Making peace through bird migration

Representatives from European zoo organization gather in Jerusalem for annual meeting.

Leshem 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leshem 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
“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.”
A new Galilee festival for the birds
Leshem, a 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 weekend.
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 continents.
“Migrating birds know no boundaries.”
Leshem spoke 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 electronically.
“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 animals.”
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.
Not 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 pessimism.
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.
But even Israeli conservation efforts have been far from foolproof so far, Hatzofe noted.
“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 group.
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.
In hopes 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 added.
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.”
Meanwhile, 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 said.
“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 neighboring populations.
“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.”