Meet operative PP0277: A secret agent – or just a vulture hungry for dead camel?
Sudan says he's an Israeli operative – but his handlers say he's too easily distracted for that. Matthew Kalman reports on a spy thriller
Carrying a sophisticated tracking device concealed in a box on his leg, he made his way south across the Sinai desert, over the Red Sea, and into Sudan. On 1 December, however, his mission came to an abrupt halt. Having covered up to 350 miles a day, PP0277 had stopped moving at a village near the Sudanese town of Krinkh.
It was on Thursday that his fate finally became clear when the mayor of Krinkh, Hussein al-A'ali, announced that PP0277 had been captured – declaring him to be an Israeli spy "capable of taking photos and sending them back to Israel".
It was then that Ohad Hatzofe, the Israeli who sent PP0277 on his fateful flight, did not know whether to laugh or cry. For PP0277 is not a top Mossad agent, but a young griffon vulture who, Mr Hatzofe insists, was simply making its semi-annual winter migration to Africa.
Far from sporting a history of directing spying missions inside enemy territory, Mr Hatzofe is an avian ecologist for Israel's Nature and Parks Authority. He has tagged more than 1,000 migrating birds in the past 20 years, all as part of a major international project to track and preserve rare species among the billion-plus birds that fly north, then south, over Israel each year.
Like all such creatures, PP0277 wore tags clearly marking him in English as part of the academic research, asking anyone who found him to contact Mr Hatzofe. And as Mr Hatzofe told The Independent: "It's not very secret, marking a supposed spy with the words 'Tel Aviv University' and my email address."
Nor is their reconnaissance information confidential. The birds are fitted with tiny boxes containing GPS and GSM transmitters with a solar energy panel and three small antennae. The data from the tagged birds is uploaded to Movebank, an accessible international database linked to Google Earth.
Spying missions between the two countries are not unlikely. Sudan is thought by the West to be helping Iran ship arms through Egypt to Gaza to supply Hamas. For its part, Israel is believed to have launched air strikes on Sudanese targets in 2009, 2011 and earlier this year.
But even if the Israeli authorities were to conceive such an outlandish espionage mission, Mr Hatzofe said it would proved somewhat bird-brained as the feathered recruits would make terrible spies.
"If I wanted to send a spy to Sudan I'd send one less interested in dead camels and goats. That tends to distract them," he said. "We have more operatives in Sudan right now and one piece of intelligence we've gathered is that there seems to be a concentration of slaughterhouses not far from Port Sudan."
Nor can Israeli vultures boast an illustrious history when it comes to making it through the airspace of hostile nations undetected. Saudi Arabia detained one of PP0277's fellow vultures last year. Despite similar tags labelling it as a specimen tracked in a similar fashion by the same university, it prompted fears of an airborne "Zionist plot" against the kingdom.
Mr Hatzofe cautioned against Mossad getting any genuine spying ideas from the accusations, however. "I'd condemn anyone who tried using wild animals for military or espionage purposes. These creatures are already becoming rare and that would only put them in greater danger," he said.
Animals at war
Sudan's Vulturegate may sound like a laugh, but the use of living creatures for military purposes is by no means far-fetched: for half a century, for example, the US Navy has had a marine mammals programme which trains dolphins and sea lions for wartime tasks.
Although a 1973 Mike Nichols movie called The Day of The Dolphin would have us believe that the animals are being trained for aggressive missions such as killing enemy frogmen and laying mines or even nuclear weapons, the US Navy insists they are being trained merely for defensive purposes such as mine-detection, sentry duty and the recovery of objects lost on the seabed. Yet the California-based programme has been surprisingly extensive and has involved the use of at least ten species of whales and dolphins – and also investigated, yes, the potential role of birds.
In the Second World War American defence scientists looked at the possibility of pigeon bombs, but abandoned it as impracticable.
The reason suspicions were aroused in the case of the Israeli-ringed vulture in the Sudan is that the miniaturisation of GPS equipment is proceeding apace, and ornithologists are fitting devices to ever more migrant birds to plot their routes. Indy, The Independent's sponsored cuckoo, was fitted with a transmitter in Wales in May and transmitted continuously during his journey back to Africa – until he met his end, by means unknown, in Cameroon in September.
If you wanted a bird as an airborne photography platform, a vulture is probably what you would choose. Vultures do very little flapping and directly rapid flight, spending nearly all their time soaring and gliding. Your problem would be, you couldn't tell it where to go.