Giant Hail Stones Pummel Colorado Zoo, Killing Endangered Vulture

A wild Cape vulture spotted in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Karen Lewis/Flickr

A violent storm that formed over Colorado Springs this past Monday dropped softball-sized hailstones onto the grounds of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, forcing panicked visitors, staff, and animals to seek shelter abruptly. Sadly, two of the park’s charges were killed: a Muscovy duck and a 13-year-old Cape vulture that been brought to the US from South Africa through an endangered species breeding and fundraising program.

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The formidably beautiful bird, given the name Motswari – meaning to conserve and protect" in the Tswana language – was one of eight Cape vultures transferred to American zoos in the hopes that artificial insemination done by avian experts could boost the species’ declining numbers. According to The Washington Post, Motswari had been rescued from the wild at eight months old after shattering her wing in a collision with a power line.

Once found throughout the southern portion of the continent, Cape vultures now face a myriad of anthropogenic threats, the most dire of which include electrical equipment entanglements like Motswari’s, inadvertent poisoning from eating the carcasses of animals that have consumed rodenticides, loss of habitat, and hunting for use in traditional medicine. The IUCN Redlist states that species has gone regionally extinct in Namibia and Swaziland, and though some area’s populations are now stable or increasing, it is estimated that between 66 and 81 percent of these birds have been lost since the 1960s.

And like other species of Old World vultures (sadly also imperiled by human activity), Cape vultures lay only one egg per season. But the offspring produced by just a small handful of reproducing adults can make the difference in bird repopulation efforts, Jemima Parry-Jones MBE, director of the International Centre for Birds of Prey, told IFLScience when discussing the plight of the European griffon vulture in January.

“The California Condor, the Mauritius Kestrel and many other species of birds have been reliant on that one pair breeding at the start of the program,” said Perry-Jones. 

An image of the Zoo's African Rift Valley section. The grounds are at an elevation of more than 6,700 feet. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

A Cheyenne Mountain Zoo press release issued on Tuesday reported that several other animals that were injured by the hail are still being assessed by veterinarians and that multiple staff members were struck when trying to help the befuddled panicky animals.  

“Even animals that use their on-exhibit dens and shelters on a daily basis were prone to confusion by the fast onset of the storm, and also suffered confusion by the onslaught of hail,” the zoo said.

“[T]he number and extent of those injuries are still being determined,” they continued, noting that the icy battering also caused major damage to the property.

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