THE keepers of an endangered bird are hoping it's found a soulmate – just in time for Valentine's Day.

Mowgli, a white-headed vulture, lives at Liberty’s Owl, Raptor and Reptile Centre in Ringwood.

The bird has now been paired up with a female as part of the conservation centre’s efforts to increase the population of breeding birds.

White headed vultures, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa, have suffered catastrophic population decline since the 1940s, with around 96 per cent of the population disappearing in just three generations.

There are now estimated to be just 5,500 of the birds left in the wild.

This is largely due to loss of habitat, but also the poisoning of carcasses intended for other predators, such as jackals and hyenas.

They have also fallen victim to deliberate poisoning from poachers, who lace a carcass with poison to prevent vultures from drawing attention to an illegal kill.

In June of last year, more than 500 vultures, including 17 white headed vultures, were found dead in northern Botswana after three elephant carcasses were poisoned by poachers.

As well as supporting native species such as barn owls and kestrels with the introduction of nestboxes in the New Forest, Liberty’s is also part of a number of international raptor breeding programmes.

Last year the team of falconers at the centre on Crow Lane successfully reared four turkey vulture chicks and one hooded vulture.

Each will become part of a breeding programme designed to increase the gene pool of breeding birds in captivity that will eventually see the birds released back into the wild to help stabilise the wild population.

Following the falconry centre’s success with the turkey and hooded vultures, the family-run charity is now hoping for similar success with their white headed vultures, a first for any conservation centre in the south west.

Last summer Mowgli, who has been a popular fixture at the centre for a number of years now, was introduced to Daisy, a female white headed vulture on loan to the centre from the Falconry Centre in Hagley.

It is hoped the pair will build up a bond over the next year and eventually rear a clutch of their own.

Jayson Bridges, co-founder of Liberty’s, said: “Vultures may not be the prettiest of birds out there, but they are by far one of the most important to the planet.

“They are nature’s dustbin men.

"The bacterium in their stomachs is so powerful it can destroy anthrax, cholera and even rabies.

"By clearing up carcasses left in the Savannah, they prevent the spread of many diseases that could have a real impact on the human population.

“Despite this, vultures have been persecuted to the extreme, and we are now at the point where we need to take immediate action or risk losing a valuable part of our ecosystem for ever.”

If Daisy takes a shine to Mowgli, it is hoped the pair will start showing an interest in building a nest together next year.

Jayson said: "It would be absolutely fantastic to see these striking birds rear a chick together, and it would be a much-needed boost for the population of white headed vultures.

“The importance to the environment cannot be underestimated.

"Entire eco-systems would collapse if we were to lose vultures from the face of the planet.

"We are not prepared to allow that to happen on our watch.”