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Environmental Activism Hits Its Stride
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Some of the more dramatic Green episodes around the world involve acci-dental heroes, whose environmental cause runs up against powerful and sometimes violent interests. Chico Mendes, the defender (and in 1988 the martyr) of the Brazilian rain forest rubber-tapper movement, may be the most famous such case.[67] As land shortages in Israel lead to windfall prof-its in real estate ventures, greed seems to have become an increasing fac-tor in turning environmental conflicts ugly. That such vicious intimidation tactics would surface in Eilat's seemingly remote bird sanctuary, of all places, suggests the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.

One of the most common misconceptions about nature is that birds mi-grate because they cannot endure the cold. In fact, their feathers are suffi-ciently warm to allow them to maintain their high body temperature and survive the winter. Rather, birds fly south to find food. When temperatures drop below ten degrees Celsius, insects are barely active, and the birds must seek them elsewhere. Hundreds of millions of insect-eating birds make their move from Europe to Africa, and predators such as hawks, ea-gles, and several dozen raptor species naturally follow their prey. Once they get to Africa though, the birds find it unwise to stay there beyond the winter. The competition for food is simply too keen to find the extra calo-ries needed for breeding. Their instincts guide them back to northern lat-itudes. Once defrosted, the land is again crawling with insects, offering the birds sumptuous dining.[68]

The round-trip flight, however, is perilous. Only about 40 percent of the half billion birds that attempt it each year survive the thirty-five-hundred-kilometer trek through the Syro-African Rift.[69] The Rift is the long, narrow valley connecting Lake Victoria with Anatolia and is the only land bridge

to fuse three continents. On the return trip in the spring, when the birds finally cross the Sahara Desert, they have only made it halfway to their summer home. Hovering on the verge of exhaustion, they are depleted of the energy they need to complete the trip to their northern breeding grounds. “Refueling” takes place in a few staging areas—isolated swamps in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Nile Delta.

No pit stop is more popular, however, than the salt marshes north of the Red Sea.[70] Eons before a city named Eilat was a twinkling in Ben-Gurion's eye, twice a year, 283 species of migrating birds quite literally “dropped in.”[71] When bird expert Hadurum Shirihai made a list of the species that are dependent on this specific salt marsh as a staging area, he counted eighty.[72] But he did not include raptors, water fowl, or pelagics (seabirds), so the list may be twice that long.

Aerial photographs taken in 1948 show that the entire twelve-square-kilometer complex of marshes on the eastern edges of the Eilat municipal border was intact. Salt marshes usually connote knee-deep swamps, but the arid Eilat marshes looked more like an overgrown prairie. A sink for most of the surrounding rivulets and ravines when they overflow in win-ter, the land quickly dries. Yet the saline soils supported copious quantities of sea blite and to a lesser extent Nile tamarisk and insects to snack on.[73] In the town's early years the ecosystem was largely unaffected, despite Eilat's rapid growth, from five hundred residents in 1955 to thirteen thou-sand in 1972. It was about this time, however, that Europeans discovered the winter sunshine along the Red Sea, the ease of direct Scandinavia-Eilat charter flights, and the surrounding red-black magmatic mountains. Even though Eilat sits in one of the world's most active geological faults, the Israeli government subsidized a third of tourism-related construction costs for foreign investors. High-rise hotels became the rage. The dry prairie leading north from the city's coastal beach was carved up into an artificial lagoon, agricultural fields, commercial algae ponds, high-rise five-star re-sorts, and access roads. By the 1990s virtually nothing was left of the nat-ural marshlands.[74]

Eilat is renowned not only for its avian diversity but for its exotic human population as well. It is probably the only place in Israel where a man as unconventional as Shmulik Tagar could be a figure in local politics. An early settler who has lived in Eilat since the 1950s, Tagar has held a succession of jobs—from keeper of a now-defunct zoo (where he was once chased by a runaway lion) to deputy mayor. Lanky, with long, flowing white hair, a cigarette always lit, and dogmatic opinions about every imagina-ble subject, he fits right into the Eilat scene. And like many of the old-timers,

he loves the birds that come to visit twice a year. Despite the pressure from developers, he was influential enough to get an old municipal garbage dump designated as a Bird Park.

From 1955 until 1977 Eilat's trash was unceremoniously heaped in an ugly wasteland a few kilometers north of the city's beaches. It was the last corner of the salt marsh. Tagar saw that no one had yet grasped the real-estate value of the dump; it was still perceived as a nuisance. His plan was to cover the rubbish with 1.5 to 2 meters of the original salty, dry soil that was being bulldozed to prepare the next generation of hotel foundations. Then indigenous plant species could be planted and the marsh restored. Local politicians thought Tagar's idea a bit crazy but saw no reason to stand in his way. Although he harbored grand visions, Tagar was pragmatic enough to find the only Israeli scientist who might be able to pull off the rehabilitation.

Reuven Yosef (Figure 33) does not fit any typical Israeli stereotypes ei-ther. Raised in India, he moved to Israel as an adolescent. Although he was a newcomer, his powerful intellect, field skills, and determination helped him rise through the ranks in one of Israel's crack military units. He was unable to reconcile himself to Israel's Lebanon War, and in 1982 he ex-changed his officer's bars for a student card and returned to his studies. It did not take him long to complete degrees at Haifa and Ben-Gurion Universities and breeze through a doctorate at Ohio State and Cornell Universities in conservation biology. His research at the Archibald Biological Station in Florida was proceeding well when in 1993 he was called back to Israel to run the bird sanctuary project.[75]

Yosef brought considerable entrepreneurial skills to the initiative, and the garbage dump was completely reclaimed. It was only a six-hundred-dunam site, 5 percent of the original marsh, but it contained a huge seed bank in the ground that immediately started to attract ants. A few years after it opened, a Hungarian researcher estimated that its biomass was four times higher than that of the surrounding area. It made for a unique edu-cational resource.[76]

Yosef raised research funds as well as monies for the restoration work itself.[77] College students came from abroad to study with him, and to ring, tag, and monitor the birds. The local International Birding Center became a focal point for bird-watching tourists. And Yosef, the ornithologist, gen-erated a prodigious quantity of scholarly publications on subjects from flamingoes[78] and herons[79] to warblers[80] and hawks.[81] Most of the locals, however, were apathetic about the Bird Park and its efforts to restore an

indigenous ecosystem. Despite his exciting presentations, Yosef never fully succeeded in conveying the importance of preserving the key link with the natural heritage of the region, or in saving one of the last urban open spaces for residents' enjoyment. The project did not fit into Eilat's commercialized concept of recreation.

These political problems were weathered with relative ease. The more violent enemies were more trying. As the last swatches of available land around the Red Sea shoreline were converted into hotels, developers set their eyes on the Bird Park, which still did not enjoy formal statutory protection. A campaign of intimidation against Yosef and his family began. It was clear that without his passion, the bird park initiative would fall apart. In 1996 Yosef began to receive threatening telephone calls. Soon thereafter, the Bird Center's jeep was vandalized. His wife's car was smeared with eggs. Then seedlings in the sanctuary were uprooted.[82] The Yosef family dog was hanged outside their home. Finally, in the spring of 1998, things got even nastier: A fire was started in the reserve, destroying much of the infrastructure and all the research equipment Yosef had accumulated.[83] The Eilat police tried to attribute the acts to juvenile delinquency and vandalism, but the persistence of the campaign cast a much more insidious shadow. Yosef was convinced that a few local developers, who had sent hooligans to do their bidding, were behind the acts.[84]

Many times during the ordeal he was tempted to take lucrative aca-demic jobs abroad, but Yosef stayed on. It was not in Reuven Yosef's nature to retreat. He got an unlisted phone number, and raised a 3.5-meter barbed-wire fence around his center. But there was not much else he could do, except hold on. Yosef saw his own efforts in the context of the central ecological question confronting the country: “We're pouring millions of shekels into a captive-breeding program for birds like the lappet-faced vulture. But why waste money on the program if we can never release them in the wild because we don't protect their habitat?”[85]

At the start of the twenty-first century, Eilat was a bustling resort town of forty thousand people. It had ten thousand hotel rooms and at least as many more planned. The city is host to European guests throughout the winter and Israeli tourists in the spring and summer. Whether or not it can also find room to host the seasonal avian visitors remains unclear. But the birds would have no chance at all were it not for a small salt marsh that survives thanks to human inspiration and courage.

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