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.
Human conflict is a constant the Middle East, but the region's birds rarely take notice as long as the disagreements don't escalate into on-the-ground violence. "From a political point of view, [the region is] a disaster," says Yossi Leshem, a zoologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. "But when you're talking about bird migrations, it's one of the best hot spots in the world."
Only in the past two or three decades have birders begun to take notice of the Middle East. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan sit at the junction of three continents, which "for bird migration is heaven," Leshem says. About 540 bird species can be spotted in Israel alone--a country roughly the size of New Jersey. "The diversity here is much more than our size," he says.
Leshem, a major player in the international birding community, has worked on everything from reducing bird collisions with airplanes to organizing birding talks and expeditions in Israel for Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and the president and board of the National Audubon Society. Birds, Leshem says, can even help with the region's political problems, at least in certain instances. "I believe birds are a common ground," he says. "There's no conflict about them."
In 1995 Leshem and a colleague ran into each other at a meeting in Bethlehem and struck upon the idea of birdwatching as a means of promoting regional cooperation. Since birds know no boundaries, they reasoned, they might hold promise for uniting people who shared love of nature. Recruiting birding colleagues from Palestine and Jordan, they thought, would also help create a fuller picture of bird activity in the region. "The big vision of this cooperation is, first of all, basic science," Leshem says.
Each autumn and spring, half a billion birds representing about 280 species pass over the cluster of countries known as the Levant--which includes Israel, Jordan, and Palestine--during their seasonal migration between northern Europe and parts Eurasia to eastern and southern Africa. Some birds travel as far as from Sweden to South Africa. Regardless of their migrations' endpoints, all of the species encounter dangers along their way. In the Mediterranean, France, and Spain, local hunters pick off migrating birds. Larger birds, including storks, pelicans, and raptors, fall victim to electrocution. Storms blow migrants off course and into the sea, where they drown; other birds fall victim to poisoning in a farmer's field. Finally, increased development in the region also means fewer patches of habitat where exhausted migrants can take shelter. "Birds like pelicans need to eat at least once every five days, but most fish are gone because people dry out the wetlands," Leshem says. "These are just a few of the many problems."
By identifying exactly where those birds go each year--and where they are most likely to encounter danger--managers can design better ways to protect them. The more people involved in answering these questions, the better the chances of designing effective conservation strategies. This requires cooperation across borders--the final point of Leshem and his colleague's vision. "It's people to people, getting hundreds of farmers, scientists, and educators to work together."
As a starting point for the project, Leshem reached out to a colleague at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Since the institute manages long-term bird-tracking programs and "Germans appreciate Israel because of history," Leshem thought his joint proposal would have a good chance of gaining support. His hunch was correct: The German government offered funding to the Max Planck Institute to outfit 120 German white storks with satellite transmitters so they could be tracked as they made their way south into the Middle East and Africa.
Back in Israel, Tel Aviv University and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel joined the project. Leshem and his colleagues trained Palestinians and Jordanians to band birds and brought together teachers, researchers, and conservationiststo define the project's mission: to improve knowledge of birds in the region, to promote environmental conservation, and to facilitate regional cooperation.
Children, they decided, were an important factor in meeting this third goal. The Israeli Ministry of Education set up a website for teachers and students; Palestine and Jordan quickly followed with their own websites. Eventually, with additional help from the U.S. Agency for International Development's Middle East Regional Cooperation Program, they recruited students, aged 10 to 13, from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. First the students learned about migration and birds in the Middle East in a 20-hour online curriculum. They also exchanged emails with one another and with scientists to share information and ask questions. "They asked the same questions you're asking me--why do birds migrate, how do they navigate, what's special about the Middle East," Leshem says.