White bird down leads to delicate rescue operation

Israel uses American, German mediation to retrieve potential spy-pelican information from Sudan.

pelican_311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
An urgent operation was called for. A sophisticated transmitter with valuable data in its GPS that contained flight paths, eating habits and daily activity was lost somewhere along the Blue Nile and needed to be quietly retrieved and returned to the right hands in Israel.
Since Israel and Sudan have no formal diplomatic relations, third parties were called in and American and German figures were able get hold of the transmitter before it fell into the wrong hands.
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“We trapped and marked six great white pelicans with satellite GSM and GPS transmitters and wing tags,” Ohad Hatzofe, an avian ecologist for Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority (NPA), told The Media Line. “It was used to monitor and better understand pelican movements …. None of it is for espionage, as sometimes we are accused of by our neighbors in the Middle East, unfortunately.”
But one of the birds was trapped and died in a fisherman’s net in southern Sudan. The father of the fisherman retrieved the transmitter from its back. Instead of turning it over to authorities; he noticed a German e-mail address imprinted on the device and sent a message that they had found it.
Normally, tracking animals and birds for scientific purposes would not have required such sleuthing. But an increasing paranoia of Israeli zoological militancy conspiracy theories has made such incidents fodder for claims Israel was using wild animals to spy or attack people.
Last January, Saudi Arabia claimed to have detained an eagle for being a Mossad spy. Earlier, the south Sinai governor suggested that a shark that killed a tourist in Sharm el-Sheikh had been intentionally released by the Mossad to sabotage tourism in the area.
“Anyone who would use wild animals for spying is a world criminal because that would be the end of wild life,” Hatzofe said. “You could use wild animals to rescue people. I don’t know how, but maybe there is justification for that. But to use them for espionage? Well, we would be the last ones to do that.”
The great white pelican was declared a threatened species in 1992. Nearly 40,000 of them pass through Israel, a major bird migratory route linking Africa with Eurasia, twice a year. To better understand their migration patterns and behaviors, Israeli researchers from the NPA teamed up with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany to put global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices on them last December.
Two of the GPS-carrying pelicans died, one was badly wounded and a third was lost, but others two had been sending back data until recently. According to Hatzofe, one transmitted that it spent a few months in Lake Nasser near the Aswan Dam in Egypt and then made its way to central Turkey, revealing a previously unknown breeding ground.
He was busy tracking the final bird, which spent the winter in southeast Sudan and occasionally crossed into Ethiopia.
“It started to move across the Blue Nile slowly in the summer. For some reason, this bird, a male, gave up the spring migration. We don’t know why,” he said.
Hatzofe said he knew something was wrong when it started to transmit it was going upstream and then it started to signal mortality. The bird had an Israeli band on its leg, but the transmitter was marked with a German address.
“Our colleague in Germany got an e-mail from a Sudanese guy who informed him he got a bird with an Israeli ring, or band, and that’s how the contact was made,” Hatzofe said.
According to him, an American wildlife conservationist in Khartoum, who would not be named for fear of repercussions for having contact with Israelis, agreed to track down the fisherman and retrieve the entire transmitter kit and send it back to Israel via Germany.

The teams in Israel are anxiously awaiting its arrival because it holds an enormous amount of data that were not transmitted while the pelican was alive, including minute-by-minute details of its altitude, speed of flight, length of stay and precise positions.
“Birds know no political boundaries,” Hatzofe said.
But precise reports such as this lend credence to Arab propaganda that the Jewish state has no boundaries when it comes to collecting intelligence. Stories of sharks, raptors and rodents used by a “Zionist plot” continue to appear.
In 2007, Iran’s state-sponsored IRNA news agency reported that 14 squirrels working for the West had been arrested with spy gear. A year later, Iran announced it nabbed two pigeons with “invisible strings” staking out a nuclear site in Natanz.
“We can be enemies or have disputes on water or borders or other issues, but birds and other wildlife belongs to all of us and we have to cooperate,” Hatzofe said. “We actually do have cooperation across the borders with some colleagues in countries that we are technically enemies. Ignorance causes these stupid beliefs that they are used for spying.”