Giants of the Sky

Barak Granit 03/07/2015 00:00

A few weeks ago an unexpected Lappet-faced Vulture arrived out of  nowhere at the Carmel Hai-bar and settled just by a breeding cage of Eurasian Griffons. At Hai Bar Carmel the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) operates a long term reinforcement program to the continuously diminishing wild population in Israel. The arrival of the Lappet-faced Vulture gave me the opportunity to tell the story of their extinction as a breeding bird in Israel, or in other words: how from 25-30 pairs, breeding all along the Arava, Dead Sea region and some part of the Negev including Nizzana and near Beer Sheva in    the 1940's, and still 20-25 pairs in the 60's, numbers dropped to 11 pairs in the early 70's, 4 pairs in 1980 and only one pair from 1985 onwards, till they bred for the last time in 1989.

 

But before diving into the reasons that led to the extinction, here's my personal point of view. I became a 'real' birder (and still knew nothing) only at the end of 1991. During the first half of the 90's, there were very few birders in Israel, mostly teenagers as I was. The older birders of the 1980's were mostly out of the game, devoting their time to work and family.

Still there were some young birders, learning and living in the environmental education high school at Sde Boker in the Negev desert. The news about a pair of Lappet-faced Vultures that hang around there for a while was not kept secret. However back then twitching or increasing one's list was almost a shameful hobby.

At the same time, the atmosphere was of "no rush".

 

 

 

 

 

For example - the 2nd Pallas's Warbler to Israel was found at Sde Boker during February 1992. No Rush. I went to twitch it only in mid-March. Earlier on, in winter, the first Red-wattled Lapwing was found at Eilat's date plantations and remained there for a while. But Eilat was too far to be bothered with a night drive bus. Another one would sourly come later on (and it did, 10 years later). So with the Lappet-faced Vultures, it was not different - no rush.

 

A regime of denial: Two birds left? They are going to become extirpated anyway… Well I gave it a try few times in Sde Boker but always failed. If it happened today, I would act totally different. In 1994 and 1995, the last two birds were found dead and so, the Lappet-faced Vulture became officially extinct. Luckily, as with the lapwing, I was fortunate enough to witness one Lappet-faced Vukture migrating over Eilat Mts.  in May 2001.

 

 

 

 

So let's get back to the main story. During the 40's and 60's some 30-20 pairs bred along the entire Arava Valley and in some sites in the Negev.

How come that within less than 20 years the population size decreased so rapidly to 1 pair? 25 pairs, means 50 adults and probably an additional 15-25 immature birds. That's quite a good number of birds for this huge raptor living in our small country. The answer is not a secret and the late renowned zoologist Giora Ilani, who become famous discovering and studying the Arabian Leopards in Israel, wrote in his memories book "Maale Namer" (In English Leopard Ascent) about his military years, in 1956, when he joined a unit in the northern Arava. Giora named those years the "Dorcas Gazelle massacre" when he described how the isolated soldiers, far away from any authority, killed for fun hundreds of gazelles, or far more than this, bringing in short time the Dorcas population from 5000 in the northern Arava to few hundreds only.

 

Gazelles were not the only target, and in one occasion Giora described their vehicle surprising over 100 Griffons and 15 Lappet-faced Vultures feeding on a camel carcass, and many of the vultures including some Lappet-faced found their death.

 

Giora was there for a short while, and we can imagine that shooting didn't help the vultures future, but shooting itself was not the main reason. In the 60's when all this massacre ceased there were still some 20 pairs left. Those pairs apparently had a hard time fledging young.

The reason was a serious food shortage and the reason for that shortage was probably not due to the gazelle massacre but due to national act of the authorities to evacuate most if not all of the Bedouins from the Arava with their herds.

 

 

Without camel carcasses for which the Lappet-faced has clear advantage over Griffons, as only the Lappet-faced can tear up the thick camel skin, the Lappets simply ran out of food. Add to that a 3rd miserable reason - widespread nest robbery, held by a single person who was 'active' during the end of 60's and the 70's.

 

In conclusion we can understand that the Lappets stood no chance.

So what is today and what about the future? The Griffons state is appalling. The northern population shrank from 300-400 birds in the 90's to 30-40 birds at present, all due to poisoning.

 

The population in the Negev and Judean Desert was smaller from the start and they are all (basically also the northern) dependent on feeding stations - vulture restaurants.

 

 

 

 

There is however some hope as the INPA manages quite successfully breeding nuclei and reintroduction and reinforcement programs, being held in the Carmel near Haifa, where today Griffons breed in the wild due to this immense effort.

For the Lappet-faced Vulture, future reintroduction is more difficult as the breeding nucleus consists of 5 birds in total, 3 females, 1 unproductive male and 1 new bird that landed few weeks ago in the Hai-bar…

and apparently was in a bad physiological state. Who knows, let's not lose hope. There are serious, good men out there working for the future of our vultures.

 

 

 

 

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