Crime-fighting vultures? What could go wrong?

Tony Paterson
Friday 01 July 2011 00:00
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A revolutionary German plan to use vultures to find missing corpses appears to have crash-landed after trainers behind the project admitted that the birds preferred to walk rather than fly, spent a lot of time fighting each other, and could not tell the difference between human and animal remains.

The Hanover police commissioner, Rainer Hermann, hit on the idea of using American turkey vultures to help officers after watching a nature film which showed how the birds could spot a mouse in a forest from 3,300ft.

"The vultures could be much more efficient than tracker dogs," Commissioner Hermann told reporters last year, launching his vulture experiment from Walsrode bird park near Hanover in Lower Saxony. "We can't even keep up with them on the ground."

It was hoped that the vultures would help police track the thousands of persons reported missing each year. Commissioner Hermann used the bird park's fully grown turkey vulture, Sherlock, and imported two seven-week-old fluffy vulture chicks called Miss Marple and Columbo from a zoo in the Austrian province of Carinthia.

A cloth used to swathe corpses was donated by a funeral parlour and used to train the birds. The idea was to eventually equip the vultures with sophisticated tracking devices so that police could instantly spot their whereabouts from patrol cars.

The project aroused considerable media interest and even prompted Lower Saxony's opposition Social Democratic Party to inquire whether the state government planned to set up an "international search-vulture training centre". Then Sherlock was allowed to put on flying shows for visitors at Walsrode bird park. But all of a sudden, he stopped performing and his shows were cancelled. This week, Stefan Freundlieb, a spokesman for the bird park, told Der Spiegel magazine that the birds "were not currently available for journalists".

Mr Freundlieb said that Sherlock was fully able to locate the funeral parlour's pungent cloth which had been placed at a spot marked with a yellow plastic cup. The only problem, Mr Freundlieb admitted, was that nowadays the vulture preferred to walk rather than fly to his quarry. "He hops around a 20sq m grassy patch until he finds the cloth," he said.

German Alonso, another of the bird park's vulture trainers, conceded that Sherlock not only had difficulty in distinguishing between human corpses and dead animals, but was also too frightened to leave the surroundings of the bird park. "The bird is naturally anxious and he would either hide in the woods or bolt," he said.

The two young Carinthian vultures were an ever bigger disappointment. There had been high hopes that Columbo and Miss Marple would learn the tricks of corpse-tracking from Sherlock. But after a year, such initial optimism has proven misplaced. "The two young ones can't do anything besides fight with each other," Mr Alonso said.

In Lower Saxony's state government, MPs have begun to question whether it is right for police to fund trainers for a project which appears unlikely to get off the ground. The police have yet to declare whether the idea of vulture tracking was just pie in the sky.

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