11 July 2024

St. Valentine’s Day, traditionally marked annually on February 14th, is when people express their love, normally through the giving of red roses. For a small group of dedicated conservationists, however, it is an opportunity to express their love for a pair of very rare red-headed vultures, by sending them back to nature to mate in Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary in the west of Thailand.

Red-headed vultures are classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The birds vanished from the wild in Thailand 30 years ago, when the last flock of about 30 died on February 14th, 1992 at Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary after eating a carcass laced with poison, being used as bait by illegal hunters to trap tigers. A few, however, have survived in captivity at a zoo and at the breeding station in the sanctuary.

Since 2014, the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Seub Nakhasathien Foundation and the Kasetsart University have jointly discussed a project to reintroduce red-headed vultures to their previous habitat in Thailand.

The project took off in 2020 when a research team started studying the behaviour of two vultures in captivity, one at the Nakhon Ratchasima zoo and the other at a breeding facility at the Huai Kha Khaeng wildlife sanctuary.

On January 31st last year, the 20-year-old bird at the zoo laid an egg, but after two months, it failed to hatch. In January this year, Nui laid another egg and the research team has been waiting anxiously for it to hatch.

Hoping that the second egg would hatch, and to prepare the two vultures to be returned to nature, officials decided to build a huge cage in the wildlife sanctuary to house the two vultures together with the egg.

The two vultures were brought to the breeding station in the wildlife sanctuary two months ago, to allow them to become familiar with the environment, before being released into the huge cage today.

The research team conducted a drill yesterday to make sure everything would go as planned.

The cage is located in a rugged terrain and the team decided to move the two vultures out of the breeding station at 6am this morning, to limit the stress on the birds.

It is hoped that in the next 1-2 years, the two will mate and lay an egg, which will be brought to the breeding station to hatch in an incubator.

The cage is about 20 x 20 x 40 metres in size. It contains a small pond, a sprinkler system and a man-made nest. It is equipped with CCTV for 24-hour monitoring and is surrounded by an electric fence to protect the birds.