HARINGSEE, Austria, Europe's immense bearded vulture, sometimes called the "bone crusher," boasts a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, plucks meals from avalanche debris, and breeds its chicks in the subzero temperatures of the wintertime Alps. Its gastric juices register a "1" on the pH scale, nearly pure acid. Seething belly bile is a necessity for a creature that subsists mainly on weather-bleached bones.
One tough bird, to be sure, but Gypaetus barbatus has been suffering hard times for the past 100 years or so, all but eradicated from its Alpine roosts. Today, however, the bone crusher is soaring toward a comeback as the continent's most ambitious -- and priciest -- wildlife reintroduction project achieves small but biologically significant success.
The species was hunted nearly to extinction in the Alps by the start of the 20th century, mainly by farmers and sportsmen seeking government-paid bounties on eagles, vultures, and other raptors. But it was ornithologists, ironically, who administered the coup de grace. Dismayed by the bearded vulture's sharp decline, natural history museums dispatched collectors to kill specimens for mounted display.
We'll see how excited everyone is after the first few children get carried off...