The next day I took the bus from Veli Losinj north to the town of Cres, on the island of the same name, which is attached to the island of Mali Losinj by road. There are only two buses from Cres to Beli per day so Slavan, a permanent staff member, some sort of biologist, and David, a regular volunteer from Slovenia(and a pastry chef by trade, more on that later!), came to pick me up. The road to Beli, which is in a wooded area called Tramontana, climbs high above sea level into a rustic, landscape of dry stone walls, trees and scrub that shelters shady walks along stony tracks, through mossy glades and past old houses melting into the land. The centre at the time, (it is no longer on Cres), was housed in a villa that perches on a hillside facing Beli-which is sparsely populated-and the Adriatic, across which the west coast of the mainland is visible. There is a pension, a guest house with a bar, on the steep road above the centre. Below the centre there is another tiny bar and then, at the bottom of a steep, paved and winding road a tiny pebbled beach with a pier, a small, seasonal bar and neat little boat sheds. In Beli proper there is a small post office but no shops. Cres, over 20km away, is the nearest place for provisions.
The Eko-centar Caput Insulae-Beli, to give it its full name, (caput insulae means head of the island), was set up in the 1980s to monitor one of the largest colonies of griffon vultures in the Mediterranean, 30 pairs at that time. The centres’ interpretive area and aviary as well as a network of walks extending around the north of the island, acted as an educational tool and a draw for tourists which in turn brought in funding to help conserve the birds. The fortunes of the vultures, who are scavengers, are deeply entwined with the local farming community, sheep carcasses being their primary food source. When sheep farming became less viable the numbers of vultures plummeted. Unfortunately tourism caused the individual vulture to plummet too.
Vultures don’t exactly fly very well, something to do with the energy expended in flight and the need to hunt over large areas, which means larger birds are better at soaring. A colony on a cliff allows them to set off onto the wind currents but a cliff over the sea presents special problems. With the advent of water based tourism involving speed boats and jet skis, a gliding vulture, especially a young one, can now be easily distracted, crash into the sea and drown.
If you cackled a little when you read this and thought that maybe some species are just asking to be extinct you are not alone. If Homer Simpson was a bird he might well be a griffon vulture, although I think that may be underestimating Homer.
As an environmentalist-to-be and supposed bird lover you could be forgiven for being a little surprised at my lack of sympathy. When I was a kid I loved wildlife and particularly birds. Then adolescence came along and after that life was something which I struggled to get a grip on. It was later in life that I made concerted efforts to reconnect with the things I had loved when life was simpler. As this was, initially at least, an act of self-preservation rather than environmental preservation, I maintained a detachment that allows room for a certain amount of enquiry. Maybe that detachment comes with all things that are achieved with conscious effort.
The vultures contributed to an ongoing inner discussion about conservation and why sometimes it might make sense and sometimes it doesn’t. On the one hand it is the nature of things to change, to die, so why try to stop that process? On the other, interfering is our nature too so why stop that? And to bring it down to a personal level, I travelled to Croatia because it looked like a nice place to be, it was cheap (in a world that punishes the solo traveller), promised company and an interesting experience and I was amused by the idea of trying to save a bird that was crap at flying and whose nerves were so delicate that it crashed at the first opportunity. If conserving ungainly vultures makes someones’ life more interesting and liveable, if it fosters engagement, then why not?The rest we can leave in the lap of the gods.
The irony of laughing at a creature that was, in many ways, like me as I glided (glid?) uncertainly and clumsily through life, dependent on the kindness of others and crashing at any and every opportunity, escaped me at the time…
Next:The Eko Centar and around and my fellow volunteers.