Until the 1950s, there were still an estimated 1,000 pairs of vultures in Israel. Today, there are fewer than 200 such birds. 


Over 150 years ago, Henry Baker Tristram, a British clergyman, Bible scholar, explorer, and ornithologist from rural northeastern England, stood under the blue skies of the Land of Israel and marveled at the sight of the soaring vultures.

“I do not think that I ever surveyed a landscape without its being enlivened by the circling party of griffons,” wrote Tristram, who documented thousands of griffon vultures, among other wildlife species, during his 1864 visit to the Holy Land.

The reality of the griffon vulture has vastly changed since that time. The bird of prey is considered critically endangered in Israel and across the Middle East. Indeed, until the 1950s, there were still an estimated 1,000 pairs of vultures. Today, there are fewer than 200 such birds in Israel.

Most of the vulture population resides in southern Israel, including the Negev Highlands, the cliffs above the Ramon Crater, and the Judean desert – as well as a few nesting areas in northern Israel, including the Carmel hills.

For residents of Midreshet Ben-Gurion, a yishuv next to Kibbutz Sde Boker in the Negev Highlands, watching Israel’s largest raptor soaring in the blue skies is a familiar sight.

 A VULTURE in the Hai-Bar Nature Reserve in the Carmel. (credit: Olga Rybak/INPA)
A VULTURE in the Hai-Bar Nature Reserve in the Carmel. (credit: Olga Rybak/INPA)

“The last thing we want is to see is the birds disappear from the sky,” said Tamar Berger, a mother of four and resident of Midreshet Ben-Gurion for over 20 years. “On Shabbat, we go to see the vultures nesting. They are part of our life here. For me, the desert without vultures would be like a world without a blue sky. They are integral to the desert landscape.”

Other residents, such as Shany Shainock, described watching the vultures as they drank their coffee in the morning.

“Nearly a decade ago, we would see a flock of maybe 14 vultures – it was a truly amazing sight, as our home is located right next to the cliffs where they nest. Then for a few years, we didn’t see any vultures. Today, when we see maybe three or four vultures, it’s very exciting.”

The vanishing vultures: The decline of the biblical raptors

According to Yigal Miller, the retired manager of programs for endangered raptors at Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), the numbers are not optimistic.

“There are between 180 to 200 individual vultures inhabiting Israel today,” he told the Magazine in an interview several months ago.

“We are hanging by our fingernails,” said Miller, who has over 30 years of experience reviving the vulture population; a difficult task given their slow rate of reproduction at only one chick per year and the fact that they only reach sexual maturity at around 56 years of age.

“Success is not the chick itself,” he added. “Success happens when that chick becomes fully grown and is able to breed and bring another chick into the world,” explained Miller. But along the way, there are major obstacles that griffon vultures must unfortunately contend with.

Today, for example, poisoning plays a critical role in the declining numbers of griffon vultures in Israel, as well as globally – in addition to water shortages and habitat disappearance. While in the past, electrocutions were a major factor, today toxic chemicals in pesticides or chemicals used by farmers to poison carcasses – designated to kill livestock predators – and even misuse of veterinary drugs that prove deadly – have often found their way to vultures.

Just in the month of March this year, eight griffon vultures, in addition to other wildlife including two Egyptian vultures and a kite, were found poisoned to death in southern Israel, after having consumed carrion that had been treated by drugs. One of those griffon vultures was born in a special breeding center at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo six years ago.

This was not the first time that vultures have been impacted in this way. In October 2021, a total of 12 griffon vultures were found dead in the Judean desert from poisoning.

And in northern Israel, griffon vultures have also been poisoned. In May 2019, eight griffon vultures were found dead (out of a population of 20) in the Golan Heights, apparently having eaten from the poisoned carcass of a cow.

These poisonings dealt a huge blow to the griffon vulture population in the North and South of the country, which today stands at less than 190 vultures.

“There is no oversight over the use of toxic chemicals,” Miller explained.

“Maybe once over my career, someone was caught and had to pay a fine, but most of the time people do what they want with poisons without any thought to the harm done to the nature around them. There are rarely any legal repercussions.”

As nature’s clean-up crew, griffon vultures, with their long necks, strong hooked bills, and wingspan of 2.5 meters, easily locate carrion and feast on it. Their highly acidic stomach and digestive systems are able to neutralize the toxins in the rotting flesh. The vultures’ function helps naturally take care of the dead animals and prevent the spread of diseases, such as rabies.

The INPA, in collaboration with other organizations, has taken several important measures over the years to prevent the extinction of the griffon vulture, such as running an extensive management program; providing contaminant-free food in supplementary feeding stations; individually tracking vultures with GPS transmitters; and raising and releasing captive-bred griffons to the wild – led by Miller and fellow INPA avian ecologist, Ohad Hatzofe.

The Porsim Kanaf (Spreading Wings) project, for example, is a joint collaboration of the INPA, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), and the Israeli Electric Company (IEC) and was born out of the electrocution issue. The project was established in 1996 to protect and rehabilitate the vulture population of northern Israel and thus prevent their complete extinction in the North.

“In the past, high-voltage electrocutions of the vultures and other large raptors were a huge problem,” Hatzofe told the Magazine.

“However, the Israeli Electric Company took responsibility and provided insulation for high-voltage wires, which helped scale down the number of dead and injured vultures dramatically,” he explained.

OTHER PRECAUTIONS that have helped southern Israel’s vulture population remain stable include steps taken by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). In the Negev Highlands, Hatzofe noted that the IAF is careful not to fly too low in the area to prevent collisions with the vultures and disturbances to their environment. However, in a rare incident, last summer a griffon vulture collided with an Apache helicopter whose pilot was flying in an authorized corridor. The pilot was forced to carry out an emergency landing in the Sde Boker area, and the vulture died. As part of the Porsim Kanaf project, which places satellite transmitters on Israel’s critically endangered birds of prey, authorities were able to figure out what happened, thanks to a satellite transmitter attached to the downed griffon vulture.

Other man-made obstacles arise, according to Hatzofe, when hikers do not keep to the marked trails and use drones to film their hikes, in addition to leaving behind garbage, all of which also harm the vultures and their habitat.

Furthering public awareness about the plight of Israel’s vultures took a unique turn last summer when INPA teamed up with Nesher Malt, Israel’s popular root beer company which has the image of the vulture on its blue sky label and is its namesake (nesher means “vulture” in Hebrew). In a special campaign that eventually went viral, Nesher Malt removed the image of the vulture from its label as a way of alerting the public’s attention to the endangered vulture. The company put out a limited edition of its new bottle label and was able to engage the public and the media in a meaningful conversation. Everyone from media personalities from Israel’s major news networks to the average grocery shopper and Instagram users were talking about the missing vultures from the familiar blue labels and what could be done to help. Following the campaign, the Environmental Protection Ministry designated $7.5 million to INPA for a four-year program aimed at saving the vulture population. The funding will go toward establishing safe feeding stations and the cleaning up of garbage and unsafe farm animal carcasses close to the nesting spots of the vultures, in areas where local governance is limited, such as the Bedouin communities of the Galilee, Golan Heights, Wadi Ara, and the Negev.

“The budget we approved will help establish the infrastructure required to achieve these goals, thus streamlining the protection of the vultures against poisoning,” said Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman last year.

For local residents of Midreshet Ben-Gurion, raising awareness and instilling the young members of society with a meaningful appreciation for the vultures is critical.

Berger told the Magazine how she and her husband, Haim, organized a campaign last year at the local elementary school, where students created stickers and magnets with slogans to save the vultures and handed them out to tourists and locals.

“It’s terrible to imagine that one day we may wake up to a sky without vultures,’’ Berger said.

“We want to raise a generation of kids that care about their surroundings and will work to protect the wildlife and nature around them,’’ she said.

It is not surprising, therefore, that seniors at the local High School for Environmental Studies in Midreshet Ben-Gurion created an impressive figure of a vulture made from recycled materials, including tires for wings, for their annual Purim Adloyada parade in 2023 and subsequently donated it to the INPA.

“The awareness and knowledge of the vulture situation is so important – for farmers, extreme sports enthusiasts, hikers, students, and, of course, the general public,” added Miller.

“It’s not just our fight – it’s everyone’s. The presence of these vultures is a reflection of our souls – you look up and see vultures soaring. That is a moving experience that humankind has enjoyed for thousands of years, since biblical times. Let’s not let it end now,” concluded Miller.

Henry Baker Tristram would surely have agreed.  

Anav Silverman made aliyah from Calais, Maine, in 2004. She works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where she lives with her family.

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