Behind Israel’s Bird Flu Outbreak: Greed

5,000 cranes have died at Hula Lake and the number is sure to double. Greed for tourism income led to overfeeding and overcrowding, and now to illness and death

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Cranes in the Hula Nature Reserve, in healthier days.
Cranes in the Hula Nature Reserve, in healthier days.
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

What is happening right now in the Hula Valley is a terrible disaster. Nearly 1,000 cranes are dying each day. Their bodies lie shriveled in the water. Birds whose noble appearance drew hundreds of thousands of visitors now look totally helpless. Photos of the scene are very difficult to look at.

The latest information is that 5,000 dead cranes were found this week at the Hula Nature Reserve. The reserve and Hula Lake have been closed to the public. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg described it as “the worst blow to wildlife in the country’s history.” The number of dead cranes is expected to double.

This is a shocking figure. Approximately 40,000 cranes winter in Israel – meaning that a quarter of them will die in the present epidemic. The cranes in Israel account for a tenth of the global population. So you could call this a holocaust. But don’t call it a natural disaster. We brought this disaster on the cranes, and on ourselves with a policy that arose from a love of nature combined with greed and an unbridled desire for tourism development.

Nearly 1,000 cranes are dying each day in the Hula Valley.

Until this week, Hula Lake Park, which is inside the reserve, was a massive success as a tourist attraction, drawing a half-million visitors annually. The BBC named it as one of the top 10 birdwatching sites in the world. The birding park was established by the Jewish National Fund in the 1990s after a decision was made to refill parts of the lake. The draining of Hula Lake in the 1950s is the original sin in this story. There, too, excessive human intervention in nature led to catastrophe.

Hula Lake Park quickly became a hit. Safari wagons brought visitors a short distance away from the cranes. The cranes congregated in huge numbers at the feeding spots – where sunflower seeds were scattered to draw the birds – and almost everyone was smiling happily. It was so much fun to be a birder at the lake, where just a little effort yielded an incredible reward beyond anything you could experience elsewhere.

Seven tons a day of peanuts or corn were given to the birds at Hula Lake. The funding came from farmers who hoped to keep the cranes from raiding their fields, from the site, from the JNF, from the Agriculture Ministry and the regional council. Around the Upper Galilee, it was commonly estimated that crane tourism brought 120 million shekels to the local economy each year. And so a vicious cycle ensued. To ensure that tourists would keep coming to the park, they had to ensure there would be cranes. To get the cranes to come, so the tourists would follow, the birds had to be fed. Ecologists say that this feeding tempts the cranes to remain in the Hula Valley rather than carry on with their traditional and tiring migration south to Africa. But the resultant crowding is not beneficial to anyone.

'You could say that they think more about tourism and less about nature'

A dead crane at Hula Nature Reserve, this week.

When I did an article on the park in January 2017, one of the managers of the site told me: “We’re aware that having so many birds crowded into such a small space is problematic.” Dr. Amit Dolev, an ecologist for the Nature and Parks Authority’s Northern District, said at the time: “Feeding wildlife is not something we like. The additional food has caused changes in the cranes’ migratory patterns.”

Dan Alon, who until recently was director of the Israel Ornithological Center division at the Society for the Protection of Nature, was critical of the lack of an ecological outlook and ecological management at Hula Lake: “You could say that they think more about tourism and less about nature. The real secret is balancing the two.” This week we are seeing the horrible results of this imbalance.

Workers in protective gear at Hula Nature Reserve, this week.

'What is happening was predictable, because when there is overcrowding, pathogens spread quickly from one individual to another'

Zoology Professor Yoram Yom-Tov wrote to me this week: “What is happening to the cranes in the Hula Valley was predictable, because when there is overcrowding, pathogens spread quickly from one individual to another. Intentionally or not, feeding by humans caused this. The same thing happened in the 1980s when the deer in Ramat Issachar and the Golan Heights came down with foot-and-mouth disease. There, too, the crowding greatly increased due to decisions made by people and the consequence was mass mortality of thousands of deer.

A similar process is currently happening in Ramat Aviv in Tel Aviv. The feeding of stray cats is causing an increase in the raccoon population, because racoons feed on the same things. This population is badly affected by a serious skin disease (scabies) that causes intense pain. In the last few years, hundreds of sick raccoons have been brought to the wildlife hospital at the safari. What all these episodes have in common is that seemingly good intentions often unwittingly cause major harm.”

The migratory cranes in the Hula Valley brought avian flu to Israel. For Israeli consumers, the main consequence of the outbreak is a shortage of eggs in supermarkets throughout the country. Entire chicken coops in Moshav Margaliot were destroyed this week. But perhaps this week’s events could prompt us to look up from our plate of shakshuka for a moment and take stock of the fact that, yet again, unwise intervention in natural processes has caused a grave environmental catastrophe. This is not a natural disaster – It is a wholly manmade disaster.

The Hula Lake and Nature Reserve will reopen to the public in the coming weeks. The big question its administrators need to ask themselves is whether they keep doing things the same way.

The overcrowding of cranes at Hula nature reserve.

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