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Fri 14 Jan 2005
Himalayan Griffon Vultures in Singapore
Category : news
"On Sunday afternoon, I noticed a pair of Himalayan Griffon Vultures circling overhead in my neighbourhood.
The Straits Times online published a photo of an exhausted vulture at Jurong Bird Park on 11th January (above) and reported the next day that "Lost vulture drops in at Orchard Road." The Straits Times, 12th January 2005 [pdf]. The report also mentioned a pair sighted over the weekend in the Orchard Road area.
"Mr Tan Hock Ann, 52, the operations manager of Nanyang Girls' High School off Dunearn Road, found the lone bird in the school's backyard, unable to fly. 'It seemed very weak and vomited out the water we gave it. It wasn't aggressive so we took it to the bird park.'"
What has happened to its companion? Once can only hope it gets help just as fortunately as this one did.
Caption and photo from The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2005: Visiting Vulture: A Himalayan Griffon Vulture first spotted over the weekend in the Orchard Road area was found exhausted and brought to the Jurong Bird Park on Tuesday where it is recuperating. A native to Central Asia, the creature is one of the world's largest birds with a wingspan of up to 4m and native to Central Asia. - Photo by Heng Yong Hock.
Escaped from the pet trade? Updated, 14 Jan 2005
Navjot Sodhi had suggested to Hugh Tan that "the birds [Orchard Road vultures] may be released or escaped captives and are unlikely to be lost migrants, as this species is not known to migrate. They are apparently easy to keep as pets as they are relatively gentle and can be fed dog food!"
In Singapore, naturalists have never discounted escaped animals as possible explanation when faced with unusual records.
There has been other instances of these vultures appearing in Singapore before, and I remember in particular, considerable excitement amongst naturalists here when a flock was sighted in Bukit Timah in 1992. At the time, a suggestion had circulated that they might have been blown off course - and that's a long way from their distribution range in North India/Central Asia. David Wells too felt the escaped birds theory was questionable this time.
"A group of 9 vultures, was photographed at roost in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve forest, 12-14 Jan 1992. The 5 separate individuals photographed at roost, appeared wound-free and clean, wing- and tail-tips, in particular, showing none of the dirt and wear expected of such big birds recently out of cages" (Wells, 1999).
Wang Luan Keng explains that the condition of a bird can suggest at its origin - "birds in cages tend to collect dirt, including faeces on their feathers as they cannot bathe or have a sand bath as they would in the wild. Feathers would also be worn badly especially large birds in cages due to abrasions against the cage walls."
In a recent email to the WildBirds Singapore mailing list, Morten Strange, who took the now famous photos of the vultures at Bukit Timah, argues for possibility that the vultures could have wandered off course to Singapore since they are altitudinal migrant (i.e. move between elevations).
"I have to disagree that the vultures here are 'unlikely to be lost migrants", but most likely exactly that! This species is a well-known altitudinal migrant, i.e. they can move at very high altitudes and with great ease over long distances.
Vultures in Southeast Asia
In the first half of the twentieth century two sister culture species, Gyps bengalensis and G. tenuirostris were distributed across, and abundant in Southeast Asia! By the end of the century, only relic populations remain in and adjacent to Cambodia. See "Causes and Effects of Temporospatial Declines of Gyps Vultures in Asia in Conservation Biology, 17(3): 661671 (June 2003)."
These massive declines occured primarily during the middle of the last century and were also reflected in avian scavengers and other large birds. The authors suggest that "these declines probably resulted from the loss of wild ungulates and free-ranging domestic cattle and water buffalo. Other factors such as persecution and pesticides may have played a part in local demographic changes."
South Asian vultures in danger
Presently, three South Asian griffon vulture species, Gyps bengalensis, G. tenuirostris and G. indicus are in threat of extinction from massive numbers of deaths. Last year, this mystery was determined to have been due to the veterinary drug diclofenac; see "Mysterious mass die-off of vultures solved." By Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist News, 28 January 2004.
"The catastrophic decline of griffon vultures in south Asia is being caused not by a mysterious disease, as had been thought, but a common painkiller given to sick cattle.
An international community of scientists is trying to address this urgent issue - see Vulture Rescue.