To Save a Watering Hole

If Reuven Yosef doesn't win his fight against developers in Israel's hottest resort town, half of Europe's birds might disappear

By Mark CherringtonSep 1, 2000 5:00 AM


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One cloudless July afternoon in 1995, Dalit Yosef and her 9-year-old son Erez left their home in Eilat, Israel, and set off for a nearby bird sanctuary. Their route took them down the hill through the bustling city, past brown stucco houses and apartment blocks, down streets lined with palms and tropical flowers. To the east, across the Red Sea, the Jordanian mountains rose in a stark palisade above Aqaba; to the south the desert mountains of Saudi Arabia were a dark shadow on the horizon. Yet Dalit took no comfort in the view. That idyllic locale had become an environmental battlefield.

On one side lay a legion of local developers, bent on turning Eilat into Israel's premier resort town. On the other side was Dalit's husband, ornithologist Reuven Yosef, equally determined to set aside part of the landscape for wildlife. The sanctuary that Dalit and Erez were visiting that day was ground zero. Economically, it was quite valuable: Among other things, the mayor had suggested turning it into a motocross track or a zoo. But biologically it was priceless. Every spring and autumn, a large part of Europe and Asia's migrating bird population— 1.5 billion birds in all— passed through Eilat on the way to and from Africa. They stopped because the sanctuary was on the only land bridge between Africa, Asia, and Europe, and because it offered them the only food for hundreds of miles in any direction. Without the sanctuary, millions of the birds might die, and without those birds, ecosystems on three continents would be threatened.

As director of the International Birding and Research Center in town, Reuven Yosef was attacking Eilat's developers publicly and relentlessly, fighting to keep bulldozers away from the sanctuary. But his opponents were just as vehement. For the past year, people had been calling the Yosefs' house anonymously, making threats. "If you don't leave Eilat," they would say, "something really terrible is going to happen to your family." First one and then another of Reuven's jeeps was vandalized. At the sanctuary, fences were trampled, doors broken in, seedlings uprooted, and field equipment sabotaged so often that Yosef was spending 10 percent of his budget on replacement equipment. In each case, the culprits were never identified, and the police wrote off the attacks as "incidents of no public interest."

There was worse to come. When Dalit and her son reached the sanctuary that day in July, they walked through the trees to Reuven's research station, expecting to see the family dog, Jenny. Instead, as Dalit rounded the corner, she stopped in her tracks and screamed, spinning Erez around and covering his eyes. Jenny was hanging from her chain, which had been tied to the roof of the building, with a piece of paper tacked to her dead body. The words on the paper said, "Get Out!"

Four years later, describing the incident, Reuven Yosef's voice catches, then hardens. The pace of development has quickened, he says, and the attacks have escalated: A year after Jenny was killed, Yosef went to the sanctuary to find his research station burned to the ground. Yet he hasn't budged an inch. He is not a large man, but he is stocky and swarthy and black-bearded and radiates defiance. In his normal stance— feet planted apart and arms folded over his chest— he wouldn't be out of place on the prow of a pirate ship. His black eyes are unflinching, and when he locks them on you, your instinct is to take a step back. His physical attitude suggests a falcon: compact, alert, fearless, and always prepared to hurtle headlong at his prey.

Yosef's zeal is equal parts personal and scientific, a function of both his upbringing and the gravity of the situation in Eilat. The son of a fighter pilot, educated in a military boarding school, he left his native India in 1974 at age 16, after the Yom Kippur War. "Being an Indian Jew, I was sort of brainwashed in the Zionist ideal that living in Israel is the thing for a Jew," he says, "so I wanted to come and give whatever I could." He soon landed in one of the Israeli army's elite units and was promoted to a high rank over the course of several extremely dangerous missions. But even then his loyalties were divided.

One day, during an excursion behind enemy lines, Yosef's unit came upon a stork riddled with shrapnel. Yosef wanted to evacuate it, but bullets and bombs were flying all around. So he and the unit's doctor huddled by a rock and worked for hours removing the shrapnel and dressing the wounds. From then on, Yosef says, "My unit knew that any animal that we found wounded in the field was treated. If we thought the animal could survive in the field, we released it, and if not, we brought it back and rehabilitated it." His men didn't necessarily agree with his approach, he says: "They humored me."

Yosef's compassion for wildlife— cultivated, he says, by an uncle who was an eminent zoologist— grew like a raging fire. "I realized back then the kinds of things that were plowed under in the name of human requirements, of Zionist ideals." After leaving the army in 1979, he got degrees in biology and education at the University of Haifa, earned his doctorate in zoology at Ohio State University, and went on to do research at Cornell under renowned biologist Tom Eisner. By the time he became director of the center in Eilat in 1993, he was equally adept at research and warfare: the perfect man for the job.

Walking around the sanctuary that would become the center of Yosef's life— and nearly the cause of his death— one might wonder what all the fuss is about. The place is pretty enough. Tall, drooping jujube, or Christ's-thorn, trees shade bushes of sea blite, the primary plant for the birds, and dozens of other species. Two large ponds are dotted with rocks and islands, and the islands are covered with more sea blite. But compared with other exotic and embattled wildlife areas like the Amazon, Madagascar, and the Serengeti, Eilat's sanctuary seems unremarkable. What could be so critical about it?

The answer lies in Yosef's stunning statistics. Every spring, he estimates, 3 million raptors pass over Israel, including 800,000 honey buzzards, 65,000 Levant sparrow hawks, 460,000 steppe buzzards, 142,000 lesser spotted eagles, and 30,000 steppe eagles— and that count doesn't include 1.2 billion songbirds and waders. They come here from the Sahel, the Sahara, and the Sinai, where the desert is so dry people have died of dehydration in eight hours. The birds come by the tens of thousands, great swirling clouds of them, sunbaked and exhausted, desperate to reach this piece of land. Even under the best of circumstances, 60 percent of some migrating species may die en route, and some survivors arrive with all their fat and most of their muscle metabolized. For birds flying south, the sanctuary is a last, critical pit stop. For birds flying north, it's a lifesaving oasis.

But if Eilat's sanctuary were lost, the real victims would be elsewhere. The birds that depend on this sanctuary play crucial ecological roles in Europe, Asia, and Africa, distributing seeds of fruit-bearing plants, pollinating flowers, and controlling insect and rodent populations. In 1921, American ornithologist Edward Forbush calculated that birds in the United States reduce forest and agricultural pests by 28 percent, saving the country an estimated $444 million in crop and timber losses. And that figure is in 1921 dollars. Today birds in Europe, Asia, and Africa are worth billions of dollars to farmers.

It's hard, however, to put a precise figure on the value of the sanctuary. "This subject is a minefield," Yosef says. "There are those waiting for me to make claims and then to slam me with them. But we have established that more than 90 passerine species stage at Eilat. If we take into account that several raptor, wader, and pelagic species also stop over here, the numbers are a considerable proportion of Eurasia's breeding migratory population. Maybe even several tens of percentage."

For all his caution in making estimates, Yosef has already witnessed what will happen if this sanctuary is lost. When he first came to Eilat, the marsh that birds once used here was being built over. "You would see birds wandering around town, exhausted and looking for food," he says, "but all that was planted were exotic species." Some of the birds were feeding in local, pesticide-laden farmlands.

There wasn't much point in directing a birding center if it meant watching birds die, so Yosef threw himself behind a local initiative to build a bird sanctuary. A local bird lover and former deputy mayor named Shmulik Tagar had scouted out a possible location for the sanctuary at an abandoned 160-acre landfill on the edge of town. Yosef helped Tagar persuade the town to donate the land, then the two men talked the town's developers into taking the topsoil they were excavating and dumping it onto the landfill. Rather than fight for a share of Eilat's precious water supply, the activists went after the town's sewage, then being dumped raw into the Red Sea. They knew that the sewage, in time, would kill one of the city's major sources of income: its spectacular coral reef. So they helped organize demonstrations and bumper-sticker promotions. After three years, the town agreed to build a treatment plant just above Yosef's land.

The rest was easy by comparison. Using a backhoe, Yosef dug two ponds and a drip-irrigation network. Then he raised money to buy plastic tubing, set up a solar pump, and pulled down some of the nutrient-rich treated water from the sewage canal that ran alongside his land. Finally, he convinced the Jewish National Fund to help him seed all the native plants that had grown in the original salt marsh. Today his garbage dump is an ornithological paradise. Only one twentieth the size of the original marsh, it supports a far greater density of plants, and even more food for the birds, thanks to irrigation.

In most places, such an achievement would make Reuven Yosef a hero. But Eilat is a one-business town, and that business is tourism. Over the past five years, the overall number of hotel rooms has doubled, to 10,000, and the population has leaped from 45,000 to 90,000. There are millions to be made developing the desert, and 160 acres of natural habitat in the heart of it seems to many like land wasted.

Driving through town one afternoon, Yosef launches into what must be a well-worn tirade against the appalling environmental cost of Eilat's boomtown mentality. Those flowers and waving palms along the streets are all exotic species, he says. They are displacing native plants and animals. Those glass-bottomed boats are destroying the coral on which they make a living. "When I told them they had to think of future generations," he says, "they told me, 'Let them worry about their own problems; I'm going to make my money now.' "

Yosef's opponents, for their part, make no apologies. "When I was born, in Tel Aviv, there were fewer than 1 million people here," says Rina Maor, the director for southern Israel at the Ministry of Tourism. "And now we are 6 million. Yes, we pollute, we do. What can we do? We don't live in tents. I know that we disturb not only the birds but also the corals and fish, and we are not so nice, we human beings— we are sometimes very cruel. But what can we do?"

Yosef threatens much more than a few hotel builders, it seems; he challenges the very idea of Israel. More than 50 years ago, the country's founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared that Israel's mission was "to make the Middle East bloom again." As a Jewish nation, Ben-Gurion believed, Israel would gain credibility only if Jews established an undeniable presence. In Israel, making the desert bloom has been both a political and a cultural obligation.

On paper, Israel appears to be protecting its environment: Nearly a quarter of its land is set aside as national parks or nature reserves. But 63 percent of those reserves are less than half a square mile in area. Moreover, half of the official preserves are on land used by the military. The Ministry of the Environment can create a reserve only if the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Defense approves. Finally, because the government technically owns all the land in Israel, any given piece can be confiscated and reclassified at any time.

"Israel's got this paradox," says Alon Tal, who has just finished a book on Israeli environmental history. "We have remarkable biodiversity for a country this size because of our location on three continents. I mean, in my backyard we've got hyenas living with wolves and foxes, all in the middle of the desert. The trouble is, our population is growing very fast and the standard of living is growing very fast. We've got a developing country's demographic profile with a Western country's economic profile. And that can lead to a lot of problems."

Last December a government official charged Yosef with being anti-Israeli. Although he was eventually cleared in a hearing, after dozens of scientists and friends from around the world came to his defense, his accuser had no lack of allies. Just this past winter, Yosef mounted the barricades again when the Israeli government, as part of a peace agreement with Jordan, proposed a new international airport not far from his sanctuary. Arguing that the region was of unique biological value, Yosef and a group of other environmentalists petitioned for a change in the plan. The airport would disrupt the birds' migration, they argued, and Israel had an obligation not to let that happen: Europe, Asia, and Africa's birds depended on it.

Somehow, it worked: Yosef and his colleagues persuaded the minister of the environment to take up their cause. Only a single terminal will be built in Israel, and that on disturbed land away from the sanctuary. Meanwhile, the world environmental community is finally beginning to recognize Yosef's efforts. Next month, Yosef will be given the prestigious Rolex award for conservation.

Still, he is hardly ready to let down his guard. Walking through the sanctuary one day, he proudly points out his new research station. When the original structure was burned down, he says, he gathered the building's charred timbers and turned them into seating for sanctuary visitors. Then he launched a fund-raising campaign to rebuild it. The new structure is made of chemically treated fire-resistant wood. It's set on a concrete slab and equipped with locking shutters for the windows. "If they want to get rid of this one," Yosef says, "they'll have to drop a bomb on it." His new dog, though, stays at home.

It's January now— the calm before the storm of migration— but scanning the sky, Yosef notices something flying against the Jordanian mountains in the distance. "Oh, look," he says. "There are some ducks coming in. Looks like mallards, or maybe pintails. They're early this year." Even with binoculars it's impossible to see them. Then the birds pass in front of the mountains and against the clear sky. To most people, they would look like grains of pepper at the far end of a football field. But Yosef has uncommonly good vision: Where anyone else would see only desert, he sees birds.

To assist with Yosef's field studies in Eilat as a volunteer observer, call Earthwatch Institute at 1-800-776-0188, ext. 188, or see www.earthwatch.org/expeditions/yosef.html.To monitor migratory birds, Israeli ornithologists use satellite transmitters, radar, video, and volunteer observers. To see some of the images and data they've gathered, go to The Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries site, sponsored in part by The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israeli Ornithological Center, at www.birds.org.il.For more about migratory birds, see the Web site of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (web2.si.edu/smbc).

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