The Scavengers Return

Bulgaria, Greece

Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of Europe

The Scavengers Return

Bulgaria, Greece

In the Rhodope mountains, a battle is on to revive a broken food chain.

A reintroduction of grazers is transforming the Bulgarian Rhodopes. And these hungry animals are not just reshaping the habitat by eating vegetation, they themselves provide food for predators and scavengers.

The ultimate goal is to aid the recovery of vulnerable species like the Black Vulture so they can play their role in the ecosystem, once more.  With each natural process being restored, a wild harmony is returning to the rugged landscape. This episode explores how a complex food chain is restored when the vulture and wolf populations are kept healthy. 

One of the frontlines in the race to save Europe’s vultures is Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains.  Situated in the south of the country, the Rhodope Mountain range extends into Greece, creating a thriving crossroads in the Balkan Peninsula.   




Restoring the food chain

Across our continent today, wild carcasses have become a rare commodity. Wilderness has become arable land, populations of wild grazers are often managed at low densities, and legislation demands the immediate removal of dead livestock. As a result, much of the biological “waste” has disappeared from the European ecosystem and is no longer part of the natural cycle of life. Rewilding Europe wants to help Europe’s scavengers by encouraging a fresh look at how carcasses are managed across the continent. This new approach is called the ‘Circle of Life’.


Boosting biodiversity

Together with partners, Rewilding Europe is creating space for natural processes like forest regeneration, free flowing rivers, herbivory and carnivory to impact ecosystems. Across the continent, the interaction of these processes leads to constantly evolving landscapes rather than fixed habitats – this dynamic is the key to preserving Europe’s rich biodiversity. The work of Rewilding Europe and Rewilding Rhodopes is now seeing increasing numbers of keystone herbivores such as red and fallow deer, European bison and horses in the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area.


Natural grazing

In the hills and valleys of Bulgaria, livestock in their millions used to graze the land. As much of the younger generation are seeking a more urban lifestyle, once-thriving farms and villages have become empty shells. Without animals to graze back the foliage, habitats morph into one overgrown scrubland. Plants and animals that need open spaces to thrive are squeezed out. This situation offers a unique opportunity for rewilding, giving nature the means to restore its ecosystems. Konik horses, European bison, fallow and red deer are reclaiming this mountainous region. 


“This type of food chain is unique”

Stoycho Stoychev

Stoycho Stoychev
Team leader of Rhodope Mountains

Rhodope Mountains – Rewilding area 
The Rhodope Mountains are located at one of Europe’s ecological crossroads, between Europe, Asia and the Mediterranean. The wildlife here varies from forest dwellers such as brown bear to the souslik (ground squirrel), which is a steppe animal. This is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, with about 300 species recorded. The real highlight is birds of prey, with more than 30 species, including vultures. In our area vultures are part of a natural system that includes wild herbivores, predators and scavengers. This type of complete food chain – with fallow deer, wolf and three vulture species feeding on wolf kills – is unique in Europe.

What have the major achievements been in your rewilding area to date?
Fallow deer have been released at three new sites in collaboration with local hunters, while the red deer population now consists of more than twenty animals. The griffon vulture population is increasing, Egyptian vulture is stable, and we hope to welcome the back vulture soon as a new breeding bird!

Learn more about the Circle of Life

Rewilding Europe, together with ARK Nature, now wants to help Europe’s scavengers by encouraging a fresh and new approach, called the ‘Circle of Life’. A brochure on this topic was published and presented on 2 September 2107, at the International Vulture Awareness Day. We want to see carcasses retake their place in nature, allowing Europe’s numerous scavengers to once again eat their fill.

This brochure provides a practical overview of the possibilities for such an approach, addressing relevant stakeholders such as those managing nature, wildlife and roads. The background information this brochure contains is intended to inform policymakers, as well as other parties interested in expanding their knowledge about this fascinating, essential and often overlooked link in the food chain.

Circle of Life – a new way to support Europe’s scavengers

Partners involved