Yula Kapetanakos

Yula Kapetanakos
MS, Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology, University of Maryland 1999
BS, Zoology, University of Maryland 1993
e-mail: yak4*at*cornell.edu

I am currently a doctoral student at Cornell University in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The bulk of my research takes place at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology Fuller Evolution Lab, and in the field. My dissertation research focuses on Asian vulture populations in Central and Southeast Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan and in Cambodia. I have been working with wildlife in one capacity or another for the last 15 years and have selected vultures as the focus of my dissertation because of the immediate conservation concern associated with many vulture species.

Old-world vultures face critical population declines driven by a diversity of threats including exposure to environmental toxins, habitat loss, reduction in food availability, and direct persecution. The catastrophic crash of populations of white-rumped, slender-billed and long-billed vultures represents a particularly tragic case. South Asia was once home to the densest population of vultures in the world. However, in the past 20 years, South Asian vultures in the genus Gyps have declined by more than 99%. This may be the most sudden reduction of any raptor group in modern history. These declines have been attributed to the effects of diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug used widely on livestock. Vultures that feed on the carcass of a diclofenac-treated animal are fatally poisoned, dying of kidney failure within days of exposure. The drug has also been recently introduced to Africa, placing an additional strain on vulture populations there.

The immediate goal of my research is to combine mark-recapture methods with genetic technology to determine demographic characteristics, especially population size, of vulture species in Central and Southeast Asia. Genetic analysis of non-invasively collected samples (hair, scat, feathers) has become a powerful method to "mark" individual wild animals for demographic monitoring. This is particularly useful for species that are difficult to trap. Individual animals can be identified through variations in their genetic make-up. I am in the process of collecting vulture feathers from Cambodia and Kazakhstan, and I will use the genetic tag from representative individual vultures to create a demographic framework for each species. 

The goals of my research are to:
1)     Develop a rapid non-invasive assessment of the size and mortality rates of Himalayan griffon, Eurasian griffon and cinereous vultures in Kazakhstan, and slender-billed, white-rumped and red-headed vultures in Cambodia.
2)    Build on our understanding of vulture natural history, and therefore create a stronger foundation for conservation measures, through the long term monitoring of their movements and migrations.
3) Establish a non-invasive mark-recapture protocol for rapidly assessing the population status of vultures throughout their Old-World range.    

My work is possible through generous support from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.