The preservation plans for the cranes in the Hula Valley, initiated by the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Ornithological Center, a department of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is a world-class success, so much so that the cranes could end up being a victim of this success. In the advent of the plans, the cranes have multiplied so fast it is be impossible to continue guaranteeing their food sources and to prevent the spread of disease. This is one of the main conclusions of the group of experts from the American Forestry Services, who examined the feeding project at Agmon Lake a few months ago, when migrating cranes made their winter stopover in Israel.
The feeding project was instituted to prevent the cranes, which fly to the Hula Valley every winter, from causing untold damage to the farmers' crops. The large birds are frightened off by various scare tactics, and diverted to fields near the lake, where food has been scattered for them by the farmers. The food attracts other types of birds, which also land here during their winter migration flights from Europe to Africa. Some of these birds even stay in Israel for extended periods. In recent years some 25,000 cranes have arrived in the Hula Valley each year, and most of them decided to stay throughout the winter.
The American team, which included some crane experts, were invited here by the JNF.
"The crane feeding project has significantly reduced the damage to agriculture," wrote the experts in their report. "It can be viewed as one of the best examples in the world of this type of activity." Other such laudable initiatives in the United States, South Africa and Japan have been less successful.
The report also notes that the cranes and other birds at the lake significantly increased the number of nature tourists visiting this site, to 200,000 a year.
Still, this success has created growing complications. The American team suggested a number of steps aimed at stabilizing or even reducing the number of cranes that stay in the valley.
"The feeding costs have risen and it will be difficult to continue financing the program from Hula Valley tourism revenues," continues the report. "The risk to the farmers' fields increases with the growth of the population of cranes extending their stays in Israel. Such a large concentration of birds makes them more vulnerable to natural disasters and the outbreak of fatal diseases."
In order to maintain the project's success, the American experts proposed a number of methods for reducing the damage to the farmers' fields. One suggestion is to coat the seeds with a bitter-tasting organic chemical called anthraquinon, at planting time. This will prevent the birds from eating the crop seeds, but not the insects or ungerminated seeds from previous years.
The experts also suggested deliberately reducing the quantities of food provided to the cranes, in order to encourage them to seek food elsewhere. The report further recommends studying the cranes' energy needs and the amount of available food, in order to plan the optimum time to reduce the quantity of food being provided. This would, of course, be done in conjunction with the preventative measures in the farmers' fields, so that the cranes do not damage the crops.
Another suggestion was to increase the exchange of information between crane experts in Europe and Africa, to improve everyone's understanding of the birds' migratory habits.
The experts also proposed charging an entrance fee to the Agmon Lake region, in order to generate revenues for financing the feeding project and other nature preservation activities, but expressed their fears that excessive tourism development could lead to too many visitors to the, which in turn might frighten the birds away.