by Yossi Leshem
and Imad Atrash
The unique location of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) at the junction of three continents, has made it the focus of political strife for many years. On the other hand, it has made this .region a "bottleneck" and a crossroad for bird migration, second to almost no other site in the world. Research over the past decade has shown that about 500 million migrating birds fly over Israel and the PA's narrow airspace. These birds migrate over Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority and through Egypt to Africa.
The years 1994-1995 were good ones for peace in the region. Following the peace process in the Middle East, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and Tel Aviv University initiated in 1995 the establishment of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration located at the Israeli Armored Corps Memorial in Latrun. The site is in the heart of Israel, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and in the center of the western migration route, at the foothills of the West Bank Heights. In addition, a Palestinian NGO, the Children for the Protection of Nature in Palestine (CPNP), established in 1997 an Environmental Education Center at the Lutheran school Thalita Kumi, Beit Jala, the first of its kind in the PA. These two new centers are developing an interdisciplinary project that will be connected to the peace process and bird migration. In this framework, we will develop "twin centers" which will advance themes connected to bird migration, using four environmental interdisciplinary issues: education, research, eco-tourism and conservation. These powerful tools will bring people together, regardless of political barriers, and hopefully advance the peace process by NGOs.
Latrun is situated midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, next to the main highway (Route 1), and 18 kms southeast of Ben-Gurion Airport (Figure 1). The site is located at the foot of the Jerusalem Hills, overlooking the Ayalon Valley and the Coastal Plain.
The site has been an international crossroads throughout history, situated near the main roads from Jaffa to Jerusalem and from Gaza to Ramallah up to Damascus. The Israeli Armored Corps decided to establish a memorial and museum at Latrun. The site has been very well developed due to both its unique history and its convenient location. In 1995 alone, 500,000 people - families, soldiers, school children and tourists - visited the site.
Tel Aviv University and SPNI have been allocated an area of eight acres on the western side of the site in order to establish the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration. The complex will include an inter-university research institute, a field study center, a hostel, and a large auditorium that will combine a museum and a radar system to display to the public the phenomenon of stork and other bird migration. The radar will also be used to increase civil and military flight safety.
Thalita Kumi is located in Beit Jala, west of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority. It is a Lutheran school for 1,100 Palestinian students, and lies on the western part of the eastern route of white storks arid different species of . birds of prey. The school has provided an area for the Environmental Education Center established by the CPNP.
The region is an international crossroads for migrating birds, crossing the skies of Israel and the PA, heading south to Africa in the autumn and then flying north to Europe and Asia in the spring: Latrun is located at the very heart of the western migration route of the soaring birds, which stretches along the foothills of the West Bank Heights. The second migration route is along the Rift Valley and the Negev Desert, and the third is in the Eilat mountains (see Figure 1).
The SPNI is a non-profit, non-governmental organization. Founded in 1953, it has become Israel's largest environmental NGO, with over 100,000 members. The SPNI involves everyone in its endeavors - Jews, Muslims and Christians; young and old; new immigrants and veteran Israelis; schoolchildren; families; soldiers and tourists - in its efforts to share and spread the respect, love and understanding of nature and the land.
The SPNI runs 26 field study centers and has 28 branches and, approximately, 1,200,000 individuals participate in its activities annually. The SPNI also organizes public campaigns on nature and environmental issues; lobbies and initiates legislation on environmental protection and conservation; gathers data and conducts research, formulating environŽmentally friendly alternatives to potentially destructive development plans; and preserves historically significant sites and buildings.
The Children for the Protection of Nature in Palestine is a non-profit organization with a mission to promote peace and coexistence in the Middle East. The CPNP utilizes the theme of environmental action to encourage meaningful interdependence between youth: youth working together across cultural boundaries can demonstrate the power and potential of partnership in addressing environmental challenges.
The CPNP has established the first Environmental Education Center in the PA. Thalita Kumi, Beit Jala, has been chosen as the site for the center for the following reasons: it is rich in wild life, flora and fauna; it is in close proximity to both the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea; and has ideal and plentiful facilities, spacious premises, lab centers, etc.
The large amount of information and data gathered on bird migration over the past two decades, coupled with the unique position of the PA and Israel at the junction of three continents, points to a unique opportunity for these two centers for the research of bird migration. They have a great potential for interdisciplinary activity in a number of fields. This potential will help promote additional ties between the countries of the Middle East as an important tool to advance the peace process in this sensitive region.
The initial idea is to develop "sister" stations where the CPNP station will playa leading role as the "twin sister" station to Latrun. The leading NGO in Jordan, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), has also agreed to join. If the peace process advances, the hope is that more countries in the Middle East will join the project, under the title: Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries.
The location of the Middle East as a "bottleneck" of the migration route for about 85 percent of the world's white stork population, many species of birds of prey and most of the Paleartic population of white pelicans, leads to huge numbers of migrating birds flying over the region, thus creating excellent conditions for all aspects of bird migration research. The aim is to bring together researchers from the Middle East (migrating grounds), from countries in Europe and West Asia (breeding grounds) and from Africa (wintering grounds). Joint German-Israeli research is currently being carried out with funding from the German Ministry of the Environment on the migration of soaring birds (particularly storks) and with the aid of satellite transmitters which will enable researchers to track the birds across the world. Sixty-five white storks were monitored with radio-transmitters and 40 more will be followed till the year 1999.
A network of weather and bird radars will be set up at key points in the Middle East, and will feed data into a central data base for Israel, the PA and Jordan. This information will enable us to make huge strides in our understanding of bird migration. We will be able to follow the movement of concentrations of birds in real time. An interdisciplinary research on migration issues will also be initiated, such as the relationship between climatic changes and changes in migration patterns, the behavior and physiology of migrants before and after crossing the desert belt, as well as studies in ecology, physiology and the physics of migration.
The network of bird watchers which has developed in Israel across the country from the Mediterranean coast to the Rift Valley for the Israel Air Force, will be expanded for a project in cooperation with Palestinians and Jordanians. This would enable us to establish a front line of 150 km of bird watchers who will count the number of migrating birds on one data base.
The EMC2, a leading computer storage company in Boston, has donated $1 million for the Latrun project to develop a regional data base on bird migration, which will include, at the first stage, the Jordanian and Palestinian data.
The "twin" stations at Latrun and Thalita Kumi are also developing joint research on night migration in cooperation with the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, and the recording and computer analyses of the voices of birds migrating at night. An MSc. student from Israel and an MSc. student from the PA have started working together on joint research. In the Rose Garden near the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset), an Israeli team has been ringing migratory birds for ten years. In 1999, the first Palestinian ringing station will be established at Thalita Kumi, parallel to the Israeli one in Jerusalem.
Development of a Common Educational Program
The tracking of migrating storks, eagles, and pelicans via satellite has enabled us to develop a communication network via the Internet, linking schoolchildren from all over the world. They are able to "talk" to the migrating birds in order to learn about their migratory routes, study the effects of weather changes on migration routes, analyze the rate of movement, and more. The communication between schoolchildren and birds will take place between schools in various countries along the migration routes, as well as in other Middle East countries; the children will exchange data and information, and will cooperate on data analysis. Most importantly, in the second stage, the students will go out into the field together to watch the migration and also meet each other.
A joint program called "Tomorrow 98," involving the Ministry of Education, the SPNI and Tel Aviv University, has already developed such a program with 25 schools participating actively. The Palestinians (CPNP) and the Jordanians (RSCN) have also decided to join. This program is included in US Vice President Al Gore's GLOBE project, the aim being to involve young people in environmental research and conservation, and to encourage them to develop responsibility for their environment. The German Ministry of the Environment sponsored an international seminar held in Israel in September 1997, in which 25 countries along the migration route participated.
The establishment of Israeli and Palestinian centers will also provide important tools to expose the public to the issues, problems, and scientific achievements in the conservation of migrating birds, while developing in each participant country a national pride for its unique role and contribution along the migration route.' Hopefully, this will reduce the widespread damage caused to the migratory birds by hunting and other destructive means.
Former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres is acting as the regional honorary chairman of the project and US Vice President Al Gore has been asked to act as a global honorary chairman.
The Development of Regional Eco- Tourism and Bird Watching
The economic potential of eco-tourism and bird watching, in particular, is tremendous. Some 13 million bird watchers belong to various related organizations throughout the world; many travel to distant lands to see a large variety of bird species and large concentrations of migrating birds.
A network of nine research and bird-watching stations are being set up in Israel, situated at bird-watching "hot spots" (see Figure 1). Each station will function as an independent field unit, with two or three researchers and bird-watching guides. The stations will be connected to a nationwide network whose center will be at Latrun. A tourist arriving in Israel will be able to begin his or her trip at Latrun, receive maps and real-time information about migrating birds' locations, and order (on-line) a room in a hotel or hostel in the desired area. With every location in Israel less than four hours away, tourists could travel the same day to the station in the migration path and start bird watching! Alternatively, the tourist could sleep at the Field Study Center at Latrun, or make it the last stop on his or her visit to Israel, due to its proximity to Ben-Gurion Airport. We hope this system will also encourage the Palestinians to develop a parallel one in places like Jericho and Gaza to watch migratory birds and develop networks which would work in cooperation with the Israeli system.
A systematic research framework for migrating birds will add to our knowledge about migration, as well as preferred roosting and wintering areas. This new information will be used to make recommendations to decision-makers and governments concerning sensitive and threatened migration stopover areas in need of protection. The development of ecological tourism will lend solid economic impetus to these recommendations.
The model of Latrun and Thalita Kumi may be copied in other neighboring countries, enhancing both people-to-people activity and inter-country relations. The interdisciplinary program includes aspects of scientific research, education and communication between schoolchildren from different countries via computer links and the firm economic base of ecoŽtourism and conservation.