Thu, Nov 10, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Birds bringing Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians closer

Ornithologist Yossi Leshem has combined his field of study with various projects to promote cooperation in the Middle East


To make his point that migrating birds know no boundaries, Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem gives Jewish, Christian and Muslim names to the birds he tracks.

Usually, the birds are oblivious. One vulture to whom he gave the name of Salam (Arabic for peace), however, took it seriously -- and headed straight for Mecca.

Leshem spends his life tracking birds. He sees this not only as an opportunity to study their flight paths, but also as a means of getting Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to cooperate.

He began using satellite transmitters 10 years ago and has since -- jointly with the Max Planck Institute on the Bodensee in southern Germany and with funding from the German government -- followed dozens of storks, as well as several cranes, pelicans and griffon vultures.


The longest-tracked bird is Princess, a stork from the village of Loburg southwest of Berlin. For more than a decade, she has been flying twice a year the 10,000km from northern Germany to South Africa -- via Turkey, Israel and Sudan -- and back, with a small antenna and transmitter strapped to her back.

She had to be recaught several times because her battery had expired.

Last spring, a German TV crew working on a documentary on Princess was eager to document her, with the help of Leshem, landing in Israel on her return to Germany.

But her satellite transmitter indicated she was heading for the Gaza Strip. There was a closure that day and Leshem tried feverishly to get special entry permits from the Israeli army.

Eventually, luck had it that she landed near a kibbutz just outside the Gaza Strip border.

As it takes a stork only several hours to fly over Israel, they were just in time to film her.

The incident, said Leshem, was an illustration of how even in this tense, war-torn region, birds ignore man-made borders. That, he believes, makes cooperation -- which he hopes will promote the peace process in the region -- essential.


One key area he works in is the issue of collisions between fighter jets and birds.

With its narrow air space, Israel has more planes per square kilometer than any other country. But as a bottleneck at the junction of three continents, it also has more migrating birds per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world.

Many birds prefer to fly over land, where they can rest, to crossing the Mediterranean in one stretch. Also, thermals -- spirals of warm air which migrating birds use to float on -- occur only over land, where they are created by sun beams hitting the earth.

The three main migrating routes from Europe to Africa therefore go through the Strait of Gibraltar, Sicily, or Israel and the Palestinian areas. More than 500 million migrating birds cross Israel each autumn and spring, according to Leshem.

One day last April, 105,000 storks -- 15 percent of the world population -- flew over Israel in five hours in a 200km line.

That makes the risk of collisions -- which with planes travelling at speeds of over 1,000kph can be as lethal as a direct missile hit -- more acute than anywhere else.

With the help of Russian-immigrant scientists, Leshem brought radar equipment from the former Soviet Union to central Israel, which provides real-time information on the Internet to the Israel Air Force (IAF) about the whereabouts of large flocks of birds and their altitudes, allowing Israeli jets to fly over or under them.

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