By: Yaron Charka, KKL-JNF's Chief Ornithologist
It is the time of the great bird migration southwards. Large groups of cranes cross the grey-blue sky making their way from the cold north (especially in Russia) to Africa where they spend the winter season in Ethiopia. On their way, they make a quick stop at the Hula Lake, in an incredible flight above green fields. This amazing pastoral image, unfortunately, belongs to the previous century.
25 years ago, agriculture at the valley went through significant changes – from white fields of cotton to humus, peanuts, peas and even wheat. In other words, where they once saw useless cotton, the cranes now see tasty meals.
In addition, KKL-JNF has created the Hula Lake in the area, which greatly contributed to the local agriculture. However, the shallow water reservoir became an ideal spot for birds that sleep while standing, since the water provide them with a certain amount of protection.
All this led to the site becoming a five-star resort for the cranes: plenty of food and seemingly never-ending supply of water made the cranes reconsider their path and realize that maybe they don't need to get to Africa; slowly, the cranes started to give up their vacation in Ethiopia and stay at the valley during the winter.
This phenomenon is not unique to Israel. In Spain and France, for example, cranes who crossed the sky during the autumn on their way to West Africa, have in the past few years preferred to stay in both countries instead of making their long way to the south. The exact factor that makes Africa less attractive to the cranes is still unknown, but it is speculated that global warming makes northern areas warmer, making the need for southern migration redundant.
Back in Israel, the groups of cranes that migrated to the country started to grow. From thousands of guests in the autumn, the numbers grew to tens of thousands, who made the Hula Lake their home, finding the area a good place for resting, eating and drinking – an all-included vacation.
Thirty years ago, the cranes' resting stop did not bother anyone. In their short autumn visits, before the fields were planted again, the cranes did a little digging, cleaned the fields from leftovers, and generally did a good service to the local agriculture. Seeds, however, are planted in the winter, and this is where the mess begins: the cranes eat all they can, turn the soil, eat the fresh seeds, and destroy the crops in the Hula Valley.
While some angry farmers grabbed their pitchforks with the intention of teaching the new visitors a lesson, KKL-JNF was quick to offer a solution based on the carrot and stick approach: establishing a special compound in the lake where the cranes are being fed corn, while at the same time banishing cranes who have not had enough and decided to fly to the fields for desert.
Banishing was handled by driving through the fields and scaring the cranes away through flag waving, dazzling with mirrors, and creating loud noises using sirens and gas-cannons. These methods did not harm the cranes, but did lead to two problems. First, with the growth in the cranes' population, a growing number of people was required to keep it away, resulting in high costs of millions of ILS each winter. Second, the noise did hurt other, uninvolved populations: other animals left their natural habitats and things became difficult for local residents, with the noise becoming an annoying routine for them. Naturally, KKL-JNF came under pressure to find another solution.
At this point, the 21st century came into the picture, lead by KKL Wings of KKL-JNF Chief Scientist Unit and KKL-JNF Chief Birdwatcher Yaron Cherka, who applied the futuristic solution of keeping the cranes away using… laser rays! Did you just imagine a laser ray burning and slicing a bird? Let us assure you that this is not the case. Instead, the ray – controlled remotely from a distant control room – casts a spotlight on the field which "chases" the cranes and scares them off with no noise or environmental damage involved.
This focused, surgical action is performed by a system which can control an area in the diameter of 1.5 kilometers, and it solves both the noise pollution and the financial problem: instead of dozens of men running around in the field with jeeps, a couple of guys sitting in the control room can get the job done. This idea, which sounded wonderful in theory, has proven itself also highly effective in practice in a pilot held during the past winter.
The system is expected to go through an upgrade next winter, which will allow it to automatically recognize the cranes and activate the ray that chases them using artificial intelligence, with a human presence to ensure that the system does not automatically send a ray after a person or an unrelated animal.
This way, technology resolves a conflict between three factors – agriculture, nature, and also tourism, which suffered as a result of the loud noises. This creative solution is another example for how KKL-JNF goes hand in hand with technological developments in the service of the environment.