Not your typical day job

When your office is in a nature reserve

The floating bridge at Ein Afek. (photo credit: ZEV MARGALIT)
The floating bridge at Ein Afek.
(photo credit: ZEV MARGALIT)
Giselle Hazzan’s day job is an unusual one. She does not spend her day in a typical office building with long hours in front of a computer. Instead, she works as the manager of the Ein Afek Nature Reserve, a remnant of the Acre Valley’s Na’aman Stream wetlands located near Kiryat Bialik. Her typical schedule entails caring for wildlife, managing the wetlands water system, and raising public awareness about the natural ecosystem.
Frogs and butterflies are part of the work landscape.
“I love what I do here,” she says in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “In the wetlands, you can see the changes throughout the seasons; the birds that come and go, the flowers and plant life, and the general cycle of life.”
Surrounded by urban development, the nature reserve is a green bubble that hosts thousands of migrating birds during the winter, including gray herons, pelicans, cranes, mallards and other waterfowl species. Among the variety of plants and water pools, permanent residents include Egyptian mongoose, water buffalo, wild boars, jackals, jungle cats and Indian crested porcupines.
In addition, each year, around 120,000 human visitors – among them schoolchildren – pass through the reserve, which also has a flour mill dating back to the time of the Crusaders.
“My work is very dynamic, just like the nature of water, which always moves and changes,” says Hazzan, who was the first Arab woman to become a manager of a nature reserve in Israel. “I do spend time in the office answering emails and holding staff meetings, but alongside that, I have to care for the wildlife and plants, and host visitors who want to learn more about nature.”
She stresses that “Ein Afek is not a national park; it is a nature reserve that exists for the animals and plants before anything else. However, we want people to come here, too, so that they can learn to love and respect nature.”
She wants the public “to be inspired by the beauty of the wetlands. When you love something, you want to protect it.”
The nature reserve manager believes work on the wetlands is imperative to sustaining a high quality of life and the environment.
“My team and I are doing critical work as part of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority system,” she emphasizes.
“We have to keep people connected to nature through the ecological tourism offered here.”
Indeed, she recently gained international recognition for her efforts in maintaining Ein Afek for the past 13 years. This past June, she received the prestigious Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award for the Wise Use category in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
The international award, established in 1996, is given every five years in recognition of conservation efforts and wise management of wetlands that thrive throughout the world. The award was named after Ramsar, Iran, where 21 participating nations first adopted the Convention on Wetlands in 1971.
Hazzan received the prize at the 12th Conference of Parties of the Ramsar Convention, which aims to conserve wetlands through international cooperation and through actions on a local and national level. Other nominees for the award came from Bangladesh, Denmark, Congo, Peru, Zimbabwe and Myanmar.
“The prize gave us the chance to be proud of everything we have accomplished thanks to the many years of hard work at Ein Afek,” Hazzan tells the Post.
“There is no set formula on how to correctly manage wetlands, but the award is a signal that we are on the right track,” she adds. “Our team learned a lot through trial and error, and we are continuing to learn.”
Since becoming the manager of the reserve in 2002, Hazzan has improved the water management of the reserve for the better. She and her team have played a significant role in developing Ein Afek into the thriving space it is today for the wildlife in the area. Under her direction, new legislation and carefully planned long-term projects were implemented for more effective management of the reserve. She remodeled the entire water management system, replacing the previous stopgap water-management measures with the help of local stakeholders. Thanks to her regeneration and conservation efforts, the ecosystem of Ein Afek has become a vital resource – an important achievement in the revival of the Acre Valley wetlands.
Indeed, several decades ago, the area of the reserve looked far different from the greenery that colors it today. During the British Mandate in the 1920s, the Acre Valley wetlands were drained, and in 1960 Israel began pumping water for agricultural and drinking purposes.
Israel drilled water from the Na’aman Aquifer, a large drainage area containing groundwater replenished by rainfall.
However, because the state pumped more water than the aquifer collected from rain, the springs in the area dried up and the vegetation was destroyed.
In response to the dire conditions, the state limited water pumping, and the area was declared a nature reserve in 1979.
In 1996 both the Ein Afek and Hula Valley nature reserves were added to the Ramsar Convention’s “List of Wetlands of International Importance.” The Israeli wetlands are among the 2,208 Ramsar wetland sites in 169 countries.
“It is a great responsibility to care for the nature of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel].
Even though I’ve traveled around the world, Ein Afek is the most beautiful place to me,” says Hazzan.
She grew up in the Galilee, and her decision to work with the environment took root in high school.
“When I was a high school student, I had to do a research project on water fowl,” she recalls. “And that’s when my love of nature began.”
She went on to study biology and urban and regional planning for her BA and MA degrees.
She notes that although there are not many women in her field, gender is not an issue for her. “I am often the only woman at staff meetings, and I lead a team of male colleagues at the nature reserve. When there is trust, respect and professionalism in whatever job you do, that’s what people respond to.”
The mother of three boys, she believes that spending time in nature is central to a child’s education.
“Nature connects you to your roots.
I remember a conversation, when I was still a university student, between a child and his mom about corn. The child didn’t understand why someone would take the yellow kernels from a can and put them on the cob. He couldn’t grasp the real origin of corn!” she says. “We live in a world where we don’t really appreciate what we have or where things come from.”
But for her, there are more important things than knowledge and information when it comes to education.
“The most important lesson we can teach our children is to love and be good to each other and our surroundings,” she states.
“I know that when my kids grow up, they will take care of nature as well,” Hazzan adds. “They are very connected to the wetlands here, and that gives me great satisfaction.”