We were minding our business the other day when we heard about Nelson, a griffon vulture that was arrested in Yemen. It is not every day that non-human animals are arrested. On the man-bites-dog theory, by all rights, this was news.
Nelson was charged with espionage, which almost makes sense. Griffon vultures sometimes wander without respect for human borders and there is practically no telling how much information they gather.
A male like Nelson can weigh upward of 20 pounds, with a 9-foot wingspan and a pale-orange-brown body, white ruff and blue or yellow bill. He could live for decades in the wild if his life was not unnaturally shortened.
Nelson is a Bulgarian, although he may not realize it. His species went extinct there in the 1980s. The birds have been reintroduced over the last several years and some, like Nelson, were fitted with GPS transmitters, in Bulgaria’s Eastern Rhodopes mountains. The program suffered a setback when 30 of the vultures were poisoned in 2017.
Last September, Nelson took off for a look-see, as juveniles sometimes do, soaring over Turkey, then Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where a conservation group lost touch with him. Nelson kept flying south and spotted Taiz, a city at the southern tip of Yemen, where he alighted last month tired and hungry. He would have been looking for carrion – sheep, deer, foxes, rabbits – but he would have found no spare meat in Yemen.
Taiz has been held by the Saudi-backed government forces in Yemen’s civil war and besieged by Houthi rebels. Nelson was captured by a pro-government militia, which suspected his GPS unit could be transmitting data to Iran, which backs the Houthis.
This may seem far-fetched, but we would be remiss if we did not note that last week, a Norwegian trawler was approached in sub-arctic waters by a seemingly tame Beluga whale wearing a harness with a camera mount, leading Norwegians to suspect the whale, which seems to have been trained to fetch, may have escaped from the Russian naval facility in Murmansk. A Russian military analyst in Moscow said that idea was propounded by “Norwegian idiots.”
In 2013, Menes, a tagged white stork that had been released into a conservation area, was seized by Egyptian police on an island in the Nile under suspicion of being a spy. It was ultimately released to the farmer who found it, whereupon it was eaten by villagers. “It is important to always balance the needs of local communities with the needs of nature and biodiversity conversation,” said the group Nature Conservation Egypt at the time.
The Yemen militia tied up Nelson, who looked baleful that way, although it could be his natural expression; and it put him in a makeshift jail cell.
Enter Hisham al-Hoot, a Yemen representative of One World Actors Animal Rescues, a British-run charity, who negotiated for Nelson’s successful release last week. Hoot is also engaged trying to rescue a herd of starving Normandy dairy cows in Yemen after they were given to the country as part of a French aid initiative.
Nelson is underweight now – he needs to gain about half a pound to be able to fly – and he has ankle abrasions from being bound, but he should be able to get back to Bulgaria under his own power in six to eight weeks, al-Hoot says. The bird is being given meat and fresh water every hour.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen are on the verge of starvation. It would be easy to get stampeded into thinking this was a choice between helping Nelson or them. That is a problem, One World Actors founder Kim-Michelle Broderick told the British tabloid The Sun. “But someone has to do this.”