The outbreak of avian flu in the Hula Valley has caused great harm to the cranes that congregate there in winter and to many chicken coops in a few additional areas. The implications could be far-reaching in the event that birds passing through Israel on their spring migration carry the virus back to nesting sites in Europe.
The risk of human infection is lower, but when it does occur the death rate from this disease is very higher. The spread of such a disease creates additional consequences, including damage to tourism as a result of the closure of popular nature sites.
There are a few important lessons that must be learned in order to increase preparedness for an event of this kind. While the Agriculture Ministry has the skills and the experience needed to deal with epidemics that affect farm animals, it is less prepared to deal with harm to wild birds. So we have to look into developing quick and effective means to collect wild bird carcasses and to monitor the spread of the virus.
The most important lesson, and the most difficult to implement, is to reduce human intervention in the lives of birds, mammals and other animals. Human activity in Israel and other countries has destroyed many habitats of wild animals. It has left them without feeding and nesting sites and forced them to find alternatives such as the Hula Valley’s Lake Agmon and nearby agricultural crops.
Another example is the pelicans that raid the ponds of Israel’s fish farms. To avoid friction with the farmers, feeding sites have been created for these birds, and they have begun to go to them in large numbers. Cranes also stay near these feeding sites for extended periods, instead of continuing their migration to Africa.
There are actions that can be taken to reduce human interference in the case of local populations such as jackals, which can spread rabies, and hyrax, a host for the parasite that causes leishmaniasis. Efficient treatment of waste prevents the creation of food sources and keep jackals away. Avoiding the use of rocks in building barriers and walls in cities will reduce the number of hyrax that turn the rocks into habitats.
In many cases natural areas that have been lost cannot be restored, and the only option is to manage human intervention by regulating the food supply or compensating farmers whose fields are still invaded by wild animals. Humans have created artificial natural sites and humans must allow nature to exist, while maintaining a balance between the needs of tourism, agriculture, animal habitats and other factors. The equation must also include preparing for the possibility of disease outbreak, which grows greater the more human activity destabilizes the animal world.
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The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.