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The soft-shelled turtle that last week traveled in Yoram Malka's car from the Hula nature reserve in the north to the Hadera River on the coastal plain surely did not recognize the view through the car's windscreen. The country's landscape has changed beyond recognition since the little turtle was taken from its habitat in one of the coastal water courses to the nature reserve that became its home for the past 40 years. Now, four decades later, Hula nature reserve workers have informed the turtle that the conditions for sending him home have ripened.

When they reached the Hadera River, Malka lifted the turtle - that weighs 35 kilograms and is 70 centimeters long - and carried it in his arms to the stream's bank. Another soft-shelled turtle taken from the Hula nature reserve was released alongside it.

The turtles' return to the coastal plain is another step in the Soft-shelled Turtle Project that began five years ago. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed as though the turtles were about to disappear from Israel's landscape. Increasing water pollution and a building spree disturbed their habitat and quickly wiped out the turtle population. That disappearance symbolized the deterioration of the coastal waterways. Because of the imminent danger, Zoologist Heinrich Mendelsohn stepped in to save the turtles and moved them to the Hula nature reserve.

Soft-shelled turtles are still considered a "critically endangered species" in Middle Eastern countries. However, their condition in Israel has changed immeasurably. The initial decision to move them to the Hula nature reserve, an area alien to them, was disputed but it seems that otherwise we would have seen these turtles only in pictures in scientific books. Forty years ago there were only 100 such turtles. Now they are returning home and there are estimates that hundreds live along the coastal water courses from Na'aman in the north to Sorek in the south.

"Mendelsohn's move indeed saved the turtles from extinction but [the relocation] was controversial because the turtle was not a natural resident of the area to which it was moved. Over the years it transpired that they did, indeed, damage the natural system as they were seen devouring seagulls' eggs, for example," said Malka.

The realization that the soft-shelled turtle is alien to the Upper Galilee and the parallel initial moves to rehabilitate coastal streams led to the decision that the time has come to evacuate the turtles from their northern shelter and return them to their natural habitat. Ecologists at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Talya Oron and Yiftah Sinai, led the move along with Malka and other park officials.

More than 200 nests in which female turtles laid their eggs have been located since the operation began, and over 4,000 eggs have been removed. The eggs were then incubated, some at the nature reserve and some in the coastal rivers Na'aman, Kishon, Hadera, Yarkon and Sorek. Young turtles that hatched in the Hula nature reserve were also moved to the coastal waterways.

According to Malka, the turtles' return to the coastal waterways indicates their rehabilitation. He said that soft-shelled turtles have been spotted even in the notorious Kishon River. "A soft-shelled turtle can tolerate sewage but not industrial effluent. True, so far the project has been successful but we must remember that the turtle is still in danger of extinction and serious pollution can ruin everything."