What do you get when you pair an Israeli barn owl with a Palestinian barn owl? Middle East peace and an argument over whether the chick’s Jewish or Muslim.
What sounds like a joke is in fact the unlikely reality of an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian barn owl breeding programme in the Jordan Valley that’s now in full flight, and this month project leaders published a paper on how their use of nature conservation could apply to peace-building efforts around the world.
The traces its path to 1983, when an Israeli farmer in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu realised he was using too much pesticide to kill rodents.
He knew they were bad for the environment, especially in such a biologically diverse area (a key bottleneck for migratory birds) so he sought a natural solution – and came up with feathers.
Together with kestrels, barn owls are good hunters (or “biological pest management agents”) and native.
The farmer knew they made nests in cavities, so he built 14 nesting boxes.
At first the owls died, mostly poisoned by the pesticides of others, so he set about persuading neighbours in Beit She’an to sign up. Slowly, they did.
With each barn owl pair producing 11 chicks on average, and with each barn owl killing up to 6,000 rodents a year, the project soon took off, letting farmers cut their pesticide use while still maintaining crop yield.
In the 1990s, news twitched the ear of Professor Yossi Leshem, a senior zoologist at Tel Aviv University, who first saw the potential to expand it, given that Palestinian and Jordanian farmers all share the Jordan Valley, and given that birds don’t need visas.
He set off in search of partners – no mean feat, since many of these rural communities still considered owls a bad omen, but soon there were 220 nest boxes in Jordanian and Palestinian Authority territory.
“Because barn owls know no boundaries, owls breeding in Israel hunt rodents in Jordan and the Palestinian territories – and vice versa,” said Leshem, in a paper published in Cell Press. “It’s another symbol of interconnectivity.”
It became an official trans-national project in 2002, when the farmers began ringing and tracking the birds, to see where they went.
Ever since, Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian farmers have met regularly to exchange experiences and information in joint seminars.
This has continued even during times of conflict, and the farmers now produce educational documents in Hebrew and Arabic for schoolchildren visiting the nesting sites from all over the region.
Professor Alexandre Roulin, a Swiss expert brought in to advice on the project, said another example of interconnectivity was when the teams found “mixed” couples breeding, the first pair four years ago, a second pair last year. There was even a “unique case” of two female barn owls laying eggs and incubating together in a single nest cup in a “communal nest”. A trio of two females and one male bred in an abandoned Israeli water tower in 2013, with all three owls bringing food to the communal family. It delivered 20 eggs, of which 19 hatched and 16 fledged.
Cooperation projects that benefit each country can help “build confidence between communities in conflict,” says Roulin and his team. “By working together on a common, politically neutral goal, actors can change their vision of the neighbouring cross-border community and strengthen common regional identities.”
It is not the first time that nature has cut through politics in the region. Israeli General Baruch Spiegel and Jordanian General Mansour Abu Rashid – both project supporters – recall an anecdote from 1993, when they were negotiating the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.
Israeli researchers had been tracking wolves with radio-collars, when one strayed over the Jordanian border. Bedouins killed the wolf and handed the collar in to Jordanian soldiers, who sent it to Army Intelligence, who suspected it was a spying device. Spiegel asked for its return, but Mansour ran in to some internal resistance.
Finally, Spiegel got it back, together with another collar that had been lost years earlier.
News was relayed to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was so encouraged by the trust it showed that he told Spiegel to go all-out for a deal.
Rabin later told his cabinet that he now predicted peace “within a year”. The Peace Treaty was signed eight months later. Soon after, Israeli and Jordanian soldiers jointly agreed to preserve their respective border bunkers as a habitat for endangered bats.
But owls, bats and wolves are not alone in helping broker relations. In the Hua Valley every year, farmers feed 35,000 wintering cranes 7 tons of corn a day, to stop them from damaging crops, promoting eco-tourism on both sides of the border. This gave rise to the now-annual ‘Crane Race,’ in which Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians run round Agamon Hula Lake “to promote cooperation between the different communities”.
Likewise, in the Red Sea Marine Peace Park, Israeli and Jordanian authorities now jointly protect trans-boundary coral reefs. All these initiatives were presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year.
The teams behind them acknowledge that trust has to be built, saying that in conflict zones, “a proposition emanating from one side of the border can be viewed as an intolerable intrusion by people from the other side”. Third parties, perhaps from neutral countries or non-governmental organisations, can help, they say, as can the support of respected national leaders, as was given by the late Shimon Peres.
“By promoting dialogue between communities,” they say, “ecosystems shared by multiple countries can be reconnected, favouring both nature conservation and peace-building. Recognising the role of nature conservation in the reconciliation between communities in conflict has the potential to inspire more conservation efforts around the world.”