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.
As eaters of carrion, vultures often fall victim by eating wildlife that has been poisoned to protect livestock. They are also under threat from hunting, nesting disturbances (by hikers and aircraft, among others), electrocution by power lines and wind turbines. Birds that ingest poison suffer horrible deaths and then themselves pose a health risk to other scavenger species that ingest their carcass thus perpetuating this deadly act. A further problem is low breeding success rate in the wild.
Established in 1998, the National Center for Raptor Egg Incubation at the Biblical Zoo focuses mainly on the Griffon Vulture, but also conserves many other species including the Lesser Kestrel and the Egyptian Vulture. 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 or hand-reared using a special method that prevents imprinting prior to being reintroduced into the wild.
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. 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. Additional efforts include placing nesting boxes in urban areas for the Lesser Kestrel; and conducting scientific research.