Saudi Arabia Busts 'Israeli Spy' Vulture

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Saudi Arabia detained a vulture tagged by Tel Aviv University and accused Israel's Mossad secret service of sending the bird to spy, according to a report in a Saudi newspaper.

The report in Al-Weeam said the vulture was wearing a leg bracelet and transmitter and was found in a rural area of the country. It appeared to be what it called "a Zionist plot," the paper added.

The report spawned a number of posts on Arabic websites claiming the "Zionists" had trained the birds for spying.

Last month, an Egyptian official accused Israel's Mossad of intentionally releasing a shark that killed a tourist in the waters of the Egyptian resort area of Sharm el-Sheikh to sabotage their tourism.

But internationally renowned ornithologist Dr. Yossi Leshem, from Tel Aviv University in Israel, said the vulture was part of a study tracking the movement of the birds because they are becoming extinct in Israel.

"It has nothing to do with the Mossad or the Shabach [Israel Security Agency]," Leshem told CBN News.

The Griffon Vulture now in Saudi Arabia was caught in 2008 at the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert in southern Israel by a Hebrew University student Orr Speigel.

Six years old when it was caught, the bird was tagged with an R26 wing tag and metal ring marked TAU - [Tel Aviv University], Israel, and set free, a posting on a birding website in which the university participates.

Since then, the vulture has been sighted several times in Israel and in September 2010, a GPS device was mounted on its back enabling researchers to use satellite tracking to monitor the bird's behavior.

"The research examines the effectiveness of the feeding stations that are maintained throughout Israel, with the aim of improving the conservation efforts made to stabilize the status of this endangered species," the website said.

Saudi birders caught the vulture, and Leshem said they contacted Tel Aviv University researchers through a third party.

"They feared it had been sent deliberately by the Israeli Mossad and that the tracking device on its back is in fact a method of spying," the website said.

"The vulture is currently held captive by Saudi authorities, while Israel nature conservation authorities…are making great efforts to convince those involved to release it," it added.

Leshem told CBN News that it's not the first time one of the Israeli tagged birds has been accused of espionage.

In two separate incidents, a pelican and an Egyptian vulture tagged by Tel Aviv University have been found in Sudan. Both times the local media claimed Israel was using the birds for spying and appeals by the University to retrieve the transmitter on the vulture itself were refused by the Sudanese authorities, Leshem said.

Nevertheless, Leshem noted that birding had actually been used in the past as a tool for regional cooperation.

"Migrating birds know no boundaries," a booklet emailed to CBN News on a 15-year joint Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian project stated. Leshem was involved in the project.

"Between 1998 to 2004: Palestinian, Israelis and Jordanian schools learned about bird migration by following 120 German White Storks that were carrying satellite transmitters," it said. "Palestinian, Israelis and Jordanians also developed joint activities such as bird banding stations and much more."

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The Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.

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Julie Stahl

Julie Stahl

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