August 15, 2019

Denver Zoo’s ‘Lucky’ Charm

Cinereous Vulture Aztai Teaches Denver Zoo Guests About the Importance of Scavengers in Our World


It's morning at Denver Zoo and one "lucky" vulture proudly meets guests eye to eye – it's Aztai, one of our cinereous vultures! Aztai is an ambassador for her species, and for the field conservation work Denver Zoo does in Mongolia. Injured as a young chick in Mongolia, Aztai now helps educate the world about the plight of vultures, doing what books and electronic devices cannot. Our remarkable ambassador animals enable visitors to put a face to their counterparts in the wild.

Aztai, which means “lucky” in Mongolian, was found by Denver Zoo staff at Ikh Nart Nature Reserve, where we work in Mongolia. Despite her name, she didn’t have the easiest start in life. Denver Zoo staff found four-month-old Aztai beneath her broken nest with significant fractures to her left wing. Our team on the ground nurtured her with food and shelter, but with permanent damage to the wing, we knew she wouldn’t make it in the wild. We made the decision to bring the chick to Denver, and in the summer of 2012, adorable Aztai arrived at Denver Zoo.

Saving Our Scavengers

As nature’s unique clean-up crew, vultures play an important role in removing carcasses from the landscape and reducing the spread of disease. They help protect landscapes, animals and people – yet across the world, vultures face an uncertain future. Deliberate poisoning, accidental poisoning, pesticide use, and habitat loss threaten their survival.

Cinereous vultures (also known as Eurasian Black Vultures) suffer from habitat destruction, illegal hunting, and poisoning across their range. While their populations are declining globally, Ikh Nart is an especially important breeding area and is home to the highest recorded concentration of nests in Mongolia.

Denver Zoo and partners have spent the past 16 years working at the reserve to understand and better protect raptors like cinereous vultures. We now have the world’s most comprehensive dataset on the species, and we are using this critical information to help the reserve implement its first vulture-specific conservation strategy. We have also published numerous scientific peer-reviewed papers including their movement patterns and dispersal to South Korea and China.

However, our focus in vulture conservation hasn’t been limited to just Mongolia. In the past, Denver Zoo has worked in Africa with local conservation teams to implement vulture conservation efforts in Botswana, an area that is seeing significant declines in vulture populations. There we applied similar research methods to better understand vulture movement, breeding behavior and habitat needs.  This information was vital in helping to minimizing threats facing Africa’s vultures.

To bring awareness around vultures to the larger Zoo community, Denver Zoo and partners North Carolina Zoo and San Diego Zoo Global co-founded the African Vultures Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) Program under the umbrella of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). SAFE focuses the collective expertise of accredited zoos and aquariums to carry out conservation action and public engagement with audiences to save species from the brink of extinction.

You can learn more about Aztai and our work with vultures here at Denver Zoo and around the world when you join us for International Vulture Awareness Day on Saturday, September 4, 2021.


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