Almost six decades have passed since one of Israel’s largest natural wonders, Lake Hula, was drained in order to create more arable land. The wildlife in and around this freshwater lake, located in the northern part of the country, did not completely disappear, however, and a number of species managed to survive in the area’s remaining water sources. These species have gotten a boost in the last two years thanks to rehabilitation efforts carried out in the Hula Nature Reserve, the first nature reserve established in the country. In the reserve, which encompasses a small remnant of the original body of water, 10 out of the 14 species of fish known to have formerly inhabited the lake have been successfully restored.
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For many years, efforts to protect wildlife in the reserve faced a tough hurdle: the poor quality of water that came from fish ponds in the vicinity that drained into the reserve, carrying with it new species of fish that threatened the existing ones. In recent years, the dependence on fish ponds as a source of water for the reserve has diminished, and fresh and natural water now flows into the lake, having been diverted from sources such as the nearby Einan Stream.
“For the fish, the renewal of the natural flow of water at a constant temperature has had a huge ecological impact,” notes Yifat Artzi, an ecologist who works for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. “The stream has returned to its role of providing a thermal refuge, especially for Saint Peter’s fish [tilapia], which suffer from low temperatures during the winter.”
Nature received further assistance from the INPA, whose efforts included creating lagoons in which indigenous fish populations could thrive and culling wildlife that preyed on their young offspring. For example, certain types of water turtles and catfish were removed from the nature reserve, leading to an increase in the number of younger, smaller fish. In addition, water from nearby springs that had formerly flowed into the lake was diverted back into what remained of it.
Another important step was taken last year: Some 400 dunams (100 acres) of the northern part of the reserve were flooded, enabling fish from the Jordan River to reach the reserve for the first time in many years. This area is not to be confused with the Hula Lake Park, which lies north of the reserve. That was flooded some 20 years ago and is now home to different varieties of flora and fauna – in particular, many species of migrating birds.
Thus, a number of species of fish have returned to the Hula reserve in a natural manner and not as part of an “artificial” initiative, as was the case in other bodies of water that have been rehabilitated and restocked with fish by the INPA.
“The fish have come from the tributaries and channels that connect the reserve to the Jordan River, or from other nearby sources,” Artzi explains, adding that in addition to the return of the Galilee tilapia, which had been under serious threat of extinction, the Nemacheilus panthera is now thriving the first time in 20 years in the reserve. Other forms of wildlife that feed off the fish are also benefiting from this process of recovery. These include otters, one of the country’s rarer mammal species. “This area has now become the otter capital of Israel,” she says.
The successful rehabilitation of the Hula Nature Reserve further increases the longing for the historic lake – not only for its scenery, but for wildlife that included several species of fish endemic to this part of the world that became extinct after it was drained. One can only hope they will be rediscovered in some pool or spring, as happened in the case of the Hula painted frog, which was thought to have died out until its rediscovery a few years ago.