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It's not easy being a green activist trying to protect wildlife. It's an activity often mocked because of its seeming concern about bugs and birds with names the mockers don't even know, let alone are able to pronounce, compounded by the fact that there are more urgent human miseries that require treatment and solutions.

The proper response to that argument is that the animals help provide a vital human need to preserve nature. And, of course, they should be given the chance to do so. Instead of exterminating them, such an opportunity was recently given to the owls and cranes of the Jordan Valley.

Last month was bird-watching month, marked by bird-watching trips and lectures conducted by the Society for the Preservation of Nature, the Mitzpeh Hayamim Hotel, and the International Center for Bird Migration at Latrun. The high pont of the month was the arrival of enormous numbers of birds in the Jordan Valley during their winter migration south. This year, the attention was focused on owls and cranes and their significance for agriculture, tourism, and even Jewish-Arab cooperation.

More than 20 years ago, Kibbutz Sde Eliahu, in the Beit She'an Valley, decided to put up special nesting boxes for the owls, which are nocturnal birds of prey that mostly live off rodents that can cause enormous damage to agriculture.

Encouraging the owl population is meant to mitigate the damage done by the rodents, while avoiding the use of chemicals that pollute the environment. That's the approach used in some of the kibbutz fields, where they use natural methods to keep the insects away, instead of chemical poisons.

There are about 60 nesting booths in Sde Eliahu and throughout the south Beit She'an Valley area there are more than 200 such nests. The resulting presence of owls has significantly reduced the rodent populations. Sde Eliahu's fields have the same crop yields as farmlands where chemical insecticides are used, but without the negative side effects. Researchers who have been tracking the owls discovered that a pair of birds bringing up fledglings can kill 20 rodents a night, to feed themselves and their young.

The nesting project has also turned into a means of cooperation between Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian farmers, who have shown interest in the natural alternatives to poisons. The Palestinians plan to put up their own nesting boxes for owls in the Jericho area in the coming weeks.

In the Hula Valley, meanwhile, there are gatherings of huge flocks of cranes, which find available food in the area on their migration south. Farmer cooperation with the various nature conservation agencies resulted in the cranes finding food without harming crops. The presence of tens of thousands of cranes has become a tourist attraction, and some of the visitors from overseas who came last month for the bird watching said it is impossible to find such impressive concentrations of birds in African nature reserves.

The story of the birds in the Jordan Valley could become the start of a thriving tourism industry based on visiting nature sites, as well as historical and religious sites, between the sources of the Jordan River in the north and the Beit She'an Valley in the south. There are millions of bird lovers in the world ready to travel to distant locales and many know that Israel is one of the most important way stations in the world for migrating birds.

The tourism potential is beginning to be exploited in places like Kibbutz Kfar Rupin, in the Beit She'an Valley. The kibbutz has established a bird-watching center for visitors where they can observe both local birds, including the owls, and the migrating flocks.

The conclusion from the Jordan Valley bird projects is that human society should invest in the protection of wildlife after it created innumerable dangers to animals in their natural habitats. The investment could be governmental or by private tourism entrepreneurs who could profit from the nature tourism. The usefulness of protecting wildlife is a good reason to carefully consider where new construction goes up or the use of materials that pollute the environment.

But the pragmatic reasoning that wildlife preservation is of practical usefulness to human society should not weaken the ethical arguments to conserve and protect nature. One of the founding fathers of the American land conservation movement, land ethicist Aldo Leopold, wrote on this, "Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."