There’s a small piece of land, roughly the size of New Jersey, in the center of the Middle East, just a sliver along the Mediterranean Sea…a land that has seen and, continues to see, more than its fair share of conflict and strife…a land rife with many well known old stories of power struggles, attacks, defenses, mistrust, and blame that are still debated with vigor to this day.
And yet, there is another story of this land that you probably haven’t heard. The land, of course, is Israel and the story is about man vs. nature.
Like most stories from this land, this one begins with a struggle. In this case, a high stakes struggle for resources. On one side, there are migrants on a long annual voyage to escape barren winters, to travel to warmer climates where they can find food and respite. These migrants travel thousands of miles to find a safe place to eat and rest before they continue their journey. If they don’t make the journey, they will starve and die. These migrants are Common Cranes (aka Eurasian Cranes, or, in Latin, Grus Grus).
On the other side are farmers who work the land and whose entire livelihood depends on growing and harvesting crops every season. Farmers who, over many years, have learned how to grow thriving crops in a difficult environment. Farmers who live and work in the midst of a dizzying sociopolitical situation. Farmers who have to worry daily about the threat of aerial attacks – not from cranes – but from their human neighbors to the north.
And, like many situations in this region, this one, too, seemed impossible to solve. The farmers need to grow food on their land. Every square inch (centimeter if we’re being true to the region) counts. And the cranes need to eat food, especially food that doesn’t require a lot of energy to obtain. And yet, in this case, hope, compromise, and collaboration won the day.
In the 1950s, as Israel was starting out as a country, a tract of land in the north, called the Hula Valley, was a swampy wasteland festering with malarial mosquitos.
Israel began a major public works project to drain the swamps with the hopes that the land could become farmable. The results of the drainage, however, were abysmal. Water in the region (that flowed down to major water sources for the whole country) was no longer filtered by the marshland and became polluted with chemicals. Top soil, no longer anchored by foliage, blew away, making agriculture incredibly difficult.
In the early 1990s, part of the valley was flooded again in a major rehabilitation project. The restored lake, Lake Hula (in Hebrew, “Agamon Hula”) and wetlands became, once again, a major stopping point for birds migrating from Europe and Asia down to Africa.
It is then that the battle began. Just as farmers were able to work the land again, migrating cranes came by the thousands each year and decimated their crops. Historically, in general, land owners have handled problems like this by shooting or poisoning the avian intruders.
But that wasn’t the case here. Instead, a consortium of groups (Israel Nature & Parks Authority, the JNF, Agamon Hula, the farmers of the Hula Valley, the Upper Galilee Regional Council and government ministries), found an innovative way to work together. It was aptly named “The Crane Project.”
Each year, the project moves through 3 stages. From the Agamon Hula website:
- Stage I is implemented during the first half of the fall season (the end of September through mid-November) – the cranes are permitted a limited stay in those fields where the summer harvest has been completed.
- Stage II is implemented during the second half of the season (mid-November through December) – the cranes are then denied foraging throughout the valley’s fields.
- Stage III is implemented during the winter months- a feeding station is opened where food is spread out across the field according to need, simultaneously protecting the newly seeded crops. Steps are taken to keep away any undesirable birds from the feeding station and an effort is made to reduce the quantity of food at the station to its absolute necessary minimum.”
We visited Agamon Hula during Stage 3. According to our guide, 8 tons of feed are given to the cranes each day. Because they have a dependable food source, they don’t spend nearly as much time grazing on the agricultural fields in the valley, thus relieving the farmers’ woes.
Thanks to this ingenious solution, Agamon Hula has become one of the top birding destinations in the world and eco-tourism has taken off, benefiting many people living in the area.
Regardless of how you feel about the human conflicts in Israel and throughout the Middle East, we hope to leave you with the beauty, rapture, and awe that one experiences when witnessing 40,000 cranes together in one place.
The cranes arrive in early afternoon for feeding
Click to expand the photos below
At dusk, they arrive at the lake to roost
P.S. If you love cranes as much as we do, you’ll enjoy our posts about Whooping Cranes: Us Saving Them Saving Us and Operation Migration: Behind the Scenes.