The vultures among us

With cooler days ahead and the outdoors becoming more pleasant, Oman will not only witness an increase in tourists but a rise in the number of birds that migrate to the Sultanate in the coming winter months. Oman is home to over 480 species of birds, most of them migrating to the Gulf from the harsh winters of northern Asia, Arctic and some even from Africa. It is also home to over 100 species that make Oman a temporary home to make nests and raise their babies.

The Egyptian Vulture is one such bird. Oman has been recognized as a global stronghold for the Egyptian Vulture as it has not only become the stable breeding grounds for these birds but also a preferred destination for those from further north. In 2012, a program for research and conservation of the Egyptian Vulture was developed. With the support of the government, private consultants, volunteers, they started work on surveying the areas where the birds flocked to like the Masirah Islands and large rubbish dumps. They followed this with satellite tracking of individual birds and filming and documenting these glorious creatures. The Egyptian Vulture has sadly become an endangered species due to human developmental activities.
Like the other places, in Oman, the vultures perch on the tall power lines and pylons. A huge problem faced by large birds like the Egyptian Vulture worldwide is electrocution. Many similar species that enjoy perching on high places face similar issues and are also on the verge of extinction. In many countries and a work in progress in Oman, power lines are being made safer for these high flying birds. Pylons and power lines are being retrofitted with devices designed to reduce the risk of electrocution, making it safer for the birds and ensuring that their already weak populations are not threatened.
In 2015, the first two birds were captured and were fitted with their own 40g solar powered transmitters in an attempt the map the movements of these young birds to gain a better understanding and help keep their population healthy.

Although initially, Oman was thought to be a safe haven for vultures, like the other countries and Oman’s development, electrocution was a major issue. By the end of the first year, both birds had fallen prey to this necessary evil. One not long after their first flight went missing on the tracker and by December the second. When researchers rushed to these locations to find out what happened, their worries were validated. Both Egyptian Vultures were found dead under fried power lines. This was followed by more tracked vultures in following years. But it isn’t all bad news for these feathered friends.
Whilst the city is high tech and developed, the areas where these birds collect in are in those that are just developing. In these areas, conservation initiatives have been suggested in order to sustainably develop with the existing fauna as one of the primary considerations. Using pylons designed to reduce electrocution is a great step forward. A drawback of this plan is that these additions add to increased costs. Many bird biologists however remedied this by working with the engineers involved in creating and designing cost effective solutions to help save them.

Since these migrating raptors are mainly scavengers, they concentrate in areas where food is readily available. Their cuisine of choice? Garbage. Most of these birds’ flock to rubbish dumps and as they are territorial, they tend to come back to the same areas even if they migrate.
This means areas where the birds are known to dwell can be easily marked as “sensitive areas” and efforts to help conserve the birds and reduce the risks can be concentrated to these areas.
2017 update?
The Egyptian vulture that is currently being tracked is doing well and the researchers were happy to share that in January, they had been tracking the birds successfully for over a year and collected information from over 4000 locations
Still perching on pylons, the bird was mostly located at various landfills and rubbish dumps and spending their nights at the Wadi Sereen Nature Reserve. Like worried parents stressing over the whereabouts of their children, the researchers from the Vulture Conservation Foundation get worried every time their vultures dip out of the satellite range and rejoice every time their signal is back up.
As of September, the Egyptian Vulture being tracked was only traced 3 times in the last few months. They are convinced the bird like us is shying away from the harsh summer heat and finding relief in the high mountains and steep cliffs of the Wadi Sareen Nature Reserve.
Oman in recent years has been an importance location for these birds but there is still so much to know about these magnificent creatures. In their continued pursuit to conserve and understand the Egyptian vultures, researchers are still asking the following questions: Where do they come from? Where do they breed? Where do they travel and how long do they live? These are not only interesting questions but important ones at that.

Titash Chakraborty