A group of visitors is gathered at a small square in Beli on the island of Cres listening to Daria Martinčić, an employee of the local visitor centre, talk about how the town was not named after griffon vultures but after Bela IV, when a big "Cres eagle", as the locals call them, flies over the square much to everybody's delight.
"It is magnificent! And this morning I saw about 40 of them in a flock," explains Daria. Although she was born and raised here, she still finds these birds, which attract most visitors to Beli, to be equally fascinating. "I always feel the same emotions. There are no words to describe that feeling when you see so many in a flock."
Daria is a member of the local non-governmental organisation Tramuntana, through which the Public Institution "Priroda" that manages the Visitor Centre and Rescue Centre for Griffon Vultures hired her. She is one of two people from the island of Cres who directly profit from the fact that this Centre is located in that town.
"People in the village are aware of the protected nature and the value of griffon vultures. Everyone knows how important nature conservation is," says Daria
Ornithologist Goran Sušić recognised the importance of nature conservation in the mid-'90s when he established the then-called eco-centre. He took care of the griffon vultures until 2012. The Public Institution "Priroda" took over in 2014. Since then, they have renovated and equipped an old local school where the Visitor Centre is now located in cooperation with the Primorje-Gorski Kotar County, the town of Cres and the Ministry of Tourism. They built a new aviary for the recovery of griffon vultures, a strictly protected species in Croatia that only nests in the Kvarner region. They established a cooperation with Tramuntana, a local association that receives visitors, offers them guided tours and takes care of recovering birds, while the BIOM Association and the Zagreb Zoo are actively involved in the work of the Centre.
"We have returned the griffon vulture rescue centre to Cres, so now people have a place where they can learn about the specifics of griffon vultures on the spot. In fact, only here on Cres do the griffon vultures nest so close to sea level. They also nest above water in Sardinia, but not as low as here," claims Marko Modrić from the P.I. "Priroda".
Griffon vultures are one of four species of vultures living in Europe, and the only surviving vulture residing in Croatia, where it is considered an endangered and strictly protected species. This vulture has a bent beak and a long, flexible neck that makes it easy to eat meat and feed on entrails from the carrion found in nature. "Griffon vultures feed only from carcasses of dead animals, i.e. carrion of large and medium-sized mammals, and they never hunt on live prey like other birds of prey. On Cres, a griffon vulture's most common meal are sheep that were left to graze freely and died. Once a sheep is dead, griffon vultures act like a "hygiene service" as they gather around the carrion. After half an hour, the only thing left of a sheep is its skeleton," explains Modrić.
Griffon vultures are one of the largest flying birds: they grow up to 110 cm in height with a wingspan of up to three meters! In the Kvarner region, griffon vultures nest within ornithological reserves, but also outside, often on the nearby island of Plavnik and the Kruna cliff, not far from Beli. All the Kvarner islands are included in the Natura 2000 ecological network in order to ensure that the griffon vultures and other bird species, such as the golden eagle, the peregrine falcon, or the European shag, are kept in a favourable state.
"Griffon vultures are socially dependent and they never choose to be alone," explains Tomislav Bandera Anić, another "local" employed in the Rescue Centre for Griffon Vultures. Once an avid backpacker, after visiting the natural wonders of Učka, Velebit and Cres, Tomislav decided to leave the city of Rijeka and settle in a village on Cres. He is one of only two residents of the village of Ivanje. "People go on vacation to come and experience this, and I have the privilege to be here 365 days a year! I believed that a life like this was possible, and it came true. I have a job that I don't really see as a job. There is no stress, just pure pleasure. This is my "Zen", every minute makes me happy."
When asked about how the locals see him, this expert in humanities with an American certification for animal rehabilitation responds: "My grandfather is from here. I have been coming here on weekends my whole life and the locals all know me, but a man is accepted based on his deeds. I'm glad I am well accepted here!"
Talking about the griffon vultures' rescue activities, which often include the local population, Tomislav's eyes reflect his emotions. "Rescuing griffon vultures, taking them to the rehabilitation centre, bird monitoring... The whole process is very emotional, and the most exciting moment is releasing a bird back into the wild. What makes me happy is that I can use GPS to track where a certain bird is, whether it is in Greece or Turkey," he says, as he recalls the last case. "This year, on the 17th of September we released a griffon vulture named Kvarner and it did a remarkable thing - it flew from Cres to Ravenna in Italy, crossing the Adriatic Sea. Griffon vultures usually don't do that due to the lack of thermals, columns of rising hot air that "lift" them, out at sea. Kvarner took advantage of the bora wind and made it to Italy. It stayed on beaches and on top of buildings and it approached people, which these birds don't usually do. That's how we came to realise that something was wrong with it. When it went all the way to Salerno, we contacted WWF. Using our GPS data, they found the bird that same afternoon although it had already flown to Catanzaro. They picked it up, and now it's in their rescue centre, starved, but recovering."
"Rescuing griffon vultures, taking them to the rehabilitation centre, bird monitoring... The whole process is very emotional, and the most exciting moment is releasing a bird back into the wild,” Tomislav Bandera Anić says
Kvarner, however, is not the griffon vulture that Tomislav remembers the best. "My most memorable experience involves Kargaduro, a griffon vulture whose rescue process was really intense. First, I climbed up a cliff to get to the griffon vulture, then the bird flew away, fell into the sea and climbed out onto a rock with me following it all along. These experiences can be quite dangerous, and it's the adrenaline, your will, and the love for birds and nature that pushes you in these extreme situations," concludes Tomislav.
Today, the number of griffon vultures in the Kvarner region amounts to about one hundred nesting pairs, most of which nest on the cliffs of the island of Cres. Environmentalists hope that this number will grow in the future thanks to the feeding grounds. Six griffon vultures are currently located in the rescue centre because they were not strong enough to fly with their friends during the last release back in September. I say "friends" because we're talking about very social birds that nest in colonies, look for food together and often fly in groups, which makes the story about Kvarner, the griffon vulture that flew to Italy alone, even more astonishing.
As I am watching the birds in the rescue centre from the terrace of Tramontana, a pension and restaurant located right next to the Visitor Centre, I see Nina Malatestinić, the owner, approaching me. "Having a Visitor Centre represents a great potential for locals, a great benefit for us all. Griffon vultures are definitely a part of the branding of the island of Cres and people are thrilled when they see them in real life. Free griffon vultures are often seen flying around the cage where they come to feed."
In 1994, Nina and her husband came from Rijeka to spend their vacation in Beli. "We came and - stayed. My husband's family is originally from here, but we would have fallen in love with the landscape regardless of that fact. This is why we decided to stay. The community is very small and happy to receive new people - everyone who comes is welcome."
All the food they serve in Tramontana is local. "We get most of our produce on the island of Cres. What we can't get here, we get from the Primorje-Gorski Kotar County. The polenta we serve comes from the Gašpar mill, a special mill on the Rječina River, local fishermen sell us the octopus, we produce our own lamb and mutton, we pick our own olives and make olive oil...," she tells me enthusiastically, as her brother-in-law comes to ask her to help him serve their many guests.
“The nature here has survived thanks to the locals. The connection between griffon vultures and sheep is undisputed. We don’t know whether griffon vultures would be here had there been no sheep farming” Marko Modrić says
Tijana Ban Vrsalović, the owner of a souvenir shop, continues with the story. Her small shop is located in the Visitor Centre, and the souvenirs she sells are mostly made locally. Apart from this job, she helps her husband run the Beli zip-line to the great joy of their three children.
"We all recognise the value of nature and the fact that this is where the griffon vultures live," concludes Tijana. Marko Modrić, from the P.I. "Priroda" agrees: "Up until now, the experience has always been a positive one. The locals realise that they benefit from our centre, and let's not forget that the griffon vulture is actually a bird from Cres and that people feel connected to it. The locals have been extremely helpful, assisting in bird rescues and are, in general, very proud of the bird. In a way, we are a link between nature, tourism and the local population. The nature here has survived thanks to the locals. The connection between griffon vultures and sheep is undisputed. We don’t know whether griffon vultures would be here had there been no sheep farming," concludes Marko.