As to the work we were given shifts guiding the tourists, which we all hated but which was hardly taxing as it involved hanging around outside the villa in the shade or in the sun, chatting, writing, reading and drinking tea. One of the reasons I found the tour awkward was that sometimes Croatians would show up and quite reasonably want a tour in their own language when there was only english speakers on shift. Occasionally we would persuade the accountant, who kept her distance from us, to help, but mostly they had to take the english tour or guide themselves, which was embarrassing. Mind you, in truth we didn’t offer a lot more than the information boards except I suppose some human interaction and a few second-hand stories. I found it a bit odd to be suddenly viewed as a vulture expert too but that wasn’t particularly a bad feeling!
We would guide the visitors around the inside of the villa which had information boards on the vultures but also on the island, its history and its other wildlife. We would then bring them to view the aviary which was a new, expanded one, just opened the day I arrived-and its current crop of griffon vultures. There were twelve when I was there. The aviary was quite large and had a wire roof about twenty-foot up. There was places to perch too and a bath. Sometimes the birds would stand round with their wings open, I believe this is to help them cool down. Occasionally they would crowd into the shade right next to the conservatory. When you looked at them they would look right back. It was quite a strange feeling, as if a human was looking at you. Certainly there was intelligence there. It was looking at them up close like this that made me feel a connection to them. Maybe there was more to this place than sunshine, swims and nice cakes after all…
We would tell the tourists stories and interesting tidbits about the vultures, about their rescues or peculiarities, which we picked up on the first day. If they were lucky there would be a dead sheep in the enclosure and they could watch the birds feed.
I wasn’t lucky enough to witness a rescue. Usually when a vulture crashed a local would call the Eko-Centar. Sometimes they would see it themselves, sometimes a tourist would alert them. A bird could thrash around for an hour or two before drowning. Some staff would head out in a boat and retrieve the creature and bring it back to the centre. Sometimes poisoned or injured birds would be found, some being sent from as far afield as Austria-where an unlucky vulture had landed in a leopard enclosure at a zoo-or France where one was involved in a car crash (Veselica, L., 2009). They aren’t very good at driving either I guess…
The vultures, due to their sensitivity or maybe their tendency to depend on humans, tended to take a long time to rehabilitate after being rescued, even up to a couple of years. One which was released adopted the bins of a restaurant in the locality and had to be retrieved for more rehab.
All except one were griffon vultures. Torgas was an African Vulture. He looks quite extraordinarily human here, like a rich burn victim. He had been found out at sea with a leather thong tied around one leg. He must have been someones pet. As he was on the wrong continent he became a permanent resident.
As well as the vultures, there were also goats and donkeys that needed feeding. One of the goats used to escape and had to be chased down. Sandra and Marina got landed with cleaning out the vultures swimming pool one day and Molly was drafted in to walk a straight line across the island under the pylon line looking for dead birds to record. That was tough, as the island is scrubby, rocky and hilly but she found an Eagle Owl skeleton which enthused Christian, who was in charge of the survey. Christian was one of those people with a vocation, he wasn’t attached to the centre as such but he would use its facilities including the volunteers. He was a very nice, earnest chap, but start him talking about birds he wouldn’t stop. I literally had to slowly back out of the room twenty minutes after I mistakenly asked him a question about birds. He was still going strong when I managed to get out. Maybe he still is.
The one job we all took turns at was spending a morning on the hot cliff opposite the griffon colony with a spotting scope, recording the movements of the residents but the centre wasn’t just about the vultures but the island as a whole. Depending on the season you could find yourself olive picking or rebuilding stone walls for the local farmers or contributing to the upkeep of the labyrinth and sculpture trails. When I arrived I offered my services as an artist so I got to spend most of my time sitting in the shade painting sign posts.
More on those jobs next…
Veselica, L., (2009), A New LIfe for Croatia’s Griffon Vultures in The Telegraph [online], issue November 11th, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatnews/6543064/A-new-life-for-Croatias-griffon-vultures.html [accessed 4/7/2017].