Thai zoo breeds endangered vultures hoping to see them soar again

April 25, 2023 - 6:17 PM
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A new born red-headed vulture is pictured at Nakhon Ratchasima Zoo, Thailand, April 15, 2023. (Animal Conservation And Research Institute/Handout via Reuters)

Four times a day, Thai conservationist Watchiradol Phangpanya puts on a black, long-sleeved shirt, red gloves, and a red balaclava, hoping to imitate an endangered red-headed vulture feeding its baby.

The pinkish chick, covered in white fuzz that will turn into black feathers as it grows, is the first red-headed, or Asian king vulture, to be bred in Asia and only the second in the world.

Watchiradol and his colleagues at the Nakhon Ratchasima Zoo in northeast Thailand want to ensure any hatchling bred in captivity does not imprint on humans so they will be better prepared for eventual release into the wild.

“It’s necessary … to disguise ourselves as a bird, thereby leading them to see us as closest to what their parents would look like,” Watchiradol said, adding that it’s the best chance to develop the bird’s natural instincts.

He feeds it rabbit, deer, chicken and rat meat to simulate its diet in the wild. After feeding, the chick warms up in the sun for the vitamin D it needs for its physical and behavioral development, Watchiradol said.

“Is there enough nutrition in its food? Or is it receiving too much? At every moment, worries will persist,” he said.

As a scavenger, the red-headed vulture used to play a crucial role in the ecosystem by consuming animal carcasses. However, hunting and changes to its habitat mean the species is extinct in the wild in Thailand and is significantly diminished globally.

After nearly two decades of trying to increase the red-headed vulture population, the zoo is starting to see results, with another egg being incubated by its parents in conservation. The conservation team hopes it can create a large enough population for eventual release.

“The most crucial aspect of our success would be to enhance the ecosystem of the UNESCO heritage site, Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary,” said zoo director Thanachon Kensingh, adding that the park in the west of Thailand was once home to the largest community of Asian king vultures.

“We would like to see the Asian king vulture soar once again through the skies of Thailand,” he said.

—Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor