been Eurasian Griffon Vultures. Even though I love all vultures, I think this species is a special one for me. When I went on holidays with my family, for example on a safari to Namibia, I was always watching the sky to look for vultures – and I almost ignored the big fives on the ground. The most interesting part for me was to see a carcass and many vultures feeding from it. At first, everyone else was laughing at my favorites, but at the end of each trip everyone was watching for vultures and people started to respect these amazing birds. I realized that somehow I have a gift for sharing my passion for vultures with other peoples or even making them start loving these beautiful creatures.

In 2010 I spent my first three weeks working as a volunteer in a Eurasian Griffon Vulture rescue center in Croatia, on the beautiful Island of Cres. Because I was so excited I started writing my German blog about vultures the moment I set my volunteering plans.Working with vultures for the first time was life changing! First I thought my blog was just a diary while in Croatia – at that point I had no idea that I would  continue my blog up to 2018 with more than 1100 published posts by now!

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Bettina Volunteering in Bulgaria

Even though I’ve loved these birds for many many years, it still makes such a big difference to learn more about them, observing them in the wild and talk to conservationists who share the same passion. The more I learn about threats and all the horrible things that happen to vultures caused by humans, the more I want to give something back to nature and protect these birds with all my heart and soul! I spend hours watching them, seeing how they interact with each other at a carcass and a few times I have been privileged to monitor vulture parents raise their adorable chicks. I can’t imagine anything else that makes me happy like that.

When I came back home from Croatia I immediately booked flights to go back a few months later and a third time the following year. I was doing lots of research by reading publications, internet articles and chatting to other vulture conservationists. Soon enough I found out about VulPro in South Africa, but I was too afraid to travel to South Africa on my own. I found the strength to apply for a volunteer holiday in South Africa and came to VulPro for the first time in February 2012. One of my best decisions in my life!!! (more details see no.5)

3.You blog about vultures (only?) in Germany. Is there a conservation need for vultures in Europe?

My blog “Faszination Geier” ( “fascinated by vultures”) is about vultures, but there are also some “special guests” represented like Marabou Storks, Secretary Birds or Shoebills. I know it would be much better to write my blog in English for a bigger audience, but unfortunately I just don’t have the time to translate everything. And there is no similar blog about vulture in German as far as I know. Anyway, I always post many pictures and try to share my story with others, even if they can’t understand the text.

In Germany we no longer have vultures in the wild although sometimes birds from different countries fly past looking for food. In Europe we have four different vulture species, the Eurasian Griffon Vulture, the Eurasian Black Vulture (Cinereous Vulture), the Egyptian Vulture and the Bearded Vultures. Life’s getting harder for vultures in Europe. The Bearded Vulture was extinct in the Alps a long time ago until the Reintroduction Program in the Alps was founded in the 80s. In the past, more than 200 captive bred Bearded Vultures were released and many years ago the birds started breeding in the wild. In 2014 I was able to take part in the release of Bearded Vultures in France and Austria and twice I attended the Annual Bearded Vulture meeting organized by the Vulture Conservation Foundation (VCF). The population is still small and it’s important to get more birds with different genetics. The Egyptian Vulture is almost extinct in Europe and in 2015 I was supporting a project in Madzharovo, Bulgaria. It was the end of breeding season when the young birds started to fledge. Almost every nest got its own protector in case the chick gets into trouble during its first flight. Luckily nothing happened to “my” nest. The Eurasian Black Vulture in critically endangered in Europe and there are not many birds left in the wild. To raise awareness of how important reintroduction programs are I coauthored and published a children’s book about the journey of a young Eurasian Black Vulture who is released to the wild and is very scared, until he meets some friends (chicks of the other three European Vulture species). In Spain and France there are great numbers of Eurasian Griffon Vultures, but in the Balkans and some other countries the numbers are declining rapidly. There are so many threats making vultures’ live very dangerously and people have to start caring for and protecting these birds. Even though some countries have more troubles with this or that threat, in the end vultures are facing extinction almost everywhere. People and conservationists need to learn from each other’s experience and work on the best solutions to keep our vultures alive.

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I am privileged with a good job that allows me to spend my holidays in foreign countries to follow my passion and protect vultures as a volunteer. And even if I can’t travel as much as I would like to, I can raise awareness with my blog, newspaper articles, vulture talks and vulture information desks in zoos.

4.What has been the response to your blog over the years from the beginning till today?

From the beginning people started sending emails to me with questions or interesting facts about vultures. Some people I met in “real life”, some people I just got to know by email or Facebook (my international page is “fascinated by vultures”) and some people became friends. Twice I became co-author of vulture kid’s books, I was invited to vulture programs or breeding programs in zoos worldwide and I realized: Vultures are connecting people! Sometimes, when I don’t have any news about vultures or I am just too tired to spend much time on the computer, people will tell me: “Hey, what’s going on with your blog? We’d like to get some more news!” Then I feel guilty and get focused again 😉 The response is always positive and I am sure my blog and my passion helped changing people’s mind about vultures.

5.You have a very special relationship with VulPro in South Africa where we met, tell us about it.

When I came to VulPro for the first time in 2012 I felt like I was in vultures’ paradise! More than 100 vultures were living in the enclosures “in the backyard” and many more vultures in the wild. I enjoyed every single moment I could spend with the birds inside the enclosure and helping rehabilitate the injured birds. When I arrived, Kerri Wolter, founder of VulPro, immediately introduced me to her birds, even before I could bring my luggage to my room. That’s when I realized I’ve found my vulture sister for life!!!

A few days later we were talking about our passion for these misunderstood birds and she offered me a long-term volunteering opportunity. I have always been the careful one, being on the safe side. But immediately I made the decision to follow my heart and grab this unique chance. When I came back to my company I asked for a sabbatical year and in October 2012 I started traveling “on vultures’ wings around the world”. I’ve spent two months in Ecuador, South America, with the Andean Condors, 6 weeks in Mexico with the California Condors, 6 weeks in Nepal with Egyptian Vultures and finally 6 months, the whole breeding season, at VulPro in South Africa. One year, different countries, working with vultures in the wild, the best time of my life! I would never have thought I’d dare to travel the world on my own, but I did – and I am sure I did not just change my own life but influenced many other people I’ve met 😉 Living at VulPro Kerri and I became very close friends and I learned how hard but fulfilling the life of a passionate conservationist is. Even when you see many terrible things happen to vultures and the birds are dying in your arms, you can watch vulture couples building their nests, falling in love, laying eggs and raising chicks, giving new life to the world that can be released and fly free one day. You can spend hours and hours, days after days, caring for injured birds until they finally recover and you can watch them circle in the sky again one day. Even by remembering these moments and writing down my memories I get goose bumps and my eyes are filled with tears of happiness. After half a year VulPro became my second home. Not just because of the vultures, but also because of the wonderful people I met there: The amazing, hard-working staff and their family and friends, local volunteers and students or volunteers from all over the world. All these people make VulPro a special place and I knew I did not have to say goodbye but “see you soon”. By now I have been to VulPro 9 times and my flights for VulPro no.10 are booked: Another Christmas among vultures.

6.What have your experiences taught you over the years on this journey in vulture conservation?

I’ve learned that you can make a difference, even if you are just an individual. Sometimes I felt like I have a more intense influence on local people than local conservationists themselves. When people realize I am traveling all the way from Germany to a foreign country, spending my annual leave and my money to protect a species, that’s not even living in my home country, people get curious and like to understand why I am “sacrificing” so much to vulture conservation. They start listening to me and realize the privilege they have to have vultures in their own surrounding and they ask for ways to help and protect vultures. They realize vultures are worth being loved!

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Another great experience is that vultures are connecting people. With e-mails, Facebook, Skype and all these media it’s easy to get in contact to people with the same passion worldwide. The vulture community feels like a big family and conservationists know each other. Even though I am “just” a volunteer, most people treat me like a professional. I feel so privileged that I got the chance to meet many professional vulture conservationists and it makes me proud when they’ve heard about me before meeting each other. It feels like being a part of the vulture family. I know many of my Facebook friends who love vultures will never have the opportunity to volunteer in a vulture project. By writing my blog and sharing my pictures and experiences I try to involve as many people as possible and make them feel like they are there with me.

Vultures are still misunderstood in many ways all over the world. They are treated very badly, just because of prejudices or superstitions, their special diet on carcasses or the way they look. To me they are a wonderful creation of evolution and the way they look absolutely makes sense once you understand the differences in all vulture species. Raising awareness to locals is absolutely important to find a way to protect vultures. People need to understand that whenever people interfere in nature they will cause unnatural reactions. And most of the time vultures will be the victims.

I could point out hundreds of amazing experiences while working with vultures, but maybe one last thing: Vultures never get boring to me and always make me happy when I am sad! Even after spending one year working with vultures every day and supporting vulture projects all over the world since 2010, I still hold my breath in admiration when a wild vulture is flying in the sky, I still smile when a tiny vulture chick is begging for food and I can’t stop watching vultures feeding and fighting at a carcass. The first sound of a vulture chick inside the egg, only 2 days before hatching, is the sweetest sound on earth and sharing this moment you will never ever forget in your life!

7.From your dedication and love for vultures, what do you hope to impart to the rest of the world?

One very fascinating experience for me was to understand, that I am blessed with a special gift: To talk about my passion in a way that people love to listen to me and open their hearts for vultures. I never felt like being someone special and I never wanted to be in the spotlight, because I thought I had nothing to say. But now I know I can stand up for vultures, raise awareness just because I adore these birds so much and I can make a difference in the world. I still feel anxious when I am doing a vulture talk, but in the end I always get amazing feedback. The best moment is, when people tell me: “I have never been interested in vultures. But after listening to you, I realize that these birds are fascinating and I think I’ve started to like them!” When people like something, they want to protect it!

Few years ago I guess no one else knew about International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD) in Germany. I’ve started talking to German zoos and offered to run a vulture information desk on IVAD or on Conservationists’ Day. The first zoos accepted my offer, some asked me for advice to organize their own activities and just a few years later more and more German zoos are celebrating IVAD. Maybe it’s been coincidence, maybe I’ve really made a change. And I want people with a passion – no matter if it’s about vultures or anything else – to talk about it and open peoples mind. Maybe people will laugh at you, maybe people will think you are crazy, but maybe you will change someone’s life in a fantastic way! Be proud of who you are and what you can achieve!

8.In your opinion, is the future bright for vultures? What needs to change?

Unfortunately I doubt there will be a bright future for vultures. When I started working with vultures I told myself: I don’t want any of the 23 vulture species to be instinct before I die! After many years in vulture conservation, all these horrible news about Diclofenac, vulture mass poisonings by poachers and seeing too many vulture victims by power line collisions, electrocution or other threats I guess my days –  or rather the days of vultures – are numbered.

There are so many problems in the world: Too many people, too little space and no respect to Mother Nature. Instead of being grateful to have such a fantastic clean-up crew like vultures, people destroy the wild and open up new agricultural and urban areas. Although the deadly impact of Diclofenac to vultures is known and a vulture-proven, alternative medicine is available, Diclofenac became legal in Europe. Although thousands of vultures die of power line collisions or electrocutions and engineers invented power line constructions that are vulture save, people don’t change the dangerous constructions into safe ones. Although scientists identified a long list of threats to vultures, they still spend too much time in conferences philosophizing about “possible” threats instead of going out in the field and actually protecting the birds. Sometimes I get the feeling people prefer a good picture in the field and their name in an article than making their hands dirty cutting a carcass to feed injured vultures. Although vultures are an endangered species, people hardly ever get condemned to a penalty. And although there are more and more vulture conservation projects founded it feels like tilting at windmills.

I want to be optimistic, especially when I get the chance to work with passionate people and see what they have to deal with any single day. But it’s getting harder and harder. For example when you spend many weeks treating an injured bird and just a few days later the same birds hits a power line and dies. Or you release a whole bunch of captive bred chicks and months later these once healthy fledglings come back to your rehab centre with permanent injuries that will make another release impossible.

I pray that all vultures fly safe and keep their distance from humans and any unnatural threats. And in between we should all do our best to protect this guild and support all vulture conservation projects as much as possible. These dedicated people in vulture rescue centres hardly have anything for themselves, but spend time with vultures and protecting a species gives them so much more than a good salary and personal property. Any injured vulture, that can be released, might raise plenty of chicks one day that help the population to survive. And even if an injured bird is non-releasable, the rescue centres should get the support to keep the bird alive, start a breeding program and release captive bred chicks to the wild. I have seen so many wing-amputated vultures falling in love, being amazing parents and doing a fantastic job to raise a strong and healthy chick. I tell you, this moment, when the chick of non-releasable but happy parents spreads its wings and takes off to the blue sky, it worth all the sleepless nights, the sorrow and the efforts.

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A Cape Vulture chick in the 2 day long process of hatching

Every single vulture counts if we don’t want to lose our birds!!!

One thought on “Fascinated by Vultures – Bettina’s Story

  1. Fascinating stories about birds and the persons behind who care and are interested in birds in general and their protection particularly.
    By reading the articles you can really feel the passion, endeavor and power you have. My personal gain is to learn a lot of facts I didn´t know or didn´t even think about before.
    Hope you continue doing this because in a world where many people don´t care about nature and environment there will be no bright future. Don´t stop what you´re doing as it is terrific and an inspiration for many people.

    Liked by 1 person

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