If vultures in danger, ‘entire ecosystem in trouble’

Experts from around the world meet in TA to discuss how to revive scavenger bird’s global population.

September 25, 2011 22:25

Vulltures in Israel. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In a filled-to-capacity Tel Aviv University auditorium, hundreds gazed at video footage of vultures picking at a decaying carcass in the desert.

“The birds don’t suffer because they don’t have such an olfactory sense,” Ohad Hatzofe, an avian ecologist for the Nature and Parks Authority, told the audience.

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The film, taken by Sasi Hacham, was part of an international conference held Thursday about the endangerment of the vulture in Israel and around the world, and potential solutions that might help remedy this ecologically disruptive problem. The conference was the culmination of a week-long workshop led by the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI), the Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) and Israel Electric Corporation (IEC), which brought in 12 experts from overseas to discuss what has become a worldwide quandry.

At the turn of the 21st century, Israel had about 500 vultures total and of them 120 fertile pairs, while today there are only about 250 vultures and of them around 40 fertile pairs, explained Modi Oron, acting CEO of the NPA.

“When the vulture doesn’t feel well we understand that the entire ecosystem is in trouble,” Oron said.

The vulture, which scavenges and cleans up animal carcasses, is “a type of flagship species” that is “mentioned about 30 times in the Bible” and remains “a symbol of all countries in the world today as in the past,” according to Oron.

Unfortunately, both he and the other dozen or so speakers that day lamented, Israel and the world’s vultures continue to fall prey to man-made predators like poisonings and electrocutions. But thanks in part to cooperation from the IEC and the Civil Aviation Authority in a multi-organizational “Spreading Wings” project to protect the birds, electrocutions and aviation accidents in Israel have been significantly decreased, the experts agreed.

“We are left with the problem of poisoning, which is very great,” Oron said.

When pests like jackals, ravens and crows invade, farmers are apt to use poison to eliminate them, and from the resultant dead bodies the vultures pick up the poison themselves, explained Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi, chief scientist of the NPA.

But if the region was just kept more sanitary, the pests would not show up in the first place, Shkedi said, gesturing to a photograph of an open space overflowing with rotting bags full of trash.

In addition to educating farmers, the organizations have also begun overseeing caged breeding to reintroduce the vultures back into the wild and have also started familiarizing school children with vulture endangerment issues, according to Dan Alon, head of SPNI’s Israel Ornithology Center.

“A child goes home and tells his parents: ‘Maybe it’s us who are involved in the poisoning,’” Alon said.

Doctoral student Or Shpigel of Hebrew University has been working with a GPS system to track Israeli vultures’ behavioral patterns and flight paths, which have taken the birds so far that they have been “accused of espionage” in Saudi Arabia, Shpigel noted.

“They are very loyal to their region and their spouses, but still, they do move through the various regions,” Shpigel said.

As in Israel, the population began to collapse drastically in India, Pakistan and Nepal, and by the late 1990s only about 1 percent of the animals were left – in large part due to poisoning from veterinary anti-inflammatory Diclofenac, which was banned from India in 2006, explained Dr. Munir Virani, director of Africa Programs at the Peregrine Fund in Kenya, as well as vulture monitoring in South Asia.

While some encouraging growth has occurred since the ban, it is impossible to clearly evaluate the repopulation for another 10 to 15 years, Virani said.

Aside from the poisoning and electrocution that plagues vultures all over, birds in Western Europe recently faced yet another threat – Mad Cow Disease – which obliged farmers to collect carcasses for mass cleanup rather than leaving them in fields for scavenging, said Alvaro Camina Cardenal, a Spanish representative from the multinational Vulture Conservation Foundation. During the Mad Cow era, the vultures had so little to eat that they had to “fight against dogs,” he added.

Today, while the carcasses are once again in the fields, the birds are facing a problem caused by developments in renewable energy – about 1,000 vultures, as well as eagles, are “colliding with wind turbines,” Cardenal said.

In another hemisphere, in South Africa’s Lesotho highlands, vultures likewise face both the threat of wind turbines and a decrease in livestock for scavenging, according to Andre Botha, manager of the Birds of Prey Program at the Endangered Wildlife Trust there.

The South African Cape Vultures are also subject to the “traditional medicine trade,” for which they are killed in the thousands annually for their heads and feet, Botha added.

Across the world, scientists were able to revive the dwindling California Condor population, which has been suffering from poisoning – particularly lead poisoning from feeding off carcasses torn apart by lead bullets – since the times of Spanish explorations, Prof. Vicky Meretsky of Indiana University told the audience.

Concluding the conference on an optimistic note, Michel Terrasse, president of the Vulture Conservation Foundation, explained that he and his fellow experts have successfully reintroduced vultures into southern France and the Pyrenees, from which they disappeared decades ago.

Starting from nothing, they now have several hundred fertile pairs, which are able to act once again as “free workers for the farmers” – cleaning up messes from decaying carcasses, according to Terrasse.

Prof. Yossi Leshem, a zoologist at Tel Aviv University’s Israel Center for the Study of Bird Migration, was particularly impressed by the successes of Terrasse and the other visiting conservationists, from whom he hopes Israelis will learn and take advice, he said.

“You know we are losing our vultures from 1,000 before the State of Israel to 35 pairs. In France, from zero, they have now 370 pairs,” Leshem told The Jerusalem Post after the event. “So the issue is to try and imitate them, learn from them and make the same in Israel.”

One of the most effective ways to preserve local vulture populations, however, is by working with neighbors, agreed Botha, the Birds of Prey Program manager in South Africa, and whose region of concern borders on Swaziland and Mozambique.

“Birds cover vast distances and trying to conserve them in national parks doesn’t work – you need to work with your neighbors to do so,” Botha said. The Israeli experts agreed.

“The vulture is not aware of political borders,” added Oron, the NPA acting CEO. “A great part of the poisoning comes as a result of our neighbors’ behaviors. If we do not pay attention to this, we will not be able to solve this problem.”

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