Migratory vultures find haven in disputed habitat

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Migratory vultures find haven in disputed habitat

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Migratory vultures gather in a group on a farm field in Paju, Gyeonggi, for wintering on March 23. By Cho Yong-chul

On the small Jangdan Peninsula inside Mintongseon, the civilian control line, in Paju, Gyeonggi, late on a recent Tuesday morning, a group of 20 vultures sat on a rice field.

Mintongseon is a military operation area where civilians are not allowed to enter, but a few farmers are permitted there to raise crops.

In one corner filled with thickly growing reeds some 100 meters (328 feet) away from vultures, about two tons of dead pigs were laid out for the birds to eat.

It took about 20 minutes before the birds, now joined by others, spread their 100- to 150-centimeter wings and flew toward the buffet.

But they didn’t eat. Even as their numbers swelled to about 100, the congregation of vultures just sat quietly for the next hour.

“Vultures have tendency to not get close to their prey if there are many people around or a lot of noise. They’re very sensitive animals,” said Han Gap-su, 57, president of Paju branch of the Korea Association for Bird Protection, which had supplied the pigs.

A single sign on a road just outside the line urges drivers to slow down when passing the peninsula, but there is no cover wall or observation platform to shield the vultures. When two concrete mixer trucks passed by at high speed, they scared off 20 birds, at least temporarily.

The peninsula sits about three kilometers (1.8 miles) away from the Military Demarcation Line, and since the end of the Korean War (1950-53), it has become a de facto natural ecosystem preservation.

Experts say it is the proper wintering place for birds, since the area is hilly and wild, as well as being close to a river where the vultures can prey on ducks and geese. But it may not be remote enough.

“Habitat conditions on the peninsula, which is considered the world’s largest wintering habitat for migratory vultures, is getting degraded day by day due to loud noise coming from construction vehicles and tourists,” Han said.

There are growing reports of vultures being either injured or killed after having their wings or legs caught in electric wires over downtown Paju. The association said 19 vultures were either exhausted or injured last year; seven died and two more were electrocuted by power lines.

Some suffer from hunger due to lack of prey, he said.

To help the vultures survive, several animal protection organizations in Korea put out food regularly between early October and the middle of April. Recently, Han’s group saved 13 vultures that were suffering from hunger. It has already set three free and is still caring for 10.

Approximately 1,000 and 1,200 migratory vultures flew to the peninsula in 2007 and 2008, respectively, according to joint survey data from the association and the National Science Museum.

However, last year the figure dropped to 1,000, and this year it’s declined to 700, officials report.

“The government should designate the peninsula and its surrounding area a legal zone to protect migratory vultures, so that the species can be looked after systematically,” said Kim Seong-man, 64, the president of the association.

Baek Un-ki, 48, an ornithologist at the museum, said that “most of the 2,500 migratory vultures visiting Korea are young birds between one and four years old. Vultures are on the verge of extinction worldwide, and to preserve them we urgently need to establish measures to protect their wintering habitats in Korea.”

The Paju city government said that farmers and land owners who are concerned about property infringement and regional development strongly oppose designating the vultures’ wintering habitat as an animal protection zone.

“Since we think it is necessary to protect vultures, Paju, Gyeonggi and the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea jointly collected 700 million won ($612,500) at the end of last year and built a facility in Paju to take care of sick or injured vultures. It is in operation,” said Baek Chan-ho, an official at the Paju government.


By Jeon Ick-jin [smartpower@joongang.co.kr]

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