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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Israeli saving the world's birds

This is the sort of story that almost never gets told about Israel.

From Science Alert (Australia):
Each northern spring an awesome aerial torrent of 500 million birds pauses at a tiny fleck of a sanctuary at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, en route from the heart of Africa to the vastnesses of Europe and Asia.

Many birds have flown non-stop from the Central Highlands of Ethiopia, devouring their own muscle and intestines in the 40-hour flight. When they sink to rest at Eilat, in southernmost Israel, they are at the very limits of their endurance. Without this stopover on their ancient migratory path, most of the birds would never complete their journey. Food from its lakes and vegetation is vital to rebuilding their strength for an onward trek that, in some cases, bears them as far as Wales or the Bering Strait.

For 15 years a stoic, courageous and grittily determined Israeli ornithologist, Dr Reuven Yosef, has fought with all the means at his disposal to keep intact this remaining claw-hold on survival for the world’s dwindling migratory bird populations.

Flash floods, savage vandalism, a suicide bombing, landmines and relentless development are among the challenges he has faced in striving to hold open this everconstricting highway of the natural world. If it closes, ornithologists warn, a major route will be sundered and many of the 280 migratory bird species of Europe, Asia and Africa using it may vanish.

Dr Yosef ’s visionary International Birding and Research Centre, Eilat (IBRCE) gained worldwide recognition with an Associate Laureateship in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Developed from an old rubbish dump and lovingly restored to 64 hectares of lakes, wetlands, visitor facilities and natural vegetation to harbour birds, the Centre is today acknowledged as one of the world’s ornithological wonders, inspiring projects as far afield as Kenya, Tibet, China, Mongolia and North America.

...Gradually the dry salt marshes fringing the sea succumbed to a concrete plague of hotels, promenades, marinas and gaudy attractions. A strip of wasteland lying between the town and Jordanian border to the east, beneath the smoky thunder of low-flying passenger jets, became a rubbish tip. Nobody wanted it, except a keen-eyed Indian-born ornithologist, Reuven Yosef, who saw its pivotal significance to the wildlife of the planet.

...Wounded and invalided out of the army, he took up studies as an aspiring ornithologist at Ben Gurion University and then at Ohio State University in the US, carrying out field research at the Archbold Biological Station in Florida, famous for the study of migratory birds. While there, he was invited to set up a nature reserve near Eilat that would enhance the town’s appeal to visitors.

Yosef was delighted, both at the chance to help protect bird migration in a world where it faced growing pressures from human activity, but also at the opportunities for scholarship the site presented – sampling each year an astonishing cross-section of the world’s avifauna.

Of the 120 000 hectares of salt marshes that once sustained billions of birds on their migratory journey, only a few hundred remained. The land was poisoned by mining activities extending back almost 3000 years. The rest was a garbage dump, filled with heaven-knew-what. Raising money from friends and supporters, Yosef purchased 64 hectares, and with the help of local earthmoving contractors, effluent from the sewage works, fresh water from the local desalination plant and brackish water from the local saltworks set about creating several lakes – fresh and saline – and restoring vegetation.

Gradually the sanctuary became a welcoming haven to the exhausted airborne travellers, offering seeds and brine shrimp to nourish and restore them. With the birds came scholars from around the globe to study the unending avian throng, 100,000 visitors a year to witness one of Nature’s marvels and 60,000 wide-eyed schoolchildren to learn about a phenomenon that, without great care, their own children may never see.

Not only is he saving untold numbers of bird species, but he is helping Israel gain a hundred thousand bird-loving tourists annually.