A Biological Treasure, and Not Just for the Scientists

Anyone who grew up in Holon three or four decades ago, like this writer, remembers how in winter this area became a small lake to which the city's children flocked. A winter pool fills with rainwater or stream overflow during the rainy season and dries up during the summer. The pools host animals and plants that have learned to adapt themselves to this seasonal nature. This natural phenomenon is in the greatest danger of extinction in Israel. Less than one fifth of the pools in the coastal area at the start of the 20th century have survived today, and most of them are far smaller in area. All the rest have dried up and been destroyed for the sake of residential neighborhoods and roads or as part of measures to organize drainage.

The more encouraging news is that environmental organizations, like the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, are mustering on their behalf. In a number of local councils, among them Netanya, Holon and Herzliya, there are plans for conserving the pools that remain, some of them already in phases of implementation. In addition, recently a first plan of its kind was completed for the conservation of the pools in Holon in an urban nature park based on the remaining pools.

For the inhabitants of Herzliya, the winter pool of their childhood was called "the Bassa" (Swamp). It can be found today at the entrance to the city, squeezed between the Seven Stars shopping mall and the Netivei Ayalon highway. Only a part of the pool has survived but it is slated to be integrated with the status of conservation site in a park the municipality has established. The establishment of this park was made possible after a long battle with landowners who wanted to promote building plans on the site. The SPNI and people from the Green Party in Herzliya succeeded in persuading the municipality to increase the area of the pool slated for conservation and to relinquish the expansion of an amusement park.

"In my childhood the Bassa was a nature site touching distance from home, an alternative to the beach on short winter days," says Yoel Hadida, a Herzliya resident and a member of the Green Party. "After a walk along a path among the groves you came to a small lake, full of waterfowl. On a nighttime outing you could hear the croaking of millions of toads. Over the years I took everyone I could there, friends and neighbors. Nowadays I take my daughter and other children to see the flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus, an aquatic plant typical of the pools) and to watch tadpoles, to their great delight and pleasure."

In Netanya and Herzliya the area of the pools has dwindled over the years but they are still large enough to preserve to an impressive extent. In Holon the remaining small pools in the area called the Fighters' Compound are likely to be swallowed up quickly. They are being polluted by the surrounding junkyard and pirate waste dumps and various building plans are liable to bite into their area.

A team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, headed by Professor Avital Gazit, defines the pools as a "biological treasure." In recent years they have done a comprehensive survey of the pool in Holon. They have found it to be one of the few sites in the coastal plain where five species of amphibians survive as well as other animals unique to the region. In the past the horseshoe shrimp (Triops cancriformis) was also found in the Holon area but it has disappeared.

On the basis of the survey and with the help of planners Amit Shapira and Danny Amir, the SPNI in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry has drawn up a plan for preserving the pools in an urban nature park covering a area in the jurisdictions of Holon and Tel Aviv, bordering the license bureau.

"The Holon municipality supports the plan," says Alon Rothschild of SPNI. "Now we want to persuade the Tel Aviv municipality as well that this is one of the most important nature sites in its jurisdiction. We have done in-depth work and we have involved youth who instruct the general public at the pools. This is a site unlike any other in the parks slated to be established in the area and therefore it is so important."

The idea at the basis of the park is to enable hikers and families to spend time in a small pocket of rich and interesting nature in the heart of the urban bustle. The park will be connected to its surroundings by a network of paths for cyclists and pedestrians as well as canals and drainage channels enabling animal movement. At the main entrances will be a visitors' center and an education center, from which tours will originate. Movement inside the park will be only along designated paths, some of them concealed in blinds so as not to disturb the birds.

There are winter pools that cannot be preserved because of already approved building plans and therefore efforts are being made to save whatever possible before the bulldozers start to work.

This is what Ronny Sasson, a teacher of nature and environmental studies at the Kfar Hayarok School, is doing with his students. Several times in recent month Sasson and his students have gone out to collect toad and frog tadpoles from winter pools and transferred them to an artificial pool the Tel Aviv University researchers have built nearby. Artificial pools are not a full substitute for the natural pools but they do enable some of the animals to survive.

With praiseworthy diligence (in view of their age) the students have collected thousand of tadpoles in plastic cups. "We are educating them not only to be familiar with nature but also to be involved in its protection," says Sasson on one of he collecting days, still excited about having been involved a day earlier in the finding of a triton water salamander, an especially rare and beautiful amphibian.

"It's very important to save them but it's impossible to save all of them and that's pretty discouraging because, in fact, I decide who lives and who dies," says student Avihai Alpher as he loads a bucketful of tadpoles onto a tractor.

Later the contents of the buckets were poured into the artificial pool in the hope that a future generation of amphibians would grow there and continue to croak, to the delight of hikers in the fields north of Tel Aviv.