The Griffon Vulture Conservation Program
Photograph: Flori van Essen
Photograph: Yoram Shpirer
Birds of prey are referred to in the Bible many times as a symbol of might and power but are declining in Israel today. Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus) are the largest birds of prey in Israel but less than 40 nesting pairs are left, as opposed to nearly 1,000 before the establishment of the state. The population of Egyptian vultures has also dwindled by nearly 70 percent, and two other impressive species, the bearded vulture and the cinereous vulture, disappeared more than two decades ago. Vultures are critically important to natural ecosystems because they dispose of the carcasses of dead animals and neutralize the spread of potentially lethal diseases including anthrax, rabies and cholera.
As eaters of carrion, vultures often fall victim by eating wildlife that has been poisoned to protect livestock. Birds that ingest poison then themselves pose a health risk to other scavenger species. They are also under threat from hunting, nesting disturbances (by hikers and aircraft, among others), electrocution by power lines, lack of food (due to increased hygiene protocols in the livestock industry and decrease in wild hoofstock populations), available metal remains (usually gun shell remains in military training zones) and wind turbines. Currently these threats are mitigated in Israel in various ways to allow the Griffon vulture population to increase in numbers again through breeding and reintroduction of captive bred birds.
In response to this dire situation, a joint project was started by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA), SPNI (the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel) and IEC (Israel Electric Corp). Today, more institutions, such as zoos, veterinary institutions and various civil and military aviation organizations, have joined the project. The Jerusalem Zoo, as a major contributor to the project, operates the National Center for Raptor Egg Incubation which was established in 1998. The Center serves a large number of raptor conservation projects: although it focuses mainly on the Griffon Vulture, eggs of species such as the Lanner Falcon, the Lesser Kestrel, Bonelli’s Eagle, the Egyptian Vulture, the White-tailed Eagle and the Lappet-faced Vulture have also been incubated here.
Established in 1998, the National Center for Raptor Egg Incubation at the Jerusalem Zoo aims to increase breeding capabilities by ensuring optimal results. During the nesting season, eggs are collected from other breeding centers and wild nesting sites for incubation. Hatched chicks are reared by foster parent pairs at the Zoo’s Birds of Prey Exhibit and at other facilities or hand-reared (using a vulture-like puppet to prevent imprinting) until fledging age, at which time they are moved to acclimatization enclosures and, subsequently, released to the wild by the INNPPA. After several years of running this successful protocol and new breeding colony has been established at the Carmel Mt., where the species stopped nesting decades ago.
The project increases breeding capabilities by ensuring optimal results, thus providing a relatively large number of new birds for release to the wild every year. The Zoo further contributes to raptor conservation by placing nesting boxes in urban areas for the Lesser Kestrel; and by conducting research related to birds of prey through its Prof. Shulov Fund for the Study of Animals in Captivity.