Addressing an auditorium full of European zoo directors at Jerusalem’s Biblical
Zoo on Friday afternoon, Prof. Yossi Leshem looked to the region’s wealth of
migratory birds as potential peacemakers for neighbors that otherwise don’t
always see eye-to-eye.
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“This is a vulture that was caught in Israel and
was nesting in Jordan,” said Leshem, gesturing to a photo on his PowerPoint
slide. “He comes every morning to have some kosher food in the feeding station
of the National Parks Authority and goes back to Jordan.”
professor at Tel Aviv University’s Israel Center for the Study of Bird
Migration, was taking part in the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria’s
annual Directors’ Day and Spring Council Meeting, which for the first time in
the organization’s 19-year history was being held in Jerusalem this
In addition to touring the Biblical School on Friday and the
Ramat Gan Safari on Sunday, the zoo managers heard about conservation techniques
from their Israeli hosts and held marketing and management sessions led by
various country representatives.
One conservationist, Dr. Noam
Leader of the department of zoology at Tel Aviv University’s George S. Wise
Faculty of Life Sciences, spoke indepth about Israel’s efforts to preserve the
Eurasian otter, as well the Galilee blind cavedwelling prawn, which lives
uniquely in an “underground spring underneath the church where Jesus fed the
masses with fish and bread” and is “so ancient that it has probably witnessed
this miraculous feat.” But key to any such conversation efforts, Leshem
maintained in his speech, is regional cooperation.
“The birds and
wildlife have the power to get people together,” he told the group, noting that
Israel is strategically located at the junction of three
“Migrating birds know no boundaries.”
about a variety of shared projects between scientists and conservationists in
both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, such as a current joint effort of
using barn owls for pest control in farming fields. In the past year, he said,
400 farmers from the PA and Jordan have come to Israel to learn about the use of
owls and why they are essential to successful farming, despite the notion that
they bring “bad luck” in the Muslim religion.
He has also joined in with
his counterparts in the PA and Jordan to create educational material for farmers
on reducing the prevalence of pesticides in their fields, thereby reducing
wildlife death across borders, he said.
“Now the PA decided also to make
owls a national project – they are now planning for the next four years 1,000
nesting boxes together with the [United Nations Relief and Works Agency],”
Leshem told The Jerusalem Post after his speech.
“They are going to
establish this with farmers and make it a successful story.” Regional
cooperation in avian research initially began in 1996, when Leshem and his
partner Imad Atrash of the Palestine Wildlife Society received assistance from
the Max Planck Institute at Radolfzell, Germany, Tel Aviv University and the
Society for the Protection of Nature, and began tracking the migration of 120
white storks from Germany to Africa, according to Leshem. Two years later, after
the Ministry of Education established a website to track the birds, students
from 200 Israeli schools joined in the project, followed by pupils from 30
Palestinian schools – and were able to communicate with each other
“By trying to get youngsters into wildlife we can make
the jump,” Leshem said to the group.
“It is easier to collaborate with
countries over conservation projects rather than politics,” added Dr. Yehoshua
Shkedy, head scientist of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection
Authority. “It is easier to agree on what is good for plants and
Leshem was proud to note that in Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine:
Peace Not Apartheid – despite acknowledging that he disagreed with the former US
president’s political views – two-and-ahalf pages were dedicated to Carter’s
visit with Leshem to see Israel’s birds during the 2005 PA elections.
all of the speakers were as optimistic as Leshem and Shkedy about the notion
that regional cooperation can realistically bring about change in the area –
both in the political and conservation respects.
“I don’t think that the
future is that promising at least for the large birds in our region,” said Ohad
Hatzofe, an ecologist from the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection
Authority, who used the January example of Saudi Arabia “detaining” an
Israeli-tagged vulture on suspicions of being a Mossad spy as one reason for
Birds are still dying in the region from collisions with power
lines, poisoning and road accidents, many in neighboring countries and therefore
beyond Israel’s control, according to Hatzofe. For example, he said, many
Egyptian vultures die on Sudanese power lines, and while Syria had 200 pairs of
griffon vultures in the mid- 1980s, as of 2006 only seven were left.
even Israeli conservation efforts have been far from foolproof so far, Hatzofe
“With all the conservation measures, with all the campaigns
against poisoning and power lines, with the Israeli Air Force coordinating their
flights to prevent any disturbance to colonies from the Ramon Crater or up to
the Golan Heights, the northern population of griffon vultures are declining
rapidly,” Hatzofe said.
Yet he hopes that the optimism of Leshem and
other regional conservationists will somehow turn this trend around, he told the
One person who stood behind Leshem’s optimism was Saed Khater,
director of the Kalkilya Zoo – the only Palestinian zoo – during an interview
with The Post.
The Kalkilya Zoo, established in 1986 and located “five
minutes from Kfar Saba” in the West Bank, now contains areas that focus on
conservation and educational programming, and in addition to its animal
population houses over 120 different types of plants, he said.
of becoming a member of the European group, as did the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo
four years ago, the zoo is working hard to increase its standards, Khater
The location of this year’s conference in Jerusalem was very
beneficial to the region, according to Khater, who felt that “it’s making a push
for this area to be developed and put on the world map.”
Khater said he sees working together with the Jerusalem Zoo in future programs
as a viable possibility for Kalkilya. At his own zoo, he currently gets many
Arab Israeli visitors but still only gets a a few Jewish Israelis, Khater
“I think it could be a useful thing. I’m looking here – you can see
Israeli and Palestinian people here,” he said, gesturing to the Muslim families
sitting on the zoo lawn.
“You have a wonderful example here – this zoo
has a lot of Palestinians and Israelis walking around – it’s inclusive space and
special to see,” agreed Miranda Stevenson, executive director of the British and
Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums UK.
Both Stevenson and Khater
expressed hope that such a scene will be symbolic of further cooperation among
“The animals or the birds can bring them
together because they have no language, no religion,” Khater said. “All of us
love the animals and love the birds, so we can be closer to each other via
loving the animals or the birds.”
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