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Sudan: Israeli 'spy vulture' nabbed during reconnaissance mission

By Nick Thompson and Nima Elbagir, CNN
December 12, 2012 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
Sudanese officials say a GPS-tagged vulture captured in the western part of the country was transmitting photos back to Israel. Sudanese officials say a GPS-tagged vulture captured in the western part of the country was transmitting photos back to Israel.
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Sudan: Israel using 'spy vultures'
Sudan: Israel using 'spy vultures'
Sudan: Israel using 'spy vultures'
Sudan: Israel using 'spy vultures'
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sudan: Israeli vulture with GPS-equipped camera caught by officials in western Sudan
  • Israeli scientists say a number of vultures tagged with GPS to study migration routes
  • Expert: GPS tracking of this sort used in hundreds of studies around the world
  • Griffon vultures are an endangered species in the Middle East, Hatzofe says

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

(CNN) -- A vulture captured by Sudanese authorities is actually an Israeli spy on a secret reconnaissance mission, a pro-government newspaper in the east African nation has claimed.

Government sources say the vulture, found in western Sudan, was tagged with a GPS-equipped camera to take and send pictures back to Israel, according to a December 8 story in the Alintibaha newspaper.

The bird also wore an ankle label reading "Hebrew University Jerusalem," "Israel Nature Service" and the contact details of an Israeli avian ecologist.

The ecologist, Ohad Hatzofe of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, has rejected the Sudanese government claims -- saying the vulture, which can fly up to 600 kilometers in a single day, was tagged with GPS equipment to study its migration pattern.

"The Sudanese accusations are untrue," Hatzofe told CNN. "The GPS gear on these vultures can only tell us where the birds are, nothing else."

He said: "This is ordinary equipment that is used around the world to detect movement of wildlife. There are hundreds of studies using this technology on everything from butterflies and sea turtles to sharks and whales."

Hatzofe also cast doubt on the practicality of using vultures as secret agents: "I'm not an intelligence expert, but what would be learned from putting a camera onto a vulture? You cannot control it. It's not a drone that you can send where you want. What would be the benefit of watching a vulture eat the insides of a dead camel?"

The Griffon vulture is an endangered species in the Middle East, according to Hebrew University Jerusalem professor Ran Nathan. His students, Roi Harel and Orr Spiegel, tagged more than 100 vultures -- 25 of them with GPS trackers -- as part of a project to observe the behavior and movement of younger vultures.

Hatzofe says the data from the tagged GPS vultures isn't transmitted solely back to Israel, but to the animal-tracking website Movebank, where other scientists can analyze the data.

The Israeli scientists first knew something was amiss in early December, when the GPS system (pictured above) indicated the vulture was on the ground and was moving along a road in western Sudan.

The Griffon vulture is not a migratory bird, but it isn't uncommon for them to make their way into northern Africa, according to Hatzofe, who says the vulture's wing tag included a message asking anyone who found the bird to contact him or the university.

"My email address is on the vulture," he told CNN, "but I never got a message."

The Israeli government declined to comment on this story, and repeated calls to Sudanese officials went unanswered.

Hatzofe says that the real danger of claiming that GPS-tagged birds are spies is that it could prompt government officials to kill animals they capture.

"There is nothing new about birds tagged for studies, and if governments will not reject these types of rumors, then others will grab their weapons and hunt down wildlife -- the exact opposite of what conservationists want."

CNN's Dominique van Heerden contributed to this report.

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