Drones? No, Vultures: Sudanese Media Ruffles Feathers Over Alleged Israeli Spy Bird

on December 11 2012 9:16 PM
Griffon Vulture
A Griffon vulture. Ken Billington

The sight of a vulture wheeling overhead is never a good sign, but Sudanese media took the omen to a whole new level last week.

Alintibaha, a newspaper in support of the government in Khartoum, reported Saturday that a vulture captured by authorities had been sent by Israel to spy on the African country.

They cited as evidence a GPS tracking device found on the bird of prey, linking it to the Hebrew University Jerusalem and the Israel Nature Service.

But Israeli ecologist Ohad Hotzofe of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority explained to CNN on Tuesday that the GPS system was one of dozens that were recently attached to selected griffon vultures -- an endangered species in the Middle East -- to track migration patterns.

“The Sudanese accusations are untrue," he said. "The GPS gear on these vultures can only tell us where the birds are, nothing else.”

He added: “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?”

Sudan’s allegations that the vulture was a spy agent have sparked a flurry of ridicule, but it is important to note that Sudanese officials do have cause to be wary of Israeli intentions. In October, Khartoum blamed Israel for an airstrike against the Yarmouk Complex, one of Africa’s largest weapons manufacturing facilities, located just south of the capital. At least two people were killed.

Israel offered no comment on the incident; its culpability is widely suspected though still unconfirmed. Sudan also blamed Israel for similar airstrikes in 2011 and 2009.

If the allegations are true, it is likely that the Israelis are trying to disrupt a weapon-smuggling route suspected of running from Sudan into the Gaza Strip, the blockaded Palestinian territory controlled by the militant Islamist organization Hamas.

The day after the Yarmouk strike, Israeli defense official Amos Gilad dodged questions about Israel’s involvement but called Sudan a “dangerous terrorist state,” according to Agence France-Presse. “The regime is supported by Iran and it serves as a route for the transfer, via Egyptian territory, of Iranian weapons to Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists,” he added.

Israel is not the only enemy of the Sudanese regime -- far from it. President Omar al-Bashir is under international indictment for war crimes; he has presided over endemic human rights violations and a deeply felt economic meltdown, sparking frequent protests.

A Sudanese political opposition group called the Justice and Equality Movement joined Western media outlets in mocking the regime for its fowl faux-pas last week, stating on its official website that the administration has misplaced its suspicions, according to Israeli news outlet Ynet.

“How is it possible that the regime was able to detect one vulture, but was unable to detect the jets that bombed the arms facility?” it said.

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