Israel’s griffon vultures, European otters in ‘serious decline,’ new report finds

But Nature and Parks Authority’s first long-term assessment on state of country’s mammals, birds and reptiles shows many other species stable or expanding

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A European otter. (Ezra Haddad, INPA)
A European otter. (Ezra Haddad, INPA)

Many Israeli populations of endangered animals are stable or growing, but griffon vultures and European otters are in serious decline, conservation experts said this week.

The findings come from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s first long-term report on the state of the country’s mammals, birds and reptiles, published Tuesday.

Wherever possible, the authority’s chief ecologist, Noam Lider, collected data on three generations of each species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this is the minimum basis for analyzing long-term trends.

The largely nocturnal European otter is found in Europe, Asia, and parts of North Africa, reaching its southernmost point of global distribution in Israel. Otters were once found as far south as the Kishon River and the coastal kibbutz of Ma’agan Michael, south of Haifa.

The limited data that has been collected over 19 years (nearly covering three generations) based on sightings, roadkill and droppings, suggests that otters no longer exist in these locations, nor are they present in the northern streams of the Golan Heights, or the Harod, Beit She’an and Jezreel valleys.

The evidence indicates that relatively stable populations are found only in two places today — the Hula Valley and the streams flowing into it, and the Sea of Galilee region, both in the north of the country. Some signs of otters were also detected along the Jordan River, south of the lake.

Lider told a meeting of journalists at Tel Lachish in southern Israel on Tuesday that otters were “on the way to extinction.” To help them, obstacles must be removed and more wetlands created, he said. He added that the INPA was working with the national roads company, Netivei Israel, on creating underpasses to enable the animals to safely cross busy roads.

A griffon vulture. (Yaniv Cohen, INPA)

A generation of European griffon vultures changes once every 18 years, which means populations take a long time to recover from the effects of electrocution on electric cables, accidents and poisonings.

This year, the population has been estimated at around 230 individuals, a few of whom live in the Carmel hills in the north, with the majority in the Judean Desert and Negev Highlands.

But the last two decades have seen a dramatic fall in the number of nests, from a high of 118 in 2002 to just 38 this year.

Furthermore, poisoning of the birds continues, despite years of INPA calls for stronger legal tools to prosecute offenders and better regulate the ownership of poisons.

Poisoning usually happens because a farmer has illegally poisoned a carcass to kill livestock predators. Vultures, which feed on carrion, have been poisoned instead.

Last year, 24 vultures died, 17 of them from poison, while this year, 12 vultures perished, seven from poisoning.

The INPA invests enormous resources and effort in trying to protect the vulture population, removing livestock carcasses, monitoring and protecting nests, trying to breed the birds in captivity, and equipping them with radio transmitters to record their movements. Rangers are immediately despatched to the field if a transmitter broadcasts the slightest strange movement, Lider said.

Nubian ibex in the Negev Desert’s Zin Nature Reserve, southern Israel. (Yaniv Cohen, INPA)

The Nubian ibex, a common sight in areas such as Ein Gedi in the Judean Desert, where many of the animals have become accustomed to tourists, numbered just under 1,000 individuals in 2019 when the last count was undertaken. According to the report, this likely makes Israel home to the world’s biggest and best-protected population. Numbers in Ein Gedi and the Negev Highlands have remained constant, while they have risen in the Eilat mountains in Israel’s far south.

The mountain gazelle, once common in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East but now in decline or extinct in most countries, is also mainly represented in Israel today. In 2020, there were 5,500 individuals. The population in the sands of the southern coastal plain has dropped by half over the past decade, but is stable or increasing elsewhere, the report shows.

The population of the desert-dwelling Dorcas gazelle meanwhile rose from 217 in 2006 to 2,061 last year, dropping back slightly to 1,889 this year.

Raya Shourky (Yaniv Cohen/INPA)

INPA Director-General Raya Shourky noted the multiple threats to wildlife, among them illegal poaching, loss and fragmentation of habitats, poisoning, infection and invasive species.

By bringing dozens of different animal counts together, and drawing regional as well as national pictures of each species, the report would help decision-makers to plan the best conservation strategies, she said.

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