Thailand Vulture Rescue
Apichart Weerawong  /  AP
A vulture looks out from its caring room at Kasetsart University pet hospital in Bangkok, Thailand Wednesday, March 7, 2007.
updated 3/8/2007 11:37:22 AM ET 2007-03-08T16:37:22

The next time you take a Thai Airways flight to China, a passenger with a wingspan of 9.2 feet and a taste for rotting carcasses may also be on board.

The country's national carrier announced Wednesday that it will transport a juvenile cinereous vulture to Beijing on March 21 to help return the rare bird to its natural environment in Mongolia.

The vulture — normally not found in Thailand — has been nursed back to health by veterinarians at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, after apparently getting lost in late December and ending up dehydrated and near death in Chanthaburi province.

"We understand that it is the first time in Thailand that this type of vulture has been located and it is important that they are returned to their natural habitat," Thai Airways President Apinan Sumanaseni said in a statement. He said the airline also has transported other rare animals in the past, including pandas and white tigers.

Thai Airways will not charge for the flight. There will be a staff of five traveling with the vulture, including two veterinarians, it said.

The year-old vulture — about 3.3 feet tall with thick, brown feathers and an imposing black and white beak — will be transported in a cage that normally holds large dogs and has plenty of cushioning to protect the bird during the four-hour flight.

After that, it will be put on a China Airlines plane to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, and then be driven about 125 miles into a wilderness area near Erdenesant where it will be released, said Gawin Chutima, chairman of the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, which is helping with the bird's return.

Gawin said releasing it in Thailand would put the bird at "great risk of being shot down or never returning home."

He said the vulture will be tagged with a radio transmitter to track its progress and migration routes.

European comeback
The bird — also known as a black vulture or monk vulture — is defined by The World Conservation Union as near threatened in Asia, where its numbers have steadily declined because of a loss of habitat, shortage of food and increased cases of poisoning.

The population, however, has increased slightly in parts of Europe including Greece and Spain due to bolstered conservation efforts.

Villagers found the vulture in Chanthaburi province and turned it over to a British bird expert, Iola Veal, who lived in the area. She took it to Kasetsart University, where veterinarians confirmed it was free of bird flu and other infectious diseases.

Used to treating pet birds, Kasetsart's Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua said he was taken aback at first by the size of the vulture and its voracious appetite. Among its favorite items are pork legs.

"It is a challenge because we don't usually get these kind of species in Thailand," Chaiyan said.

Feeding it rotten and fresh meat infused with vitamins, Chaiyan said his staff were able to increase the bird's weight from 13.2 pounds to 18.5 pounds. It also has regained much of its strength.

Now, veterinarians will train it to fly again — with the help of a specially designed 80-foot-long cage where it can take short flights.

"We have to take good care of it," Chaiyan said. "It is important if we can save even one individual from this species."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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