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Leading Israeli ornithologists who believe the country's birds make it a global eco-tourism center have found a new ally - Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer.

Fischer participated yesterday in the launch at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies of a new project to develop a network of bird-watching centers in Israel. Fischer noted that Israel had already become a world center for bird-watching, in honor of which the Bank of Israel issued a new coin this year bearing the image of a bird.

The network of centers, the brainchild of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Tel Aviv University, will be based on Israel's nine existing bird-watching center, with six more to be established in the coming year s. Centers are planned for Ayalon Park, the Rosh Tzipor ("bird's head") site in Tel Aviv, Ein Gedi at the Dead Sea, and Sde Boker in the Negev, among others.

About one billion birds of some 540 species cross Israel's skies every year. The experts believe that an investment of NIS 52 million in the network's infrastructure over five years by the government and foundations affiliated with the ecological organizations will significantly increase the number of tourists coming to Israel for bird-watching.

About a million people around the world are believed to be active bird-watchers. The present estimated 30,000 bird-watchers that visit Israel annually could increase to 100,000 a year thanks to the expanded network of centers, ornithologists say.

According to Dr. Yossi Leshem, director of the Latrun Center, Fischer was persuaded to support the development of the network after he was taken on an bird-watching tour last year.

"We were in a field in the Judean lowlands and we saw how, after the ground had been plowed, dozens of snake eagles swooped down on snakes and rodents to prey on them," Leshem said. "The sight really impressed him and it will impress bird-watchers, too, because only in Israel can you see such a large concentration of such birds."

Bird-watching centers usually have educational facilities, a team of researchers, field instructors and a variety of activities like the banding of migrating birds and observation using various means. Some of the centers are in rural communities and combine bird-watching activities with bed-and-breakfast accommodations.

"The intent is for all the centers in the network to transmit information to each other in real time," Leshem explained. "Tourists staying in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa will be able to receive information on the web that we obtain by radar about thousands of storks landing at one of the centers, and then they head there to see them. Today, when you ask people abroad what they know about Israel, the answer is the Israeli-Arab conflict or something about history. Now Israel can be known for nature."