Visitors to the Avdat National Park in the Negev yesterday were invited by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to take part in Vulture Day. That is, they had the opportunity to view vultures from a special observation post, and learn about the authority's efforts to protect them.
Vultures have lived in the area for thousands of years, but nowadays manage to survive thanks largely to a project that has placed and maintains feeding stations throughout the desert.
A network of 20 feeding centers in the Negev and the Arava, run by a devoted team of park rangers and scientists, helps maintain the vulture population in the region and also provides a source of food for vultures arriving from other areas. Through these efforts they have succeeded in slowing down the eradication of vultures in the south.
Three years ago, the project was expanded after the planning and zoning commission of the southern region determined that Israel Chemicals should offer compensation for the environmental damage caused by its Negev mining work. One activity the company chose to fund was the establishment of a system that would collect animal carcasses and transport them to areas visited by vultures - scavengers who feed on dead animals.
"We subcontract the gathering of a hundred tons of animal carcasses a year, mainly from Bedouin towns in the Negev which report their locations," says Ohad Hatzofe, an avian ecologist at the parks authority. "And in this way we also provide a solution to a grave health hazard."
"According to a Hebrew University study, the vultures receive 94 percent of their food from the feeding stations," Hatzofe says. "This fact means they are protected, as they do not eat in places where they may be poisoned, or electrocuted by power lines."
The vultures' dependence on these stations does not negatively impact their natural behavior, Hatzofe explains.
"In many areas in the world, like Europe and India, vultures have long been dependent on human beings for their food," he says. "In the past, the Bedouin raised flocks of sheep in the Negev, and the vultures lived off of the animal carcasses. Today we have to collect these carcasses from populated areas and bring them to the feeding stations - after checking to make sure they are suitable for vultures.
"It's not easy to find locations [for feeding stations], because they must be isolated and undisturbed. Other types of fowl also find their way to them, including those called Egyptian vultures," Hatzofe explains.
Many of the birds are captured in order to be tagged, and have transmitters attached to their bodies, which allow them to be tracked. According to Hatzofe, 200 vultures were spotted in Israel last year, and more than half of them had been tagged. Thanks to the transmitters, the authorities know that some of them are migratory and reach as far as Saudi Arabia. A few of them arrive in Israel from the Balkans and the Caucasus.
Parks authority workers must also contend with various threats to the vultures' nesting places. These include disturbances caused by travelers, as when private helicopters fly nearby. This sort of disturbance is apparently a major reason why this is the third year in a row the number of vulture nests in the Negev and the Judean Desert has dropped.