Nature authority presses for millions more to protect threatened vultures

Environment Ministry asked to fund NIS 20 million yearly to remove poison-laced carcasses put out by farmers and accidentally consumed by the birds

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Illustrative photo of a griffon vulture (Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0/ Pierre Dalous)
Illustrative photo of a griffon vulture (Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0/ Pierre Dalous)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is pressing the Environmental Protection Ministry to allocate NIS 20 million ($5.6 million) annually to help it step up protection for the endangered griffon vulture.

The iconic birds, whose wingspans can reach up to 2.8 meters (more than nine feet), face a long list of dangers — from collisions with power lines and lead poisoning to habitat loss and food and water shortages in various parts of the region.

But its chief threat is the contamination of carrion with chemicals or veterinary drugs, often by farmers or ranchers who put out poisoned carcasses to protect herds from wolves, jackals and even feral dogs.

If approved, the NIS 20 million from the ministry’s Clean Fund will be used in local authorities with serious sanitation problems to build facilities for collecting agricultural (mainly meat) waste, fence off garbage collection points to stop canines from getting to the food, pay more rangers to locate and remove laced carcasses and use dogs to detect poisons.

To date, the authority has only taken these steps in cases where local councils have paid for the services.

Only around 230 griffon vultures still exist in Israel in the wild, according to a December report.

The carcasses of eight vultures found poisoned in the Golan Heights on May 10, 2019. (Nature and Parks Authority)

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

The INPA already spends millions of shekels annually on breeding the birds.

It fields teams, mainly of volunteers, to protect vulture eggs in nests and has developed an elaborate way of removing and incubating eggs laid in captivity and feeding fledglings.

A worker at the Carmel Hai-Bar in northern Israel shows how a dummy bird head is inserted into the opening of a cage to feed a vulture fledgling to prevent human contact that might prejudice the young bird’s introduction into the wild, March 22, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

It fits the birds with radio transmitters so that their movements can be followed.

Its rangers remove carcasses and distribute vulture food — dead farm animals that have been treated neither with chemicals nor drugs — in around 25 locations throughout the country, in coordination with livestock farmers.

Vulture experts use dummy eggs to replace real ones laid by captive females at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s Carmel Hai-Bar in northern Israel, March 22, 2023. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

“The vultures don’t need us, we need them, they are nature’s sanitizers,” explained Ohad Hazofe, the INPA’s Avian Ecologist, adding that research showed a rise in canine populations and in rabies in places where vulture populations all but disappeared.

“Ninety-nine percent of the farmers observe the law,” he went on. “It can take just one to put out poison and drive the vultures to extinction…There are no other species in which we invest so much.”

In addition to its work in the field, the INPA has long campaigned for an amendment to the Wildlife Act to make prosecutions easier and punishments far more severe for wildlife poisoning.

In December 2021, a private member’s bill submitted by former Knesset lawmaker Mossi Raz passed preliminary reading but never progressed further.

Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, the INPA’s chief scientist, has repeatedly called for reducing the use of poisonous insecticides, registering and regulating their ownership, and passing a law enabling authorities to arrest people suspected of poisoning wildlife. At present, anyone can buy such poison and suspects can only be charged if they are caught red-handed.

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