Birds Act as Peacekeepers in Conflict-plagued Israel and Palestine
Israeli zoologist and birder Yossi Leshem helped organize a trans-boundary birding project that benefits both birds and people.
Leshem and his colleagues were determined to move beyond the computers and get the students together. "The problem is that whenever you try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, you have to get permission--there are a lot of headaches," he says. "Many times we had to stop." But the plan did work several times. After completing the online portion of the program, buses of Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians and Jordanian students met in the field to observe the birds firsthand. The young birders were challenged to correctly identify at least 10 species, and to observe the birds' behavior over the course of one or two days. The kids collaborated on their efforts and shared meals. Normally, such students would never have the chance to meet. "This was a special event, getting them together to learn with each other," Leshem says. "Otherwise, they don't come together."
Several times--during the Second Intifada, in 2000, for example--the project's success was threatened when regional violence broke out. During the 2006 conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah, rockets rained down on the Hula Valley, a birding hot spot. But usually the conflict was confined to politics rather than out-and-out violence. Oftentimes, the students could no longer come together and the coordinators had to convene in Turkey, Cyprus, or Europe. Yet they persevered by tracking the birds online and waiting out the conflict in order to meet regionally once again when things settled down. "Birds have nothing to do with the violence, they just go on their way," Leshem says. "If there's not war, it's not a problem."
The results of the crane migration study, which are accessible online,provided the first long-term data from the Middle East on soaring-bird migration. The storks, they found, travel more than 11,000 kilometers (about 6,800 miles), from a small town near Berlin to a spot near Cape Town, South Africa. Over the years they were observed, the birds always took the same migration route.
Based on the project's success, the European Union got involved by developing three field stations: one each in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. BirdLife International oversaw activities at those new centers, including research on migrating birds, conservation undertakings to protect the birds' habitat, and community outreach. Other nonprofits in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East provided additional funding and logistical support.
In 2008, in keeping with their goal of promoting environmental sustainability, the coordinators began collaborating with farmers, installing nest boxes for barn owls and kestrels in an effort to encourage the raptors to act as biological controllers in lieu of pesticides. Israeli farmers joined their Palestinian counterparts to share knowledge and techniques about supporting the birds. "For Muslims, the owl is an omen bringing bad luck, but we succeeded in convincing them it brings good luck," Leshem says. Today hundreds of farmers throughout in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories maintain some 3,000 nest boxes--up from fewer than 1,000 in 2007. "All farmers with nesting boxes stopped using pesticides--totally stopped," Leshem says. "Each pair of owls feeds on 2,000 to 6,000 mice per year."
While the region continues to struggle politically, the birding projects prove the exception to the rule, having continued for nearly 20 years and still going strong. (Unfortunately for the students, they are not currently meeting due to regional tension.) Ospreys are next on the list for the trans-boundary tracking project, and farmers have started using kestrels in addition to barn owls to act as biological control agents. "Birds are something in common that is connected to the soul of many people," Leshem said. "Everyone wants to fly."