High hopes for happy end to vulture’s journey

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) – The migration of a raptor named Skywalker is being closely followed by bird-watchers via a satellite tracking device on its back.

The name Skywalker has been reappearing in reports across China. However, this time it has nothing to do with the main protagonist of the Star Wars movies. Instead, it is soaring in Chinese airspace.

This Skywalker is a cinereous vulture, a large bird of prey found across much of Eurasia. With a wingspan of up to 3 meters, the bird is the largest raptor species found in Asia.

With a satellite tracking device on its back, the young male raptor named Skywalker - or Sky for short - was released by a Thai conservationist in Chiangmai, northern Thailand, on April 29. Data as of May 4 showed that after six days of flying, the raptor had traveled more than 1,000 kilometers, reaching the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

“It’s exciting news for us,” said Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua, an associate professor at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. He said the data sheds new light on a project that started with tragedy 10 years ago.

In 2007, a cinereous vulture was found injured in eastern Thailand by a British bird-watcher. Some experts suggested the bird be taken to veterinary pathologist Kasorndorkbua - a known raptorphile  - for help.

The vulture was rescued and later became healthy enough to be released into the wild by Kasorndorkbua and his colleagues. Kasorndorkbua named the male vulture Anakin Skywalker.

Considering the vulnerable status of vultures worldwide and given that little is known about the migratory habits of the bird in the region, Kasorndorkbua raised sufficient funds to purchase and attach a satellite tracking device on Anakin before releasing him, to collect data about the vulture’s migration route for scientific study.

However, the fairy tale of Anakin didn’t have a Disney-style ending-he was found shot dead in Myanmar less than a month after his release in May 2007. The news was deeply upsetting for Kasorndorkbua.

“Anakin was the first raptor I rescued. He was like my son, as I took care of him for several months. It was such a joy to watch him grow stronger day by day. It gives people strength and hope to fight for a worthy cause,” Kasorndorkbua said.

Soon after, he decided to put the remaining funds he had raised to good use, setting up a raptor rehabilitation unit at Kasetsart University for injured raptors. Since the unit’s establishment, more than 500 raptors have been rescued, and half of those have been released back into the wild.

Kasorndorkbua thought Anakin’s mission would never be completed, until he found another cinereous vulture, a rare winter visitor in Thailand, in January. The vulture was found exhausted and handed over to the rehab unit on Jan 15. Initial checks showed the vulture was in good general health. This bird, which Kasorndorkbua simply named Skywalker, was released into the wild last month.

Kasorndorkbua said he hopes this vulture has better luck than Anakin, so it can complete the unfinished mission of carrying a satellite tracking device to shed light on the species’ migratory habits.

Since being released, the vulture has passed through Myanmar, and entered China via the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture in southern Yunnan province, flying eastward to Wenshan, a border prefecture between China and Vietnam. It is currently in Guangxi.

“Being so big, the vulture’s flight direction mainly depends on strong winds. Its eastward movement is slightly unexpected, but understandable due to local wind directions,” Kasorndorkbua said. “I hope Skywalker gets assisted by winds from the east or south to direct him west, where his suspected breeding grounds lie, either in Mongolia or the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.”

The vulture faces threats such as being shot when it comes down to feed on animal carcasses, which are usually situated close to human settlements, Kasorndorkbua said, adding that wind directions will play a major role in his journey toward breeding sites.

“I hope he makes it to his natal site where there is plenty of food and other vultures,” he said.

Jennifer Leung, a Hong Kong bird-watcher who lives in Shanghai, is helping Kasorndorkbua to publicize the project and distribute information on the bird’s whereabouts among Chinese bird-watchers.

“I strongly believe in the importance of studying avian migration, because these birds travel long distances and are subjected to many climate changes, so they can help to educate us about the environment,” Leung said. “My utmost concern is Skywalker’s safety during his migration. The journey is full of risk and uncertainty, not to mention threats posed by humans. I hope Skywalker returns to his breeding ground unharmed.”

Leung said they expect to receive updates of the vulture’s progress from Chinese bird-watchers.