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With wingspan of nearly 10 feet, 'it was incredible to see'

Vulture thought extinct from Israel for 30 years spotted twice in a month

Israel Nature and Parks Authority hopes sightings of subspecies of ecologically important lappet-faced vulture signal its return

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A lappet-faced vulture visits the Hai Bar Nature Reserve at Yotvata in southern Israel, April 29 2021. (Noam Weiss/ International Birding and Research Center, Eilat)
A lappet-faced vulture visits the Hai Bar Nature Reserve at Yotvata in southern Israel, April 29 2021. (Noam Weiss/ International Birding and Research Center, Eilat)

Last month, the chief scientist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority witnessed the appearance in Israel of a species recorded as extinct, for the second time in his career.

The first time was in 2011 when the Hula painted frog, endemic to the Hula marshes of northern Israel, was rediscovered. It was thought to be extinct in the wild as a result of habitat destruction during the 1950s.

The second time was in late April, when the lappet-faced vulture, extinct in the country since 1989, paid a visit to the Hai Bar Nature Reserve at Yotvata in southern Israel.

On Tuesday, that vulture — or another of the same species, nobody is sure — appeared at Hai Bar for a second time.

Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, Israel Nature and Parks Authority Chief Scientist. (Courtesy INPA)

Yehoshua Shkedy told The Times of Israel that the return or rediscovery of just one species that had gone extinct was “enough to make me ecstatic.”

He added, “I feel so blessed. When the bird was reported the first time, I dropped everything and drove down to Yotvata to see it. I saw it spread its wings. It has a wingspan of 2.9 meters (9.5 feet). It was incredible to see.”

Torgos tracheliotos negevensis, named for the Negev desert, is a subspecies of lappet-faced vulture. Its head is a duller color than that of its African cousin — pink rather than red — and it does not have the distinct white line on the underwing that the African one has.

It could once be seen from the northern Negev and central Judean Desert down to the Eilat mountains on the country’s southernmost tip. It still inhabits the Arabian peninsula and Shkedy has made preliminary inquiries with nature organizations in the United Arab Emirates, with which Israel normalized relations last year, with a view to acquiring birds and establishing a breeding program.

The most powerful of the African vultures and the one with the biggest wingspan, the lappet-faced vulture stands at around a meter tall (3.3 feet) and has a powerful beak. According to Shkedy, it is the only creature in Africa other than the lion and the hyena capable of ripping open the carcass of a large mammal. Unlike the other two, it will allow smaller vultures and other animals to join the feast.

Its bald head is adapted to its feeding habits. There is no point having a fancy hairdo when your face spends much of its time inside the entrails of a corpse.

The African lappet-faced vulture has a redder head. (YouTube screenshot)

In recent decades, the whole species of lappet-faced vultures, including the negevensis subspecies, has seen a drastic decline, with just 5,700 birds left in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. It is now classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The main reason is poisoning by humans of animal carcasses to get rid of other wild animals that prey on their livestock.

By eating carrion, vultures perform a critical service, cleaning up waste and, according to the Vulture Conservation Foundation, preventing the spread of diseases such as anthrax and rabies.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has already been successful in breeding other species of birds of prey. But it is a long process.

The organization prefers to use pairs of birds that cannot survive in the wild anyway either due to injury or disability, Shkedy explained. The birds need to successfully breed and be able to feed their young, and the chicks need to survive a few years before they can be released.

“If we started today and saw the first nest in six or seven years, that would be regarded as a success,” Shkedy said.

This is why he is praying that the visitor or visitors to the Hai Bar, of as yet unknown gender, might be scouting out Israel as a place to start nesting again.

“I didn’t agree to catching the bird the first time for ringing,” Shkedy said. “I wanted to see whether it would bring its partner and others of the same species, whether there will be natural rehabilitation.”

The first white-backed vulture to be spotted in Israel flew over the Og streambed in the northern Dead Sea area on April 29, 2021. (Asaf Mizrahi, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

April also saw the first sighting in Israel of a white-backed vulture over the Og streambed in the northern Dead Sea area. This species is categorized as critically endangered by the IUCN. Its numbers have dropped by 90% over the last 55 years.

Israel’s vulture population as a whole is small, vulnerable, and in danger of extinction. It is concentrated mainly in the Negev in southern Israel and the Carmel in the north, with a few individuals on the Golan Heights.

But it is growing slowly, thanks to the protection, rehabilitation and breeding efforts of the INPA. Bird numbers rose from 110 in 2012 to an unprecedented high of 206 last year, while the number of nests increased from 33 to 48.

Of the 206 eagles counted in June 2020 (the last count), 22 were from a captive breeding program and ten were rehabilitated eagles from Spain that had been injured and were treated and released locally into the wild.

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