Clodagh Helen is currently in Nepal on behalf of the Birds of Prey Centre at Aillwee to assist in a major research programme on vulture conservation.The 24-year-old zoo biologist is one of the handlers at the Birds of Prey Centre in Co Clare.
The use of the veterinary drug Diclofenac has seen a population decline in Asian vultures faster than that of the dodo. As one of the most serious bird conservation issues currently on the planet, with huge consequences for human health, the Birds of Prey Centre at Aillwee has joined global wildlife conservation groups to tackle this issue.
Clodagh, who travelled to Nepal with Conor the Vulture, speaks to Mary O’Brien about her work assisting in vulture conservation on the ground in the Himalayan foothills.
On her three-week trip to Nepal, Clodagh is assisting in monitoring, surveying, and providing advice to the vulture safe feeding sites and reintroduction project of captive bred birds to try and begin the restoration of populations. She is also raising well-needed awareness for the cause!
“Raising awareness is of vital importance at present,” says Clodagh “as recently diclofenac has been licensed for use in Europe; a tragedy waiting to happen for our European species of vultures, and everybody should support the campaign and appeal to politicians to get it banned in the European Union!”
Diclofenac is an anti-inflammatory drug, however there are alternatives on the market that serve the same purpose but are safe for vultures. The late 00s saw the climax of the crisis for Asian vultures, and in Nepal individuals were collected from the wild to begin a captive breeding programme, as conservationists predicted their extinction.
A few years ago, relief and celebration came when Diclofenac was banned in Nepal. Even though that was fantastic for the vultures, their population numbers had declined by over 90 per cent in the previous 20 years.
Subsequently Aillwee sent funds to buy up residual stocks of diclofenac that was being sold illegally on the black market. Aillwee has also provided support for research projects, in particular the one Clodagh is currently visiting, which focuses on the red headed vulture.
“The vultures are so important because they fulfill a ‘keystone’ role in our environment;” explains Clodagh “meaning they fill a necessary niche. If they disappear the whole ecosystem is in danger of collapse. They are the perfect scavenger; consuming and destroying diseases such as anthrax, botulism, and rabies. The disappearance of them would mean the spread of disease having devastating effects on not only the other animals in the area, but the human population also.”
She continues “Scavengers are always associated with bad hygiene and impending death! However we have fallen prey to the media’s portrayal of these creatures. Anybody who is in close proximity to animals regularly understands they all have a unique personality; and it is also true for the vultures! If you don’t believe me, visit the bird of prey centre at Aillwee to see Dyson the gentle old man, and Henry the boisterous character who’s full of talk and show!”
Since the present manager James Irons’ visit to Nepal in 2009, Aillwee has been raising funds for vulture conservation initiatives such as establishing vulture safe feeding sites where the birds are provided with diclofenac free meat. In Nepal, there are now seven such sites, and €1 can buy a cow, which up to 200 vultures can have a meal from.
The Birds of Prey Centre at Aillwee opened in 2008 and currently houses over 30 captive born raptors, including vultures, eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. These birds serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, giving the public a chance to get an up-close personal experience with a top predator. This memorable opportunity for people allows the centre to provide education and raise awareness and funds for conservation efforts in a way which the visitor truly feels connected and is understanding.
Clodagh’s role as a bird handler and trainer requires her to provide the highest standard of care and welfare to the birds at the centre, while ensuring the safety and comfort of the visitor.
“Cleaning and feeding is of course a huge part of my daily role,” she explains “as is providing educational and interactive flying demonstrations and hawk walks in which I provide the visitor with an unparalleled insight into their amazing lives. I am privileged at the centre to not only be close to such incredible creatures every day, but to facilitate others in having the opportunity to discover a love for something they never knew existed before visiting!”
Mammals were always Clodagh’s preferred choice to work with, and after working for a short while as a giraffe keeper, she thought big animals were definitely for her. However this changed three years ago when her first experience with a trained raptor changed her perspective entirely.
“The more I learn about birds and spend time with them, the more my interest and passion grows for them,” she says.
“Most days, the birds make me laugh. They are endlessly entertaining in their ways and quirks! I once had a raven decided not to back into his aviary after his flight, and sat in a nearby tree actually laughing at me all day because he can imitate sounds and human speech.”
Clodagh’s companion on the trip, Conor the vulture, is Irish born and bred. He is visiting his wild cousins, and translating their plea for help to the Irish public!
You can follow Conor and Clodagh’s journey on the Burren Birds of Prey Facebook page.
For more information on the Birds of Prey Centre at Aillwee in Co Clare go to