Israel’s chief avian ecologist is working to safeguard the 500 million birds that pass over the country twice a year on one of the world’s most important migratory routes.

It’s not every day you get a ransom call for a bird. But it’s just another day in the life of Israel’s chief avian ecologist Ohad Hatzofe. He picked up the phone a couple of years ago – and discovered two Jordanian poachers on the line.

Meet one of Israel’s most prominent bird ecologists, who is working to illuminate and solve some of the most serious bird and wildlife problems facing the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.

“I personally spoke with someone from Jordan who wanted ransom for the dead White Eagle that he’d shot,” Hatzofe recalls. The “birdnappers” were probably inspired to demand ransom by the transponder that they discovered affixed to the eagle. They traced the device back to Israel, where Hatzofe and others like him were monitoring it to track the bird’s health and migratory patterns over time.

Five hundred million birds, comprising 130 species some of which are endangered, travel through Israel and along the Syria-Africa Rift Valley twice a year.

They migrate to Europe and Africa and back again on one of the world’s most important migratory routes. Along the way, poaching, hunting, pollution and lack of feeding grounds are causing significant declines in their populations.

In Arab, African and Mediterranean countries hunting raptors (birds of prey) has become so rife that a full 25 percent of the birds of prey that Hatzofe finds have a lead pellet inside them.

Killing for fun

Some, like the French, hunt birds for food, but most hunters in Malta, Greece, Lebanon and Jordan shoot down the birds for fun, says Hatzofe.

“We know it from firsthand evidence,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “They are shooting for fun. It’s not for hunting, not for eating and not for trophies.” The majestic White Storks, revered in all of Europe and a symbol of hope and faith in some cultures are routinely targeted.

“My job is to create international awareness of the problems,” says Hatzofe. Raptors are particularly hard hit: “While I am speaking with you, a colleague of mine is sitting in front of me holding a Honey Buzzard,” he says.
The bird was shot in either northern Israel or Jordan. “It’s mainly the minorities who shoot them,” says Hatzofe, referring to Israel’s Arab population.

He mentions that the shooting is a problem among the Druze population as well. Hunting for sport has never really caught on among the Jewish population in Israel, where it is forbidden according to Jewish traditions.

“If you can shoot it, shoot it. It has no benefit. That’s the Mediterranean mentality. We find it in Malta and Greece too,” continues Hatzofe, noting that European and developed countries are unaware of the persecution that faces the birds. “I know because I attached them to monitors and started to discover this phenomenon more and more,” he explains.

Protecting birds of prey

Fortunately, Hatzofe’s years of hard work have paid off to some extent and criminals are occasionally caught. For example, the ransom call led to an arrest by the Jordanian police, after Hatzofe filed a report.

A behind-the-scenes kind of guy, Hatzofe is a married father of four in his late 40s. He works for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority: “I do the legwork. I work for the government and that means that I enforce laws and do conservation work.”

Hatzofe first studied medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University until age 25, when he chose to study animals instead. Today he’s working on a PhD at the Hebrew University, while he lives with his family in Zichron Ya’acov in northern Israel, 22 miles south of Haifa.

Specializing in birds of prey including falcons, vultures, eagles, kites and many more, Hatzofe has taught about birds around the world in forums and at conferences and represents Israel at international events that advocate bird protection and conservation.

While the list is long, if he had to choose his three most significant achievements, Hatzofe says he would head the list with the establishment of the Israel Wildlife Hospital – a joint project with the Safari Zoological Center in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.

Negotiating between man and beast

There is no other place in the world like it in terms of the number and variety of animals that are treated, he says: “From tiny bats to hyenas and wolves to the smallest hummingbird – the Palestinian sunbird.”

A second major achievement he can boast about is raising local awareness about the problems of invasive species. He started working on this in the ’90s.

“Negotiating” between wildlife and people, Hatzofe has also developed a management plan that aims to protect both migrating birds and fish farmers. On their way to Europe or Africa, the birds sometimes swoop into fishponds for a feeding frenzy, raiding the fish farmers’ valuable stock and causing much ire.

“All the pelicans migrate through Israel,” explains Hatzofe, but as the numbers of fish in lakes worldwide are depleting, “they must stop in Israel to feed.” To balance things out he’s developed a management plan that protects the interests of both bird and man.

Hatzofe is hoping that local and international support will lead to an increase in educational programs about the problems plaguing the birds and the enforcement of policies that will protect the birds in the region and those that are just passing through.