Conservationists protect Griffon vulture chick with hi-tech 'Mama Drone' to help it thrive in the wild

The Griffon Vulture is an endangered species, so Israeli conservationists have been tagging adult birds and training cameras on some of their nests to try to protect them.

This year they’ve been keeping tabs on a family living on a cliff-face ledge in the southern Negev Desert.

Male and female Griffons are monogamous and this pair had a single chick. All was going well until the mother was killed when she flew into power lines. (Power lines and poison are the biggest threat to the huge birds.)

The vultures have to fly far and wide to find carrion, and the experts knew that the father would not be able to provide enough food for the chick on his own.

The only way to save the chick appeared to be to send climbers up to the nest and take it into captivity.

But then someone suggested a different solution and within a few days of the mother’s death she had a surrogate - Mama Drone.

A drone has been dropping food to the chick every two or three days.

The drone drops food to the chick every two or three days. Credit: Israel Raptor Nest Cam

You can see it in operation in the pictures provided by the nest camera. The drone has been operated by the Israeli Army and in these images it’s blurred because it’s classified top secret.

Getting to the ledge isn’t straightforward. It requires precision flying. They also needed a stealthy drone that would be non-threatening to the chick and other rare birds nesting in the area.

XTEND is a cutting edge drone company that specialises in giving operators a pilot’s eye view. Virtual reality puts the operator in the drone’s driving seat, as it were.

Pilots use virtual reality to fly the drone (blurred on the left) with precision. Credit: Israel Raptor Nest Cam

With the company’s help the army prepared for the mission by making a mock-up of the nest site in one of their bases. Operators conducted practice flights for hours to prepare themselves for the real thing.

And mission Mama Drone has worked out perfectly. All those involved – and they were volunteers – got the reward they’d hoped for earlier this week. The chick flew for the first time.