Iftach Sinai, the Upper Galilee ecologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, spent the night before our meeting in the area of Kfar Vradim. In a complex operation, 30 salamanders were transferred from a winter pool around which extensive construction is underway to an alternative pool that had been prepared for them at the Nahal Yehiam Reserve. Salamandra infraimmaculata – better known as the Near Eastern fire salamander – is an amphibian in extreme danger of extinction. It is black in color with yellow or orange markings on its back. In Sinai’s view, nocturnal transfer of a few dozen amphibians is worth the effort.
The description of the operation testifies to the importance of the winter pools. There used to be about 600 seasonal pools around the country. Today, researchers estimate that only a few dozen remain, and their situation is complex. As the pools disappear, the rare types of fauna that live in them find their own existence endangered.
As part of the Kfar Vradim rescue operation, Sinai and his colleague Gil Ben-Ezra collected and photographed each of the salamanders. This is because they have unique “fingerprints” – markings that are specific to each individual. After creation of their identify cards, the salamanders were swiftly moved into their new home. Some of them spawned immediately – which filled Sinai with joy. Salamanders develop loyalty to the place where they were spawned. Many try to return to the pool where they came into the world and sometimes they are run over by vehicles on their way there. “If we hadn’t transferred them, they would have been run over at the building site,” says Sinai in explaining the purpose of the operation.
The pool that is about to disappear in Kfar Vradim, is small, really just a puddle that was discovered by chance only when work at the site began. According to Sinai, there’s no way to preserve such pools when they are situated in the heart of a neighborhood under construction. At recognized pools – the situation is different. As an example, he points to the Maskana pool, near Golani Junction. The building plans and the route of the road there were modified back in the day. A wall was built in place of the berm that was planned and in cooperation with the developers steps were taken to avoid damaging the pool, which is the home of a great many European spadefoot toads (an amphibian in extreme danger of extinction) and rare crabs.
Sinai explains that in the past there were at least 30 additional pools in northern Israel that no longer appear in the most recent survey. That being said, the situation of the winter pools that are under observation by the Nature and Parks Authority is now stable. Sinai says that the presence of amphibians, especially rare ones, in the pools is a good indicator of their condition. In general, the pools in the Galilee and the Golan Heights are in a better situation than those found in the coastal plain, and the effects of human activity on them not as severe. Nonetheless, they too have undergone significant damage.
Winter pools can be harmed by a variety of different factors: real estate development in or near towns and villages, changes in the rainwater drainage, tourism development – especially of private sitting nooks (zulot) in which trees are planted, or the covering over with concrete of the bottom of the pool or the area surrounding it. Sometimes, development makes it impossible for amphibians to leave a pool after spawning and they drown. In many cases, fish are added to the pools as “decoration,” some of them invaders like mosquitofish, which indeed eat mosquitoes but also harm the amphibians’ tadpoles. Of course “attention” like this can damage the original fauna’s ability to survive
Another problem Sinai mentions is physical damage to a pool or its drainage basin. To this must be added unsuitable lighting, sewage flow, agricultural spraying and other ills. It goes without saying, Sinai adds, that a winter pool must receive an inflow only of rainwater. Any other additions damage the pool and the living creatures in it. One of the long-term dangers to the winter pools in the north of the country is, therefore, an ongoing decline in the frequency and quantity of precipitation.
The most famous documentation of a winter pool in Israel was created 180 years ago. At the beginning of 1839, English artist David Roberts arrived here. He spent several months traveling around with a caravan of 21 camels and 15 bodyguards. In the course of his journey he made 272 drawings that later served as the basis for oil paintings. One of the best known of these is a drawing of a gigantic winter pool near Tel Ashdod. In the foreground is a flock of sheep and goats, and alongside them – two shepherds. Thanks to this image, the large winter pool south of Ashdod is known as the Roberts pool. This week, the Roberts pool looked almost completely dry, its bottom covered in mud, and areas that had served in the past as water sources have been given over to agriculture.
Since Roberts’ visit, the winter pools that once characterized Israel’s coastal plain have almost entirely disappeared. According to a study published by Hebrew University geographer Prof. Noam Levin, together with Prof. Avital Gazit and Dr. Eldad Elron of Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, of the 192 swamps and winter pools that had existed in the central coastal plain at the time of Roberts’ visit, only 35 remain. More than 80 percent of the pools have disappeared, many of them having been crushed under accelerated development and due to rapid population growth. The study also found that the total area of the pools in the winter season was 27.6 square kilometers (close to 11 square miles), whereas today, in a rainy year, it amounts to only 2.4 square kilometers (less than one square mile). That is – the area covered by the pools has shrunk by more than 90 percent.
In the past the distance separating one coastal-plain winter pool from the next was under one kilometer. Today, they are at least twice as far apart. Roads and built-up areas separate them and species of animals have difficulty crossing them. Only 14 winter pools and swamps along the coastal plain are situated within nature reserves, and thus are afforded better protection.
Noam Levin told Haaretz this week that it is very difficult to determine how many winter pools there were in the country in the past. Not everything was mapped and today too it is sometimes hard to determine what turns an ordinary puddle into a winter pool worth protecting.
“Even if we say that the remaining pools are in fantastic shape – the problem is clear: the pools are cut off from one another, there is no continuity, and animals – the salamanders, for example – have difficulty moving between pools. The drainage basins have been damaged and now they are small and closed off.”
Levin explains the importance of preserving the winter pools: “They teach us an important lesson about the environment. This is an especially fragile habitat. Therefore it must be better protected. The more it’s protected, the greater the enjoyment. All species, even the amphibians, have the right to exist, just like human beings. We have more power, but it is important to preserve the others’ right to exist. Similarly, it is important to preserve the country’s various landscapes for the sake of future generations, and the winter pools are a part of this legacy. It is very easy to damage them or pollute the water. If it is good for toads – it’s a sign that the environment is good. If the salamanders have disappeared – it’s a sign that some sort of catastrophe has occurred.” That said, Levin explains, the winter pools are a habitat that is relatively easy to create artificially or to reconstruct what had existed in the past.
As a positive example, Levin talks about the Dora pool in Netanya. This is one of the largest and most famous pools in Israel and thanks to its size it has been saved, if it is possible to say that about its current situation. “Among the pools in the coastal plain, Dora has remained most like what it was in the past. Agriculture has never developed around it and apart from the fact that Netanya has closed in on it – it hasn’t undergone any big changes.”
Nonetheless, today, many changes are occurring around the Dora pool. Air pollution from transportation, on the nearby network of roads, for example, or the limitation of the maximum depth of the water in the pool so that it will not overflow in rainy years. These are elements that are changing the habitat and affecting the living things there.
“It’s hard to be optimistic,” says Levin. “The population in Israel is growing rapidly There are more than 10 million people here, and in the not-too-distant future there wil be 20 million. Each of us sees the landscape changing around us during the course of our lives. The open areas are vanishing. While there is more awareness of the need to preserve nature, the love of nature is leading to greater pressure from visitors. It’s important to preserve the winter pools so that people wil be able to see nature close to home.”
‘We are here!’
For a number of hours last week, I sat beside both the Bareket and the Tzarta pools. Both of them are small and beautiful, and both arouse pity. Almost hidden from the eye, and you have to know about their existence along a side road in order to reach them. The Bareket pool over looks some enormous warehouses that belong to the Strauss concern and to the publishing house Kinneret Zmora-Bitan. The sound of cars from Highway 6, which passes nearby, is very audible. Tzarta, a few hundred meters distant, suffers from the unpleasant proximity of a large quarry and Highway 6. The constant traffic of passing trucks raises a cloud of dust and the water in the pool sometimes has a slightly suspicious yellow hue. Nonetheless, there are moments when the dust, the noise and the bustle simply disappear. The dark water in the pool glistens, four large red anemones can be seen to have bloomed early on the nearby grassy patch and tiny tadpoles flit back and forth in the water, presaging a new generation of toads. We are here!: The tadpoles make their position clear. But even a tiny tadpole understands that it is hard to survive in such conditions.