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Dan Alon - Director /// Israel Ornithological Center
How nature tourism leads to conservation of birds in the Hula Valley.
Up until the mid 1950's the Hula Valley was one of the most important wetland habitats in the Middle East. The famous "Hula Lake" consisted of over 15,000 Acres of swamps, natural wetlands and a large brackish lake nearly 10,000 Acres in size. The swamps were dominated by extensive Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) reed beds, the northernmost location in the world.
The Hula Valley wetlands and lake were drained in the 1950's in what is considered to be Israel's biggest pioneering project at the time. A few naturalists visited the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries and documented their findings in descriptive accounts, much of which was anecdotal. From the limited information available it is clear that the region had an incredible and unique diversity of Flora and Fauna, which included several endemic species of plants and animals, two of which became extinct following the draining (Hula Frog and Cichlid Fish). Following the draining, the region became mainly cultivated land as it remains to this day.
In the early 1990's it became evident that large scale farming is no longer economical in the Hula Valley, due to problems related to management of the fragile peat soil. In 1994 the region’s farmers joined forces with the JNF and the Israeli Government in a project to rehabilitate the peat soils of the valley floor, and solve the problem of degradation, and pollution of Israel's main water supply, the Sea of Galilee. The project included the creation of a new and improved system of canals to control the water levels and flow of water through the Hula Valley.
At the center of the valley was a 1000 acre area that was highly degraded. It was decided to re-flood this area and create a body of water surrounded by native marsh habitat. The small reflooded area (the Agamon Hula-KKL Park) immediately became a magnet attracting migrant and local birds.
[Z2] The importance of undisturbed natural habitats and especially bodies of water, native vegetation, moist meadows and more, is crucial to the region’s wildlife and birds. Local birds depend on these patches of natural habitats and migrants rely on these sites as stop over sites on their long journey.
The Hula Valley is comprised mainly of vast agricultural fields at various stages of cultivation. These green open areas can be an ecological trap for some migrants and wintering birds. On the one hand, many birds suffer the consequences of pesticides, and large numbers of birds can cause serious damage to the crops. Therefore the restored area of the Agamon Lake offers a healthy natural alternative for these birds along with the Hula nature reserve.
The Hula Valley lies at the heart of one of the world's largest migration routes. Twice a year hundreds of millions of birds pass through the region. The Hula was always an important stop-over site for migrants, but the creation of the Agamon Lake caused a new, safe haven for migrants and winterers alike. Hundreds of species of Passerines, soaring birds, raptors and water birds pass through the region. Most of these birds stop for a short refueling session and carry on, others remain to winter.
Today the valley is of crucial importance to the conservation of many species. Significant examples include: the White Pelican whose entire European population stops to re-fuel in the valley before continuing on to Sudan and passing over the vast arid region to the south; around 90 thousand Common Cranes pass through the area of which 30 thousand remain to winter; Around 30 species of birds of prey winter in the Hula Valley. These include some rare and threatened species like Greater Spotted and E. Imperial Eagles, of which several dozen can be found.
Immediately following the creation of the Hula Lake it was decided to erect a large Hotel project adjacent to the water. It was clear to us that the establishment of such a project would have had devastating effects on the habitat. Eventually the Hotel project was abandoned, mainly due to the huge increase in tourism to the area. The large number of Cranes and wintering waterfowl attracted hundreds of thousands of nature lovers that came to witness the spectacle. In the year 2000, around 60 thousand people visited the Agamon Park, by the year 2010 over 320,000 people visited. The area has remained a natural treasure specifically because of the mass tourism of people that “vote” with their feet and wallets, sending a clear statement of support to the local community and agencies that nature is a viable tourist attraction.
In order to protect this unique and important natural site and encourage the future expansion of the wetlands, it is our responsibility to keep marketing the Hula Valley to bird lovers. It is through these bird lovers, their equipment and the money they will spend locally that we can ensure the continued existence and expansion of this important area.
The Hula Valley Bird Festival was created to encourage birders, nature lovers and nature photographers from all over the world to visit this unique location, to enjoy the natural phenomena it offers and help establish it as a natural park.