Waiting in the wings

Waiting in the wings

October 22, 2009 18:53
griffon vulture 248.88

griffon vulture 248.88. (photo credit: Yoram Shpirer )

Holed up in a tiny hut in a feeding station in the Negev, nature photographer Yoram Shpirer waits from 4 a.m. until evening to capture Griffon vultures on film as they descend on their food. For most of the day, all he observes are two wolves but no vultures. "My method of photographing animals in nature is to see without being seen," he says. Often waiting hours in unbearable heat without results, he needs plenty of patience. "After all, I'm a guest on their turf." Shpirer returns home for a few hours' rest before setting out again for the same spot before dawn in anticipation of finding something worth documenting. "Then towards dusk of this long day, the vultures suddenly came. They landed only 30 meters from me like airplanes, one after the other. All together there were 140 vultures, and I started snapping at a very fast rate. I was as excited as a child! It was a very powerful experience." Known as nature's sanitarian, the Griffon vulture is in danger of extinction in Israel. An exhibition of nature photographer Yoram Shpirer at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, which is on display until December 7, portrays the efforts of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) to increase the birth rate of the Griffon vultures - a rate that has been decreasing at a rapid pace. Shpirer's photographs reveal the various stages of the attempts to preserve the Griffon vulture in a cross-country undertaking involving the Gamla Reserves on the Golan Heights, the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem and the Chai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve. The Griffon vulture has a white bald head and a wingspan of 280 cm., and can fly at 140 km. an hour. Known since biblical times, vulture nests are today located throughout the high cliffs of the Carmel, Golan, Judean Desert and the Negev. "The Griffon vultures are obligatory scavengers who clean up dead animals," says Ohad Hatzofe, the chief avian ecologist of the INPA. "They eat carcasses and are nature's sanitarians of the ecological system. They are immune to a wide range of pathogens that cause the death of livestock and wild animals." Until close to a century ago there were hundreds of vultures in Israel, since livestock carcasses were plentiful and the vultures had more than sufficient available carrion to eat. "Then," Hatzofe says, "with the onset of modernization and the development of veterinary services, animals stayed healthier and lived longer. Regulations were set for where to place them after they died. For example, when cows die, regulations prevent leaving their carcasses in the field. So the source of food for vultures became less available and the vulture population started decreasing." With the outbreak of World War I and the introduction of modern rifles to the Middle East, combined with the massive use of chemicals such as DDT in agriculture, the number of these birds declined dramatically. At the last count in the summer of 2009, about 220 Griffon vultures were alive, including some 65 monogamous couples. Compared with the count of 400 in 2001, the rate of decrease is alarming. "Throughout the country we count them three times a year, and regionally they are counted even more frequently," says Hatzofe. INPA wardens coordinate with many volunteers who are spread throughout Israel near cliffs where vulture nests are perched. Hatzofe notes the differences in the declining statistics of the raptors in northern Israel as compared to the stable numbers in the South. "In the Negev and the Judean Desert, their original number is still maintained because of feeding stations providing carcasses of cattle which are safe [not poisoned] and free of chemicals. The Negev does not have cattle roaming freely, exposed to poison as in the North." Sixteen feeding stations are intended for the vultures, with the majority located in the Negev and the Judean Desert. The feeding stations in the South receive significant support from Israel Chemicals." Conversely, far more problems face the vultures in the North. With their nests perched near the Syrian, Jordanian and Lebanese borders, it is impossible to track them or control their food once they fly out of the country. In addition, the northern vultures face the threat of both direct and indirect poisoning, an issue that is one of the leading causes of their disappearance. "Bait is placed illegally to poison animals such as jackals and wild wolves, but unfortunately the vultures also eat this bait," says Hatzofe. Secondary poisoning is caused when vultures eat animals that had been poisoned by pesticides. As the carcasses are digested, the vultures absorb the poison. "This type of poisoning is an ecological crime. Poison shouldn't be placed in fields where cows graze," says Shpirer. Other causes of premature death include lead poisoning, hunting, electrocution - such as colliding into electric lines - clashes from avian activity and hikers. In addition to a decrease in food sources and the above-mentioned risks, the process of breeding has been slowing down with a reduction in the number of eggs that hatch successfully. The adults' mortality at breeding, from poisoning to persecution to electrocution, has spawned a high death rate for eggs and young birds, especially at Gamla. SHPIRER'S PHOTOGRAPHS document the Griffon vultures in nature and during the various stages of the INPA project. Started in 2008, the project aims to encourage more eggs in the vultures' nests, located on high cliffs, in the Gamla Reserve. The process begins with an INPA staff member who rappels down the cliff to carefully remove the egg from the nest after the mother flies away when he or she approaches. The egg is then placed in a padded container that maintains the warmth and protects the egg until it is taken to a mobile hatchery, which is driven to the zoo in Jerusalem. After arriving at the Israel Raptor Breeding Center at the Biblical Zoo, the egg is measured and weighed, and then candled to identify fertility. It is then placed in a controlled incubator. Fifty-four days later, the egg begins to hatch. The chick is fed with a glove that resembles a vulture to avoid contact with humans and prevent the bonding process through imprinting. So far, 21 eggs have been hatched using this method, says Hatzofe. After 30 more days, the chick is transferred in a large cage to the Chai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve, where it remains for four months. After that, it is relocated to the Gamla Reserve, where it is acclimatized in a large cage until it is released to the wild in its third year. Meanwhile, back at the nest, when the mother vulture sees that the egg is missing, she lays another one. Instead of laying the usual one egg per year, the vulture lays two eggs due to this method, thus multiplying their numbers. "Twenty eggs have replaced those that were taken from the nest; but they suffer from the problem of low breeding success in the wild," says Hatzofe. BORN IN Kibbutz Nitzanim in the south, Yoram Shpirer "was surrounded by nature and animals, and raised and cared for wild animals." He completed his studies at the Hebrew University's Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot and subsequently worked as a nutritionist for cattle, sheep and goats throughout Israel, specializing in the nutrition and fertility of the dairy cow. He also conducted research about the parasite-host relationship of the Great Spotted Cuckoo and the Hooded Crow, under the guidance of Tel Aviv University professor Amotz Zehavi. A self-taught photographer, Shpirer started documenting wildlife animals using sophisticated digital equipment. Recently, he has contacted the INPA authorities and various volunteers to conserve the vulture population in Israel. "Members of the INPA work out of a great love for nature," he says. "They don't clock hours and are not concerned about just getting their paycheck. I was looking to collaborate with people not influenced by politics, those who don't ask what their work gives them." Growing up in a kibbutz and today living with his family in Kfar Menahem, he feels at home around animals. "I live in nature, and I am used to being surrounded by vultures, and even wolves." His work days are very long. He enters a tiny hut, which he calls his portable hideout, at 4 a.m. and leaves after sunset. "I enter when the vultures don't see me and the camera lens extends just a little," Shpirer says. "Hikers sometimes walk by and are unaware of my presence." Many of the photographed vultures are identified or tagged using a ring that surrounds the head, wing and feet, and bears an an identity number. The original photo is then enlarged on the computer and the number clearly read, thus identifying the raptor. Sometimes a vulture that hadn't been sighted for years is photographed by Shpirer, providing the only indication that it is alive. "After patiently waiting for hours in the hideout, I recently photographed a vulture that was not seen for five years!" claims Shpirer. Proceeds from the sale of his photographs will go to the Lateva Nolad Israel Wildlife Hospital. The main branch of the hospital is located in the Safari in Ramat Gan and is run jointly by the Safari and the INPA. About 2,000 wildlife animals from all over Israel are treated at the facility annually. "They are hospitalized mainly due to injuries," says Omri Gal, INPA spokesman. "The injuries are from being run over and from shooting. They are found by our wardens who are positioned in nature reserves all over the country. All types of wildlife are brought here, including small fish." One purpose of Lateva Nolad is to rehabilitate the animals and send them back into nature. Another purpose is to gather information about the causes of injuries in an effort to prevent further injuries. "For example, if birds are hurt from colliding with electric poles, the poles can be padded," explains Gal. Sometimes after an entire day of taking photographs, Shpirer returns home with injured birds that he found and takes them to Lateva Nolad in Rosh Ha'ayin. According to Hatzofe, the importance of Shpirer's work is twofold: "His documentation of INPA's work to encourage the increase of the Griffon vulture is thorough and comprehensive. But the major benefit of his work is his ability to photograph the tagged vultures and to keep track of them. Yoram has the patience and endurance to sit in his hiding place for days on end from sunrise to sunset, often during extremely hot conditions. By documenting these tagged vultures, he is providing crucial evidence that they have survived." "It's important to portray the situation of the Griffon vultures in Israel - and hopefully this will help prevent them from becoming history," says Shpirer.

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