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Mass poisoning nearly wipes out Griffon Vulture population in Golan Heights

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Eight Griffon Vultures found poisoned in the Golan Heights (c) Dudu Pils/Israel Nature and Parks Authority
Eight Griffon Vultures found poisoned in the Golan Heights (c) Dudu Pils/Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Eight Griffon Vultures from the nearly extinct population of just 20 vultures on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights were discovered dead as a result of poisoning. In addition to the eight killed, two more vultures were found poisoned but thankfully alive.

Nearly half the population wiped out

On the morning of Friday 10 May, eight Griffon Vultures were found dead in Golan Heights, together with some foxes and jackals. The authorities didn’t know who was behind the attack, and an investigation begins.

Two more vultures were found poisoned but alive. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) took them to local wildlife recovery centres, where they were treated and have since been nursed back to health.

“The killing of so many of the species was a “mortal blow” to Israel’s Griffon Vulture population and was all the worse because it had happened during nesting season, meaning eggs now might not hatch and chicks might not survive.”,  INPA director Shaul Goldstein said.

Out of the 8 dead vultures, 2 are Spanish born that were acclimatized and released in Gamla nature reserve, Golan heights, 1 was captive born (2006) and released in Mt. Carmel in 2009, 3 were tagged wild born (rings and wing tags) and 2 untagged: 1 ad, 1 imm.

One of the poisoned Griffon Vulture (c) Flash90/Uri Lenz
One of the poisoned Griffon Vulture (c) Flash90/Uri Lenz

On Sunday 12 May, after the investigation by the police, a 30-year old man from Tuba Zangariya was arrested. It appears that the suspect used toxic pesticides on a cow carcass to protect his cattle from predators. Such indiscriminate methods have been used before to the detriment of Israel’s vulture population, which isn’t the intended target, but rather wolves and jackals. He is now scheduled to appear before a judge, where police will request an extension to his remand.

On Wednesday 15 May, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel launched a petition to amend Israel’s Wildlife Protection Law, which will help protect wild birds and prevent such instances in the future. Find out more about the online petition and add your signature to help protect Israeli wildlife and vultures.

Vulture Conservation Foundation Advisory Board member and avian ecologist at the INPA told news website Al-Monitor “Cattle breeders and farmers illegally scatter poison for various reasons, sometimes it’s because they want to eliminate predators —  wolves, jackals and foxes — that threaten their flocks; sometimes it’s due to a dispute over grazing land. My greatest frustration is that I know it will happen again. There is no punishment, no control. The bullets of an entire gun cartridge are nothing compared to the potential of damage caused by poisoning.”  

We here at the Vulture Conservation Foundation strongly condem the actions taken to decimate this small and fragile population of Griffon Vulture in the area. The swift action of the police and law enforcement agencies is welcomed and we hope the criminal who commited this needless act is brought to justice.

Four Griffon Vultures affected came from Spain

We tracked the backgrounds of the Griffon Vultures affected by this tragic incident and discovered that four of them came from Spain. Not only that, but a fourth of the Griffon Vulture population in Golan Heights originates from Spain. More specifically, they originated from the Rehabilitation Centre in Vallcalent, Spain. The centre is lead by Generalitat of Catalunya, the regional government and the reintroduction project is a collaboration between Vallcalent and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. This conservation effort was one of many taken by the local authorities to rebuild the Griffon Vulture population in Israel.

Two of the vultures survived from the poisoning, but the other two died, unfortunately. One of the Griffon Vultures killed was caught as a juvenile in Berga (Catalunya) with signs of anaemia, dehydration and starvation on the 14th of August 2017. The team brought it to the recovery centre in Vallcalent, where it was treated and later shipped together with other birds to Israel in less than two months. The other Griffon Vulture affected was taken to the rehabilitation centre in Vallcalent as a chick because its parents abandoned the nest. It stayed at the centre and taken to Israel in January 2018. Both of these vultures were born in 2016 and released in Gamla Nature Reserve in 2018. They did not even reach four years of age when they can usually live for more than 30 years.

This is an incredible but sad story showing conservationists from different countries working together to ensure Griffon Vultures do not go extinct in Israel. It just shows how much work goes into reintroducing vultures back to the wild, from treating them, raising them, and transporting them among other efforts. And this one incident has such a negative impact on these conservation efforts and the species in the region.

Some positive news

There is a positive update from this tragedy. One of the two vultures that were poisoned but alive healed and was released back to the wild by the INPA.


Griffon Vultures in Israel

Griffon Vulture from the Golan Heights, Israel (c) IPNA/Eran HaimesGriffon Vulture from the Golan Heights, Israel (c) IPNA/Eran Haimes

The number of vultures in Israel has dropped dramatically in the past few years. Just 20 years ago there were around 378 vultures in Israel but during a survey in 2018 the population stands at just 47, a massive decline of 61 percent. This is drastic decrease is a result of similar poisoning incidents, usually caused by farmers to protect their livestock from predators. The worst instance of poisoning took place in 1998 when about 40 vultures were found dead after eating the carcasses of poisoned cattle or wild animals.

In efforts to reverse the decline wildlife organisations in Israel have been carrying out projects to boost the local population include transporting and releasing birds from Spain where the Griffon Vulture population is increasing. However, this recent incident will severely damage those efforts and Griffon Vulture is dangerously close to becoming extinct in Israel.

The silent killer

One of the vultures that came from Spain
One of the vultures that came from Spain

Poison is the biggest threat to vultures worldwide – this was indeed the main conclusion of the Vulture Multi-species Action Plan, co-developed by us here at the Vulture Conservation Foundation, and endorsed by the
Convention for Migratory Species (CMS). A significant part of this global action plan for vultures focus on the actions needed to fight this threat.

In Europe the we are actively pursuing different lines of work to fight this threat, among which is the Balkan Anti-Poisoning Project, funded by the MAVA Foundation, where we are working and funding local partners in five counties (Croatia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Greece) to try to eradicate this illegal and highly damaging practice.

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