Israel’s largest nesting site for vultures ceased to be active last week. The discovery is a blow to the efforts of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to preserve the raptors in Gamla Nature Reserve, in the southern Golan Heights.
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The nature reserve owes much of its current popularity to the opportunity it offers hikers to view vultures’ nests. At one time, there were dozens of nests each year. But their number has gradually dwindled and only three active nests were discovered this year. That number fell to two last week, and then a dead chick was found in one of the nests. An egg disappeared from the other remaining nest.
Nature and Parks Authority officials said it wasn’t the first time that vulture-nesting activity in Gamla has ceased completely, adding that it will probably be renewed next year. But they admitted that what happened last week is additional evidence of an ongoing problem.
The primary active threat to the vultures in recent years is mass poisoning, presumably by ranchers trying to save their livestock from predators such as wolves and jackals. Vultures ingest the poison when they feed on the carcasses of cows or sheep that farmers have baited in an effort to kill the predatory mammals.
The Nature and Parks Authority says it is aware of 17 vultures that died in this manner in the past year alone, and that efforts are being made to determine additional causes of death to chicks in the Gamla nesting site. The agency is cooperating with programs to hand-raise vulture chicks in Israeli zoos, from eggs laid in the wild. It has also begun importing vultures from Spain. Some 20 vultures have been brought in, and eight have been released into the wild.
In addition, there has been some success in raising vultures in the Carmel Forest, outside Haifa, and the area now has a number of vultures’ nests. Last week, for example – and for the first time this year – a vulture chick was observed hatching from a nest in the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve. The breeding program is part of a partnership with the Israel Electric Corporation.
Birding experts in Israel, chief among them Prof. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University, call for doing more to prevent the poisonings. He says there’s no point in importing vultures from abroad as long as the poisoning continues, since the birds will die as soon as they’re released. Leshem wants the police to treat the poisoning of vultures as they would any murder. He says a dedicated investigative unit should be established, and the punishment for such offenses increased.
In a statement, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said it was “very disappointed by what happened [last week] in the nesting site in Gamla,” adding, “We are aware of the problem. We are working to rehabilitate the population and decrease mortality factors. We operate feeding stations for vultures and acclimation cages for use before they are released into nature, and we endeavor to prevent the electrocution of vultures on high-voltage lines.”