Vulture culture

A vulture (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
A vulture
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
The vulture is one of Israel’s wildlife symbols.
It has a long history in our land going back to biblical times. With almost no natural enemies you would expect the vulture to thrive.
In fact, the griffon vulture is fighting for its existence in Israel. As you may have guessed, the source of the problems is mankind.
In the 1950s there were hundreds of nesting vulture pairs across the country including the Carmel, Galilee and Negev. Nesting on high cliffs and producing only one offspring every couple of years would allow them to support their species for millennia. However, since then the numbers of vultures have been dropping. As long ago as the 1990s, responsible minds were trying to think up ways to stop the decline of these kings of the sky.
Dangers include shooting of vultures, sometimes for sport, and landing on electricity poles for rest, leading to electrocution and death. Another danger was poisoning by farmers.
A nationwide project, a collaboration between the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Electric Company, helps to protect the vultures.
To solve the problem of electricity poles, the Electric Company covered the top of the poles where the birds of prey land. Since then this hazard has been almost completely eliminated. Wildlife hospitals for injured animals and especially for vultures were set up to assist the effort. Also, the INPA conducts a continuous operation managing the species from egg to adult.
In the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, Igal Miller has been working for 20 years with birds of prey, particularly griffon vultures. Miller is an expert on vultures throughout their life cycle, from laying eggs, to raising the chicks to adulthood, and up to the final target of releasing the young vultures into the wild. When the vulture is restored to nature he will be ringed and carry a radio transmitter providing information on the bird’s behavior, routes and timetable. Unfortunately, all of these efforts can be wiped out within minutes by man-made danger such as poisoning.
A farmer, concerned for his own livestock, may consider dropping a poisoned carcass for the predators (mainly jackals and wolves) to find and eat. Since the vultures are nature’s cleaning crew, they will eat from the carcass as well as from the dead bodies of the canine predators. Vultures feed in large flocks, thus leading to disaster. Dozens of birds can die from a single poisoned carcass, and that can mean the end of an entire colony. It is very hard to replace the vulture population as it is top of the food chain and reproduces very slowly. In addition to the poison scenario, medicines given to livestock can hurt the birds. There is an ongoing effort to educate farmers to work with safe medicine and check farm carcasses before releasing the clean carcasses to the local vulture population. Even with this dedicated effort, numbers are still dropping dangerously. In 2003 there were 460 vultures, and today there are only 150 left in Israel.
This month, in its continued effort to show the importance of saving wild animals for future generations, the INPA is initiating a campaign to raise awareness of wildlife in danger of extinction. The species include vultures, gazelles, salamanders, bats and sea turtles.