Tracking Sky the vulture Fly away Home

“Skywalker” is not just the name of the famous Jedi in Star War movies, but also the name of a bird -- a vulture to be exact.

About 10 years ago, a Cinereous Vulture /Aegypius monachas/ was found injured in eastern Thailand by Iola Veil, a female British birdwatcher. She wanted to send the injured vulture to some wildlife rescue centre, but there was virtually no such place in Thailand at that time for her to turn the bird in. Frustrated she was, but very soon news spread around and some birdwatchers suggested her to turn to a veterinary pathologist, Dr. Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua (who is also a raptorphile – a person who is crazy about raptors) in Kasetsart University in Bangkok for help.

Just like a fairy tale, the vulture got rescued quickly and later became healthy enough for release into the wild by Dr. Chaiyan and his colleagues, who is also a big fan of Star War movies. And so he named the vulture, which was a handsome male, “Anakin Skywalker”. Considering the vulnerable status of vultures in the world and very little is studied about the migration of Cinereous Vulture in the region, Dr. Chaiyan decided that it would be a good idea to put a satellite tracking device on Skywalker before the release in order to collect data about its migration route for the much needed scientific study. With the united effort of Kasetsart University, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) and Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, a sufficient fund kindly donated by the public and Singha Corp., was raised for the purchase of a GPS tracking device and the follow-up monitoring work. The only thing left to do was to release Anakin Skywalker back to where it belonged – the sky.

Anakin’s release was a big joyful spectacle for many people, including the local people who never saw a vulture before, and the event was widely covered by Thai media and International’s alike. Clip of Anakin's and four Himalayan Vultures release in May 2007 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFfWrxJ8Yi8

 But to many people’s dismay, the fairy tale of Anakin Skywalker didn’t have a Disney ending – he was found shot dead with no known cause in Shan state, Myanmar less than one month after release. The sad news broke many people’s heart, especially Dr. Chaiyan’s. “Anakin was the first raptor I rescued. He was like my own son as I’ve been taking care of him for several months. It was such a joy to watch him growing stronger day by day. It gives people strength and hope to fight for the right cause” said Dr. Chaiyan.  

Very soon he gathered himself and decided to put the remaining fund to good use: setting up a raptor rehabilitation unit in Kasetsart University Faculty of Veterinary Medicine to rescue injured raptors under the sole support by Thailand Raptor Research Fund for Conservation (Bank of Ayudhya, Kasetsart University Branch, Thailand), Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Kasetsart University.

Anakin’s tragic death was not dissolved into nothing; instead it began an era for wild bird rescue, bringing new hope for other injured raptors in Thailand. More than 500 raptors have been rescued and half of those released by the unit in the past decade, including eagles, falcons, hawks and owls. Taking care of injured raptors is but a hard work – both physically and emotionally – it does take a strong heart to withstand the sorrow when you see the birds die in your own hands. However, seeing the once injured raptors flying free again in the wild is an immense joy and it is such emotional power that motivates Dr. Chaiyan and his team to go on against all odds. Dr. Chaiyan believes it is very important to educate people the importance of conservation of birds, so he always tried his best to promote public awareness through the raptor release events. In past years many people far and wide witnessed these happy events and were moved by the sight of freedom on wings in the sky.

Should there be a goddess of fate, then she has turned her whimsical wand to Cinereous Vulture once again. After an exact ten years, another bird was found exhausted in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand on 15 January 2017. It was a juvenile male Cinereous Vulture. The bird was submitted by 7th Regional Protected Area Office, DNP to Kasetsart University Raptor Rehabilitation Unit (KURU) immediately for rescue. Initial checking like clinical, blood examination and blood lead level showed that the vulture is generally healthy. Under the veterinary care of Drs. Pattarapong Jakthong and Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua, the vulture is gaining stamina and now put to a 24-meter long flight enclosure for exercise in order to get prepared for release into the wild in April 2017 on Doi Lang, Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. The release site is located along the Sino-Himalayas Massif and on migratory vulture’s migration route. Showing the strong will of survival like a fearless warrior, the vulture is named “Skywalker” or Sky for short by Dr. Chaiyan, hoping that this time the vulture gets better luck than his predecessor, "Anakin" for the unfinished mission – carrying a satellite tracking device to tell us more about their migration pathway.

Now Dr. Chaiyan is fundraising for Sky’s mission and the goal is USD$5,600 or THB200,000 to purchase a satellite device and annual GPS signal from Argos. Cinereous Vulture is listed as Near Threatened by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with roughly 20,000  individuals left in Asia and Europe, and the number is rapidly decreasing mainly due to human persecution (direct or indirect) and decline of available food. They are long-distance migrants but very little is known about their migration ecology in South-east Asia. The data collected from this endangered species will definitely help answer many questions about our environment. By conserving wildlife we are also conserving the habitat they are living in – the very same place we human beings rely on for our survival too. Come and join us to be a part to build a better habitat for all life on earth!

Updates of the satellite tracking of Sky the vulture will be reported regularly in the following websites:

www.facebook.com/ThaiRaptorGroup.TRG
www.facebook.com/KasetsartUniversityRaptorUnit
www.BirdsofThailand.org

Cinereous Vulture /Aegypius monachus/, aka Monk Vulture, is the largest flying bird in Asia with a wingspan of 3 meters, and is globally near-threatened status with the world population of 21,000 individuals. Its breeding grounds are Europe, central Asia, China, and Mongolia. The species is a rare winter visitor to Thailand, and it is not known where the vulture came from before one or two Cinereous Vultures   follow strong cold fronts from mainland China to Thailand. Thus tracking by satellite GPS device will provide exact insights on the vulture's travel after its release that is planned to be in April during Spring migration of the species northward to its natal home at Doi Lang, Northern Thailand. The satellite data would help us understand more on the species movement pattern in South-east Asia.

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