Environmentalists attempting to save endangered species of owls and kestrels in the Middle East have found an unexpected spin-off to their work – they have brought together communities divided by the intractable hatreds of the region. The researchers hope the progress made can serve as a model for making peace.
Professor Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University didn't set out to stop wars, he just wanted to save birds. In the early 1980s, Leshem realized that Israeli farmers were using poison to kill rodents, with dire consequences. Owls and kestrels, which feed on rats and mice, were consuming the poisoned animals and dying themselves, devastating the local ecosystem. One consequence was more rodents, since they no longer had birds of prey to keep their numbers in check.
Leshem managed to break the cycle, persuading farmers to stop poisoning the rats and instead build nesting boxes for barn owls and common kestrels. Although this increased crop loss in the short term, it eventually created a cheaper solution with no increase in rodent numbers, as well as made for much healthier ecologies.
Having achieved this success, Leshem and co-author Professor Alexandre Roulin realized that farmers in Jordan and the West Bank were equally threatened by rodents. Not only that, but the small sizes of the nations meant that their ecological fates were intertwined. Birds of prey don't respect national borders when they disperse from their birthplace. The project was dubbed “Birds know no boundaries.”
A paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution reports on the effects of the project. Leshem showed farmers in Jordan and the Occupied Territories the same techniques for bird promotion he had developed in Israel, and brought the teams working on the idea together. The challenges were not always the same, since barn owls were considered bad luck in Jordan. Nevertheless, communities came around and began to cherish their new bird-rich environment. Already 3,000 nest boxes have been built in Israel, along with 220 each in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
It's not just birds of prey that benefit from Leshmen's work - migratory birds are flooding back, creating a new bird-watching industry. Yoshi Eshbol via Agamon Hula
The improvement in the environment has made the area a nicer place to live and has encouraged migratory birds back to the region. Since 2002, seminars have been organized for those involved to share their experiences. United by a shared goal, the farmers grew to see each other as collaborators, rather than enemies, even starting to visit each other's places of worship.
"The combination of nature conservation and peace-building is not only important, but it also brings a new message of hope that our society is looking for," first author Professor Roulin of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, said in a statement.
A quick look at the news is all it takes to prove that Leshem's work has not brought peace to the region, but Roulin believes that from little things, big things can grow. Even the legacy of war can have a role. Bunkers built along the borders have turned out to make great homes for bats, including three endangered species. The Israeli and Jordanian armies have come together to add bars to the ceilings of the abandoned bunkers for bats to grip on to.
Organizations working to bring peace to other conflict zones such as Korea are investigating the project, and even the Chinese army is keen to see what it can learn.
Israeli and Palestinian girls take part in a bird-watching event as part of the project to encourage avian enthusiasm across national boundaries. Effi Sharir