Are you on the fence about joining our next mission? Maybe this will help you make up your mind
In trucks that were configured to look like mobile bleacher seats, we quietly trekked through the Hula Valley nature reserve in northern Israel. We stopped at certain viewing areas to observe birds beginning their descent into the Hula Valley where they would rest on the lake for the night. We saw cranes, storks, pink flamingo, and other birds, either on their annual stop-over in Israel en route to Africa for the winter, or permanent residents who have settled into the good life in northern Israel. As we watched the sky, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of cranes begin to arrive in groups. As we watched in hushed silence, more and more birds continued to arrive in larger groups. It was as if the birds had choreographed an intricate performance, beginning with their gradual descent and ending in a rapturous finale. It was an astonishingly beautiful experience. And, as if nature, or our Hula Valley guide, had planned it perfectly, the trucks manoeuvered into position to allow us a view of a radiant sun settling into the mountains at day’s end. At the Hula Valley, a natural space exists where birds, amphibians, and other animals, as well as humans, can thrive together.
I have been to Israel several times. This year I wanted to learn more about a part of Israel that we don’t hear enough about: the work to preserve its natural spaces, its animal (and bird) inhabitants, and the environmental challenges that Israel faces. A Google search brought me to the website of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the oldest environmental organization in Israel. On a 6-day nature tour in November, members of SPNI travelled with us to a variety of natural spaces, introduced us to experts in various fields, and showed us the beauty of Israel’s flora and fauna, including the wonderful Hula Valley. Additional highlights of the trip are described below.
In Jerusalem, SPNI welcomed us to one of its flagship sites, the Gazelle Valley Park; a serene wildlife oasis, set in an urban setting. Here, Israeli gazelles, of Bible renown, find a respite from an ever-expanding Jerusalem. It’s a place where Jerusalem residents and tourists can go to appreciate the vulnerability and graceful beauty of this endangered animal. The hope is that the group of gazelles will grow and SPNI will be able to extend their presence in other regions of Israel.
At the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, another lovely natural oasis located in bustling Jerusalem, we were joined by staff and volunteers, keen to share their love and interest in birds. At the birding station, birds are identified, weighed, and measured (including their wing spans). A band is attached to the birds’ legs, so that the team can track their migratory patterns, population growth and health. Then, the birds are released.
At SPNI’s Ein Gedi field school, originally established in the 1960s and located in a beautiful spot above the Dead Sea, SPNI has plans for the field school’s renewal, with the addition of environmentally-friendly living structures and common outdoor spaces that will allow visitors to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of the Israeli desert. While there we were enormously fortunate to encounter another Biblical species, the rocky hill living ibex, with their doe-like eyes. The ibex were very accommodating as we shutter-bugged away.
At Hai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve, in Haifa, we learned about a re-habilitation and breeding program for Griffon vultures. Vultures haven’t benefited from a particularly positive image as a predator; however, a discussion about how vulnerable the vulture population is in Israel, including the small troupe in the Golan, and time to admire the vultures’ beauty and majesty, left all of us in awe of this species and its determination to survive.
Intertwined with visits to Israel’s nature reserves and rehabilitation programs, we benefited from the knowledge and engagement of Israeli experts, active in SPNI programs. They shared with us Israel’s current (and future) environmental challenges and their hopes and plans to preserve and grow Israel’s natural spaces.
In less than a week, SPNI took us on a journey through Israel, a small country that is blessed with geographical diversity, and a variety of flora and fauna. What we learned was that as Israel continues to grow, it is incumbent on all to ensure that Israel’s natural spaces are preserved and that nature, animals and humans can co-exist and thrive together in harmony.
As antidotes to the busyness of day-to-day urban living, people are increasingly looking to long-distance trails. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I walked the Israel National Trail (INT):
I wanted to sidestep the clamor of my life.
The Holy Land is the original pilgrimage destination. And while I am no spiritual zealot, I did want to learn firsthand about a corner of the world that—from an outsider’s perspective—seems incredibly complex.
In February of 2015, I arrived in Israel with a backpack and a bit of ambition.
I had never walked a long-distance trail in my life, but I hypothesized that with the technical support from a friend named Igal (who had previously walked the trail), I just might be able to succeed.
I started cautiously.
The first leg of my journey was in the north, from Tel Dan to Tel Aviv.
The beginning was muddy, and I didn’t come across any other thru-hikers for weeks.
I thought about giving up.
But my legs grew stronger and I began to feel more competent.The generosity of local trail angels was vital in maintaining my morale.
For the second leg, I left the INT for two weeks, and hiked in Palestine along a trail called Masar Ibrahim. With a guide named Mohammed, I walked from Jenin to Jericho. I stayed with Palestinians in their homes. The food was incredible, and the people were immensely welcoming, immensely gentle.
The third and final leg was the expansive stretch from Jerusalem to Eilat.
This leg daunted me the most. In Canada, hiking landscapes are typically cool, wet and green.
The Negev Desert was the polar opposite: hot and parched. Slowly, I made my way forward and, to my surprise, began intersecting with other people.
I danced with Bedouins. I spent Pesach near The Big Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) with a family from the Golan Heights. I met a fellow foreign hiker from France. Paradoxically, the desert wasn’t so deserted.
For me, walking across Israel and Palestine was a seminal journey.
Due to the complexities of borders and landscapes, however, visiting Palestine and/or hiking across the Negev desert is not for everyone.
These words and photographs are not intended as an itinerary, rather they are a glimpse into how one Canadian man experienced the region. I continue to talk about my journey simply because it’s a story that doesn’t make headlines.
My story is not conflictual or shouting to be heard: one person walks quietly across Israel and Palestine—and all goes well.
Daniel Baylis is a writer and photographer. As the official photographer for The Great Trail, he spends much of the year visiting and photographing trail sections across Canada. He is currently completing a memoir about his experiences walking across Israel and Palestine. Recently, Daniel returned to Israel to photograph sections of the INT.
Category: Nature Trips
Tagged under: Israel National Trail, Hiking INT
Though a cliché, it is no less a truism that the environment knows no borders. While the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel focuses inward on what's happening in Israel, we cannot afford to ignore the environmental concerns and best practices that are negatively and positively impacting our region and areas around the globe.
As the largest environmental NGO in Israel, SPNI often interacts with other civil society players in our neighboring countries in the Middle East and with countries that are part of a European Union-designated Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot. In the Mare Nostrum project (“Our Sea” in Latin), for example, SPNI took the lead in coordinating with other civil society organizations across the Mediterranean Basin to create a shared framework to protect the Mediterranean Sea and coastline.
A signature international project that has been driven by SPNI for decades focuses on teaching farmers to use barn owls and kestrels as natural pest control in order to reduce the amount of pesticides. This project now involves some 5,000 nesting boxes across Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
SPNI also organizes an international birdwatching race called “Champions of the Flyway” that draws hundreds of professional and amateur birders from around the world each year and has raised $350,000 for bird conservation across Europe and Africa. It is now among the premier international birding events. Our expert ornithologists visit North America regularly to lead birding adventures in local hotspots and engage in conferences and competitions, all with the aim of raising support for protection of the world's crucial migration flyways.
Our relationships with other organizations in Europe have created cultural exchange opportunities for education and environmental professionals and young people from Israel, Italy, Germany and throughout the EU to share their knowledge and exchange ideas regarding how best to protect our planet and confront the challenges of climate change.
SPNI has valued supporters in countries around the globe, with affiliates in the United Kingdom and France, and of course in North America. On a recent visit to Ottawa, I met with local supporters, Canadian parliamentary officials, and the leadership of CIJA, the non-partisan Israel and Jewish advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada. These fascinating interactions will hopefully spur more international cooperation between Israeli and Canadian policy professionals regarding the shared challenges of environmental protection, such as renewable energy, land conservation, and sustainable fishing.
But we don’t only engage environmental professionals, as they alone cannot turn the tide in many environmental struggles. The citizens of every nation around the world must join the efforts as well, and so we engage with as many of them as possible. Meeting with our supporters – and people interested in environmental issues in Israel and locally – at parlor meetings, synagogues, JCCs and business offices always rank among favorite encounters when I travel to North America. When I hear about dry riverbeds and wildfires in California, overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay or urban planning in Seattle, I know that we are not alone, and I can share what SPNI is doing about these and similar issues in Israel.
(Please let me know if you'd like me or one of SPNI’s other environmental professionals to visit your community in the next several months!)
Our shared environment, the biosphere on this blue planet, our healthy habitats, flowing rivers, polar ice packs, forests, jungles, savannas and deserts, and our desire to preserve them – this is what unites us.
Here in Israel, we have a humble Mediterranean scrubland habitat called batha. It stretches throughout much of the country, along our varied topography and climatic zones. It’s not flashy, not naturally forested, but rich in biodiversity and under the twin threats of encroachment and climate change. We tackle challenges like these daily – protecting the batha habitat, renewing Israel's rivers and wetlands, and helping make our cities dense, sustainable, and the best possible places to live – and we wouldn’t be able to do so without the continued support of our extended conservation family in Israel and around the world.
We invite you to join SPNI's activities and meet-ups abroad, by contacting our international affiliates as follows:
USA: Robin Gordon, email@example.com
CANADA: Avi Sadiv, firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANCE: Norbert Lipszyc, email@example.com
UK: John Levy, firstname.lastname@example.org
Category: Our Global Community
Sixty-five years ago this month (November 6 to be exact), the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was recognized as an NGO under Ottoman Law. Every day since, this incredible organization has been active in a wide variety of research, education and advocacy activities, leading the charge in the protection and preservation of Israel’s unique nature.
Though Israel is a small country, protecting its environment and promoting sustainable living is a very complex task considering the rate at which the population – among the densest of all Western countries – has grown over the last six decades, and how quickly this booming population consumes natural resources. Additionally, the prosperity of Israel’s nature is of global significance, so our conservation efforts ripple far beyond our borders. We are the only country with such a combination (quite the tall order!), but we tackle this unique challenge head on, doing everything we can to promote real environmental change and instill an eco-conscience in Israeli society.
Birthdays provide us with a great opportunity to reflect on our accomplishments. In our case, it’s incredibly gratifying to recognize what we have already achieved and heartening to realize how much more is possible.
At a recent meeting at the Har Ha’Negev Field School, a female soldier named Avia posed an important question that demanded reflection: What would Israel be like if SPNI didn’t exist?
To answer the question, I began compiling a list of SPNI’s achievements, milestones and activities.
In addition to developing a network of field schools in the most extraordinary natural areas, including Ein Gedi, Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon, the Mediterranean Sea at Achziv, and Mt. Hermon, where SPNI guides lead hikes and orienteering programs to introduce the population to the wonders of Israel’s natural diversity, we also helped establish the Israel Nature Reserves Authority and the Israel National Parks Authority (they were two distinct entities in the 1960s).
We formed the Israel Trails Committee, which is responsible for marking and maintaining approximately 10,000 km of hiking trails across Israel that are safe, interesting and preserve nature. This, of course, includes the Israel National Trail, which spans the length of Israel and is by far our longest hiking trail at around 1,000 km.
We established bird watching centers across the country, developed environmental education programs for residents, immigrant groups and tourists, and work with diverse communities across the country, including Arab, Druze, Bedouin, and Ultra-Orthodox populations, to connect both kids and adults to nature while embracing their distinctive cultures.
If SPNI didn’t exist, the entire country would have continued picking wildflowers, and we might not have been able to enjoy some of them today. The development of the Haifa Marina would have destroyed the natural resources along Israel’s coastal plain, the Jerusalem Hills would have been overwhelmed by construction, and the dunes of Ashdod would have become large housing projects – rolling down the dunes with our children would be but a distant memory. In addition, the beautiful southern hills of Modi'in would have also disappeared under heavy construction, unrestricted fishing would have destroyed some of our fish species, Gazelle Valley Park would have been transformed into office buildings and a residential housing, and “urban nature” would have become a contraction in terms.
Indeed, we have much to celebrate, and it is a blessing that SPNI does exist and can continue to carry on this important work. That said, we must acknowledge our incredible partners, including environmental organizations, government ministries and the general public, without whom we could not have reached this point and would not be able to continue our environmental mission.
It’s also important that we take this opportunity, this momentous milestone, to look to the future and identify the challenges that lie ahead.
Development plans still threaten areas that are environmentally essential and in dire need of protection, and various infrastructure project have the potential to cause critical damage to man and nature, the proposed train to Eilat among the most prominent. We have a long way to go to adequately protect the sea. Our children are spending far too much time indoors in front of screens and far too little time outdoors hiking our amazing trails and connecting with nature. And the absence of legislation for how to handle invasive species exposes us and nature to a number of significant dangers.
Still, our greatest challenge is the fact that some decision-makers perceived nature conservation as a luxury, rather than a necessity, and that every citizen does not yet regard the preservation of nature as a personal and existential problem. As an example, it is crucial that the public sees our natural shared spaces as an extension of their own homes, instead of allowing our beautiful country to be covered in litter. We hope to address the challenge of Israel’s waste disposal culture – and the large gaps in environmental education – in the coming years.
On a personal note, I should mention that SPNI is an integral part of my life. I was born after the organization’s establishment, and I grew up with it and in it. I was privileged to enter the ranks of SPNI as a teaching soldier, and today, I am very proud to lead it. Every day, it seem as though I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and I feel privileged to be part of this vital endeavor to preserve our nature.
Thanks to our dedicated workers and supporters across the country and around the world, SPNI is a rare and wonderful organization. If you are not yet a member, please join us – there is still so much for us to accomplish together.
Here’s to many more birthdays spent reflecting on our achievements and celebrating our positive impact on our beautiful country!
Tagged under: Iris Hann, SPNI 65th Birthday
A Peek Into Gap Year Volunteering With SPNI
SPNI’s integral field schools dot gorgeous, natural spaces throughout Israel. From education about different regions of wildlife to guided hiking and walking tours, each field school serves as a hub where people from all backgrounds can become involved with nature.
During the last week in July, I visited the Ma'agan Michael Field School, located near the stunning beaches at Hof HaCarmel. What follows is a snapshot of my eventful 48-hour visit to the school.
On Sunday morning, I make my way by train from Tel Aviv to the Hof HaCarmel Station. It is five stops away, and I find myself standing in the middle of a group of IDF soldiers on the station platform.
The train pulls into the station and a smiling Adeya – the volunteer I’ll be shadowing for the day - greets me. She happily brings me to meet the new guides at the Ma'agan Michael Field School. These four 18-year-old recruits, recent high school graduates who are volunteering for a year of service before joining the IDF, are the future of the school. After a van ride into Haifa, we thank the driver and prepare ourselves for a short hike with globs of sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats.
Now a natural, Adeya leads us as we hike towards the ocean. It’s amazing to see the difference a single year can make for the incoming guides. Along the way she tells me that the past year went by so fast. After the hike, we sit down to eat in a nearby village and feast on hummus and pita.
When we are done, another quick van ride brings us to the beach. It’s time to find and catalogue marine life in the shallow water near the rocks. Doing so teaches the incoming recruits about the local wildlife. It also happen to be a lot of fun.
We find crabs, krill, and other marine life. The van then takes us on our final trip of the day: straight to the Ma'agan Michael field school! Located right next to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, the field school is only a short walk to the beach. We have dinner together on the kibbutz and then take some quiet time to read. I’m exhausted, and knowing I have to be up quite early the next morning, I fall asleep by 8:30 PM.
On Monday morning, I rush towards the van and the driver ushers me on. In the vehicle, I meet a new group of experienced field guides. Soon, we arrive at Ramat HaNadiv Memorial Park, where the philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild is buried. His strong Zionistic support helped make the State of Israel a reality. This park is where the field school has been hosting a day camp for the past several days.
Over 100 campers from the surrounding area are dropped off at our meeting spot, a clearing in the woods speckled with picnic tables. I’m surprised when one girl in our group tells me that she lives in New York but her parents wanted her to be in Israel for the summer to explore the country. Gilad Shtruzman, the counselor I’m shadowing for the day, explains that the children are going into sixth grade and shows me the lay of the land. We have an Israeli breakfast of bread, jam, and hummus.
By 1:30 PM, we complete a long but rewarding five-kilometer hike through the park. Everyone is hungry, but a lunch of pasta, schnitzel, and corn provides the nourishment we require. Over lunch, Gilad tells me about his service year volunteering with the SPNI field school. He says that it was a difficult and intense year. “Learning how to cooperate with everyone is not easy,” he says, “but I learned a lot, and I am happy that I underwent the maturing experience.”
After playing some more, the kids leave for the day. I, too, say my goodbyes to my new friends from the field school and catch the train back to Tel Aviv. All in a couple day’s work!
I experienced so much at the Ma'agan Michael Field School in just 48 hours that it’s almost difficult to process. Adeya passing the torch to the incoming volunteers was a rite of passage of sorts. Gilad acting as a counselor for the local children was clearly so rewarding. It is quite apparent that there is much to be gained from a service year with SPNI. And if SPNI’s Ma'agan Michael Field School is indicative of the other centers across Israel, Israeli nature lovers from all walks of life are incredibly lucky to have full access to such incredible and informative resources. These gems are not to be missed. In fact, they should be embraced.
Ari Jigarjian is a native of Bergenfield, NJ, who served as a Marketing and Communications intern at SPNI during the summer of 2017