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