Sanctuary in the Desert: Protecting Migratory Birds in Israel

Reuven Yosef
A European bee-eater at the bird sanctary in Eilat, Israel.

Twice a year, hundreds of millions of birds make a treacherous and grueling migration from Europe or Asia to Africa and then back again. After thousands of kilometers of continuous flight over sprawling desert, migratory birds, exhausted and near starvation, stop to rest in Israel’s Eilat region, a crucial land bridge separating Europe from Asia and Africa. Surrounded by desert, Eilat’s marshlands are the only place where these birds will find food for hundreds of kilometers in all directions. Without the salt marsh found at the mouth of the Roded River as it empties into the Red Sea, millions of birds would not survive the migration, and the ecological consequences in Asia, Africa, and Europe would be immense.

But in the past 30 years, Eilat has experienced rapid development, with the wetlands converted into agricultural monocultures and into hotels for a booming tourism industry. In response, our nonprofit, the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE), transformed an abandoned garbage dump into a bird sanctuary, recreating the ecological conditions of the lost salt marsh. Creating a nature reserve in the Middle East, a region fraught with tension and with only a limited public awareness of environmental issues, has not been easy. The project faced enormous opposition from the local Israeli community and from businesses eager to develop the land. We regularly received threats. “If you don’t leave Eilat,” they would say, “something really terrible is going to happen.” First one and then another of our jeeps were vandalized. At the sanctuary, fences were trampled, doors broken in, seedlings uprooted, and field equipment sabotaged so often that we spent ten percent of our budget on replacement equipment. They hanged my dog, and vandals burned the research center down. The culprits were never identified, and the police wrote off the attacks as “incidents of no public interest.” But this work is important—both for the fate of millions of birds and for the opportunity to foster an environmental consciousness in the region that just might transcend the political factions.


Iva Hristova-Nikolova
The International Birding and Research Center in Eilat (IBRCE) transformed an abandoned garbage dump into a bird sanctuary. The density of flowering, fruiting plants and aquatic pond life creates enough food for bird populations in an area that is less than five percent of the original salt marsh.

Eilat was established in 1948 around the tiny Turkish police station of Um-Rasrash on the western side of the Gulf of Aqaba. In 1955 the population was 500; this number rose to 13,000 by 1972, at which point tourism and hotel building became powerful economic engines that drove the city’s annual growth rate to 12 percent. Today, the population is 60,000. Eilat has roughly 8,000 hotel rooms to house its tourists and, at the present growth rate, this number is projected to reach 13,000 within the next three years. Most of the hotels were built around, or over, Eliat’s natural salt marsh, large areas of which have been converted into agricultural fields. More land has been developed for commercial salt and algae harvesting. The marsh existed at the terminal point of the surrounding valleys, and the deposition of clay from seasonal flooding established a unique plant community dominated mostly by Suaeda monoica. Flowering in spring and autumn, this shrub with succulent leaves is an essential food plant for migratory birds as they rest, or “stage,” at Eilat. Of the once extensive, 12-square-kilometer salt marsh, nothing remains today.

The mass disappearance of the region’s indigenous species indicates that habitat has deteriorated to a point where only the hardiest and most resourceful species can survive. And the implications of this habitat’s demise for migrant populations are equally grave. An estimated 500 million to one billion birds, belonging to more than 230 species, pass through the Eilat region twice a year, once in spring, once in autumn. Individuals within these populations are especially vulnerable because they tend to be small in body size, and they load just enough fat to get across the hostile Saharan and Arabian deserts to the south and the Syrian and Arabian deserts to the east. A number of species, like the honey buzzard and the lesser spotted eagle, depend on the salt marsh for continuing their journeys to their northern breeding grounds. Many migrants reach the Eilat area after having flown for 20 to 40 hours without “refueling.”

The disappearance of the salt marsh habitat raises a fundamental question of survival for the migratory birds that pass through Eilat. How will they accomplish their migrations, or breed successfully, without this important staging site? The fate of the birds also touches on the vast ecosystems of Europe and Asia, where they play a vital role in distributing seeds of fruit-bearing plants, pollinating flowers, and controlling insect and rodent populations. In 1921 the American ornithologist Edward Forbush calculated that the reduction of pests by birds amounts to a savings of $444 million in 1920s dollars. The birds that pass through Eilat are worth billions of dollars to Europe’s farmers.


Reuven Yosef
A corncrake at the bird sanctary in Eilat, Israel. The corncrake migrates between Europe and Africa.

But with most of the town’s habitat developed for human purposes in the last few decades, the only alternative staging area in the region is our bird sanctuary, created in 1993, when the IBRCE acquired the local 160-acre garbage dump. This site offered us a unique chance to recycle a human-abused landscape and to revert it to one of its original purposes: helping migrant bird populations accomplish their migrations. The garbage dump was in use from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. It contained whole hotels that had been dismantled and burned out vehicles from two wars against our Arab neighbors. By the mid-1970s, the area reached maximum capacity and was fenced off and abandoned.

We started our program by digging large pits into which the garbage could be compacted. The whole area was then layered with two to three meters of fresh soil, and the surface was contoured to create ecological niches and a variety of habitats for the hundreds of avian species that pass through in the spring migration. We then reforested the area with xeric plant species that fruit and flower during the migration seasons. The land is irrigated with partially treated sewage water from a nearby treatment plant we campaigned to have built to stop waste from being dumped in the Red Sea and to provide the sanctuary with water. The resulting organic content has resulted in extremely fast plant growth. The sanctuary also contains a freshwater lake, constantly refilled by the excess water from the local brackish-water desalination plant, and a saltwater lake, which ensures a constant supply of brine shrimp (Artemia salinas). The saltwater lake is maintained in cooperation with the local salt factory, which is able to continue business without disturbing migratory waterfowl. We have an ambitious program for planting seedlings and trees, which we hope to complete soon. The density of flowering, fruiting plants and aquatic pond life already allows us to offer the bird populations enough food in an area that is less than five percent of the original salt marsh.

However, the bird sanctuary in Eilat continues to face many challenges. Environmental thinking in Israel has picked up only since the turn of the twenty-first century and, until then, our team put up with a wide range of intimidations, including telephone threats and vandalism of the project and project equipment. The locals, so long as the site was a garbage dump, ignored the area. But when they realized that the reclaimed area was being “wasted” on birds and other wildlife, entrepreneurs tried every possible method to lay their hands on the site, to build more hotels, or, in one case, a motorcycle race track.


Iva Hristova-Nikolova
The Cretzschmar’s Bunting migrates between the Mediterranean and Sudan, stopping to rest in Eilat.

On paper, Israel appears to be protecting its environment: nearly a quarter of its land is set aside as national parks. But almost two-thirds of those reserves are less than half a square mile in area. Many are on land used by the military. Moreover, because the government technically owns all the land in Israel, any given piece can be confiscated and reclassified at any time. Since the country’s founding in 1948, the onus in Israel has been to claim possession of the land through development. The country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, declared that Israel’s mission was “to make the desert bloom.” As a Jewish nation, Ben-Gurion believed, Israel would gain credibility only if Jews established an undeniable presence, which meant building houses and businesses. Sometimes it seemed that my conservation work was challenging the very idea of Israel. At one stage, my work on the sanctuary aroused local suspicions and I was charged by one official of being anti-Israeli. Eventually, I was cleared in a hearing, after dozens of scientists and friends from around the world came to my defense.

Locals have also slowly become more tolerant of the project, but much work remains to be done to gain the full support of the surrounding community. We are trying to demonstrate that the bird sanctuary can also benefit the town by stimulating ecotourism. Historically, at the peak, an estimated 25,000–40,000 bird-watchers visited Eilat annually. But with the increased political unrest in the region, these numbers dropped considerably, showing just how inexorably peace in the Middle East and the fate of its environment are tied together. Until the local authorities and national ministries do more to recognize the importance of encouraging ecotourists—and by association, promoting nature reserves likes ours—the region’s ecosystems will suffer.