Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Death to Save the Israeli Vulture From Extinction

Years of fruitless labor in incubating and releasing vultures into nature, only to see them get killed or fly off to war zones, are starting to produce results.

Flori van Wessen

Talk about a thankless task – rescuing the Israeli vulture from extinction. But after decades of effort, the project may finally be, slowly, starting to succeed.

It can't be said that nobody loves a vulture. Their parents do. And love the bird or not, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is working in collaboration with the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo and other animal reserves in the country to rescue the vulture from total obliteration.

It can frustrating - the zookeepers hand-raise baby vultures from the egg and release them into nature, often to watch them get killed by the same elements causing the vultures' near-extinction in the first place.

The vulture in question is the Griffon, a colossal bird whose wing span can reach nearly 3 meters. Unusually, the females often outweigh the males, with body mass that can reach 11.3 kilos, twice the size of a large watermelon. (Reportedly, in captivity, fat vultures can reach extraordinary weights of up to 15 kilos).

In central Asia, the Griffon is not endangered, though its population has been declining. In Israel it has all but disappeared. Only 180 remain in nature, Yigal Miller of the nature authority tells Haaretz.

One cause of their decline is their glacial pace of reproduction, and their investment in the kids. Did we mention love?

"Griffon vultures form pair bonds, which have only one chick a year," explains Sigalit Dvir-Horowitz, zoo spokeswoman. The pair raises the chick together, feeding it regurgitated internal organs. (Yes: the parents partially digest the innards of bodies they find lying around before spitting it up for the delectation of their offspring).

A second reason is poisoning. The main culprit is anti-inflammatory drugs routinely given to farm animals that may alleviate their aches, but kill the birds. And although it's illegal, some Israeli farmers leave poisoned bodies of small animals in order to kill foxes and wolves, not that the Israeli wolf is particularly impressive next to its hulking northern cousin.

Then there are the vultures who the zoo manages to raise and release, who fly high into the sky – and disappear into Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. Or even farther afield. They can fly about 120 kilometers a day, riding thermal currents, if they feel so inclined, says Miller.

Out of the babies they manage to rear and return to nature, how many survive? Miller, who is the man at the nature authority responsible for their breeding and resurrection, admits that at first, success rates were pitiful. "From 2005 we changed our release tactics and methods, I think, knock on wood, that we have achieved a 80% to 90% survival rate," he says.

Bringing up baby

All vulture eggs born in captivity in Israel – about 10 to 20 a year, says Dvir-Horowitz - are incubated by the Israeli Center for Raptor Egg Incubation at the Biblical Zoo. Sometimes eggs found in nature are brought back to the center for incubation, on the grounds that the probability of hatching and rearing are higher there than in nature.

The downy chicks are as adorable as any other baby bird, if a hell of a lot larger. And the process of feeding them is just as revolting.

The baby vultures are raised and fed in silence, and the cages are structured so the chicks cannot see their feeders, so they won't imprint on the humans. A puppet vulture head is used in the feeding process, to which the chicks become quite attached, says Michal Erez, head of the Biblical Zoo's ornithological department and the zoo's vulture breeder.

Imprinting means that they think the feeder is mommy and that they are little zookeepers instead of little vultures. That is a problem when trying to reintroduce them to nature.

So, the zookeepers feed these colossal baby birds using tweezers-full of chopped up, bloody guts in the proximity of a puppet vulture head. It bears mention that for the sake of optimal nutrition and verisimilitude, the guts mix fed to the wee ones undergoes partial enzymatic digestion, as it would in the parent's stomach before regurgitation to feed to the kids.

The puppet is actually the decapitated head of a real vulture, which the zookeeper wears like a hand-puppet on one hand. Since it's seriously cumbersome, the keeper actually feeds the squeaking baby with her other hand, but the baby is supposed to think the puppet is feeding it.

One might suspect the staff of being a tad precious – can't the birds hear and smell them anyway? Even if they do, they're evidently not imprinting. "If they do catch sight of us, they cringe," explains Erez. The process takes devotion. The babies need feeding every few hours.

Death in Saudi Arabia

Finally, once the babies reach about 2-3 months of age, they are all moved from the Jerusalem zoo to the Hai-Bar vulture center in northern Israel. The young vultures continue to grow up there in surroundings more akin to their natural environment than the white stone of central Jerusalem, Miller explains. "They imprint on nature," he explains.

Once a vulture is returned to nature, its chances of survival have improved, but they can still wind up in trouble. For instance there was the vulture sporting a "Tel Aviv University" tag on its leg, that flew all the way to Saudi Arabia, only to get arrested on suspicion of being a Mossad agent. Israel denied the allegation.

Miller notes that the nature authority is working on getting farmers to replace medicines that harm vultures, one problem being that the alternatives can be more expensive. He for one feels some progress is being made. At least, he adds, vultures don't really have natural enemies – they're big and smart. "It's the king of the birds," Miller says. But the Middle East is not kind to its kings.