Raptor rescuer keeps birds of prey under her wing

Updated: Feb 29, 2024 By Yan Dongjie China Daily Print
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Rehabilitators Zhou Lei (left) and Dai Chang at the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center release a recovered common kestrel back into the wild in Beijing last year. CHINA DAILY

Editor's Note: For many people, making a career in something they are passionate about is a luxury, as hobbies and jobs rarely match. This page focuses on two people who've managed to turn their interests into their daily jobs, sharing their insight on how enthusiasm can motivate people in chasing their dreams.

Not many are able to turn their passion into their profession, but Zhou Lei from the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center is one of those lucky few.

Now the center's senior raptor rehabilitator, Zhou started as a volunteer at the center in 2009 after she graduated from university, and hasn't looked back since, the 42-year-old said.

Zhou's special love of animals stems from her caring nature and desire to nurture those around her. This attitude has been key in her role in promoting awareness of raptor protection among the public for the past 15 years.

"I practice two noble professions here: I'm a doctor and a teacher," Zhou said.

In the over two decades since the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center was established, a great deal of progress has been made in raising public awareness of the plight of the top predators of the food chain.

Raptors play an integral role in maintaining ecological balance and in controlling agricultural pests such as rodents and insects.

Despite being at the top of the food chain, birds of prey often fall victim to environmental degradation and the illegal wildlife trade.

In Beijing, there are as many as 50 species of raptor such as the common kestrel and the upland buzzard, all of which are under national protection.

With China's capital being a key point on a major migratory route for raptors, in December 2001, Beijing Normal University and the International Fund for Animal Welfare established the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center, the first specialized raptor rescue institution in the country.

Over the past 23 years, the center has received and treated over 5,900 raptors and organized more than 600 wildlife conservation and environmental education activities.

Public awareness of the protection of the birds has come a long way, and more concerned people are contacting the center when they come across a raptor in distress, according to Zhou.

She recalled one evening in 2018 when a delivery driver called to report seeing a large bird by the roadside, unable to stand and with blood in its mouth. It turned out to be a rare golden eagle, one of the largest raptors in the world and a species under first-class protection in China.

Considering the possibility that it may have been poisoned, Zhou and another rehabilitator worked overnight to treat the eagle.

Fortunately, it wasn't poisoned. However, it had been unable to recover from an earlier injury making it difficult to forage for food, so the bird had become extremely weak. When the rehabilitators first encountered the eagle, its chest muscles had almost wasted away completely and it weighed only about half of what it should.

Zhou Lei conducts a physical examination on an upland buzzard at the Beijing Raptor Rescue Center last year. CHINA DAILY

After a little under a year of recovery and rehabilitation at the center, the bird was able to regain its weight and muscle mass, and by the spring of 2019 it had met all the criteria for release back into the wild, marking Zhou's first involvement in the release of a golden eagle.

"I felt so proud to be able to release such as majestic bird back into the sky," said Zhou, adding that flying in a cage and flying in nature are two separate things with the latter allowing birds to really spread their wings.

During the rehabilitation process, unnecessary contact with the raptors is minimized to ensure they maintain a positive perception of humans.

"Minimizing contact can protect the natural behavior of these animals to the greatest extent," she said.

In recent years, with continuous encouragement from the government, the public awareness of wildlife protection has significantly increased. People have become more active in reporting when they see a sick bird, contacting local police stations, neighborhood committees, rescue organizations and even volunteering in rescue work. With the guidance of the center's staff, they attempt to help the birds take back to the skies. These changes have brought Zhou a great deal of satisfaction and hope.

"The public is the first step in the chain because they are who usually first discover animals in need of rescue. Whether they can handle the situation correctly has a significant impact on subsequent rescue efforts," Zhou said.

This summer, the center received a call about an injured Chinese sparrowhawk from Miyun district on the outskirts of Beijing. Due to heavy rain and the mountainous location, for safety reasons, the staff had to delay picking up the bird by a day.

"It seemed to have enjoyed its time with the villagers. They must have fed it well. After being brought back to the center, it passed its physical examination, and it was soon released," Zhou recalled.

Despite the harsh weather, the villagers took great care of the injured raptor, which deeply moved the center's staff.

In response to the national call to provide as much assistance as possible at the provincial and city levels, an increasing number of raptor rescue organizations have been set up across the country.

The raptor rescue center in Beijing often exchanges knowledge and experiences with these newly established organizations and has provided professional training for over 50 rescue organizations from all over the country in the past five years.

The center also maintains communication with the Carolina Raptor Center in North Carolina, in the United States, and other veterinary or rescue organizations from other countries. For some difficult cases, the center seeks advice from overseas experts through remote consultations.

"In recent years, veterinary medicine in China has developed rapidly, both in terms of equipment and technology. These practical technologies will certainly not remain at the same level; they will continue to advance," Zhou said.

One advancement has been the use of protective collars on injured birds that are taken in for treatment to allow them to recover without further harm.

"Sometimes you have to think boldly, and be creative to make breakthroughs. The collars, for example, we hadn't used on birds in the past, but they work perfectly on raptors. That's a success of trying," Zhou said.

The center once rescued a Eurasian eagle-owl with injuries to both wrist joints. Since the bird was not used to bandaging, the collar greatly assisted in speeding up its recovery.

"In a way, I am very grateful for these shopping apps because once you search for something, they continue to recommend related items, allowing you to find better options," Zhou said, adding that she spends considerable time on shopping apps looking for useful items for the birds.

It's all part and parcel for a raptor rehabilitator, she added, noting she'd replaced boards in cages to increase ventilation and added features that better replicate the natural environment for raptors.

"Zhou is like a godmother," said her colleague Zheng Zhishan. "She often thinks about how to make the birds here more comfortable."

Luo Jiayuan contributed to this story.

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