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Environmental Desk Warriors: Nature’s First Line of Defense

By Josh Brandt
August 28, 2017

Neve-Sha'anan rooftop garden. Photo Galia Hanoch Roe

Summer internship at SPNI

I was extremely nervous on the first day of my summer internship.  I had never worked in an office before (and never wanted to), and I was already feeling like a “suit,” a rigid and boring businessman.  Dressing up for others has never been something that I particularly enjoy, but I had to make a good first impression, so there I was decked out in my new work wear: a button down shirt, beige slacks, and nice shoes.

Gardening workshop at Neve-Sha'anan SPNI rooftop garden. Galia Hanoch Roe.

But the moment I met my boss, Aya, who sported dyed red hair, a funky style and a huge smile, I began to breathe a little easier.  Aya took me on a tour of the office and made me feel at home.  While eating lunch together on the rooftop patio, Aya told me a little bit about the nature sites I would visit and write about for the English newsletter.  Later, she took me on a walking tour of the neighborhood, and we discussed the best restaurants in Tel Aviv and the ins and outs of Israeli politics.

In no time at all, I felt like a part of the team at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and a full-fledged member of Israeli society.  Once I felt comfortable among the people, it was time to get acquainted with the land.

SPNI’s main office is located in the South Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, an area that has been blighted by the construction and abandonment of the old Tel Aviv central bus station and is overrun with an unsavory element of Israeli society.

I was previously unaware that such rough areas even existed in Israel, and my walk to and from work opened my eyes to some jarring new realities.  But I was also introduced to numerous breathtaking nature sites created, maintained, and protected by SPNI. 

In Tel Michal, an urban nature site situated on the coast of Herzliya, I saw firsthand how the organization was empowering seniors through conservation activities, bringing them back into the community through public service projects that include beautifying this previously neglected archeological site and leading tours.

In Jerusalem, the nation’s capital, SPNI fought for and successfully established several stunning urban nature sites, including the 64-acre Gazelle Valley Park and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which is within earshot of the Knesset.

Palestine Sunbird at JBO. Photo Amir Balaban

I was supremely impressed by the many eco-tourism focused field schools established and operated by SPNI across the country.  In addition to serving as core team members for conservation projects, the field school staff lead nature excursions and provide educational programming for both young and old to enjoy.

And in its own backyard, the ramshackle neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, SPNI built a rooftop garden for an apartment building occupied primarily by refugees.

As I began to settle into the rhythm of office life, I found myself connecting to the other SPNI team members through mutual interests, shared experiences, and our dedication to a common cause.  We discussed the many projects I had seen, and I began to understand just how much time and effort went into every element of the work that was being done around me. 

Everything from tackling new sources of environmental degradation, which seemed to pop up almost daily, to marketing campaigns aimed at generating public support for environmental initiatives took so much time and dedication, and nothing was a simple walk in the park (or forest, as the case may be).

I finally understood that no one at SPNI could ever be considered a “suit.”  Yes, they worked day after day in an office building spending most of their time behind desks, reliant on computers and concerned with cutting costs.  But their dress is way too casual, their demeanor too friendly, and their ideology too inclusive to ever fit the pejorative connotation of that overused term.  Making that assumption was my mistake.  But then, I had never met anyone quite like the SPNI staff before.These environmental desk warriors are nature’s first line of defense. 

Most SPNI employees spend a good amount of time in the field, visiting sites, collecting data, and helping lead public initiatives.  But every moment in the field is made possible by hours of office work.  Grants must be secured.  Logistics must be solidified.  Promotional materials must be developed.  Every task is essential to protecting the environment and keeping it safe from predators of all kinds for generations to come.

Tel Michal site, Herzliya. Photo Josh Brandt.

As I look back on my time at SPNI, I am so grateful to have spent my summer in a cubicle.  Not because I love office work, but because I now understand how much office work is required to save the environment.

This summer, I didn’t become a “suit,” as I had feared.  Instead, I spent eight epic weeks becoming an environmental desk warrior, a label I wear proudly.  





Josh Brandt is a native of Los Angeles, CA, who served as a Marketing and Communications intern at SPNI during the summer of 2017.

Category: Our Global Community

 

Urban Development: The Future of Nature

Amir Balaban
November 23, 2016

Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv Photo Dov Greenblat

An Expert's View on Wildlife in Urban Environment

There is a common misconception that nature’s place is far away, well outside the boundaries of our cities and towns, to be enjoyed only during vacation. Fortunately for our animal friends, quite the opposite is true.

In fact, when reviewing the living patterns of wildlife over the past couple of decades, we have noticed that they don’t simply survive in urban areas, but they are actually thriving.  This doesn’t always come about naturally though, and it is important for us to develop sanctuaries in urban settings if we hope to continue to enjoy living side by side with our local wildlife.

Like any other ecological system, urban environments develop according to the type of habitat it produces. That is to say, a bridge or a building edifice might be nothing more than a concrete structure for humans, but a bird will see the similarities to a cliff face and may decide that it is the ideal place to build its nest.  With this being the case, all urban developers must be mindful enough to begin the landscaping and construction process by figuring out how their new structures will fit within a given ecological system, specifically how the local wildlife will react to and even benefit from them.

Jerusalem Old City Photo Dov Greenblat

Israel’s urban landscapes are unique in that they are some of the oldest in the world, enabling us to examine how animals have been reacting to these environments over thousands of years.  Wherever you look, whether in Jerusalem, Jericho, or on the coast in Caesarea, you find ancient cities that have provided a home for a wide array of Israeli wildlife, successfully integrating many species into their historic structures and spaces.  Thus, Israel is like a living laboratory for the study and preservation of urban wildlife.

In the country’s ancient and modern cities alike, it is always fascinating to note how the local wildlife has changed to adapt to its newfound environments.

For instance, urban areas now boast fewer large animals, but smaller ones have adapted in ingenious ways.  Over the years, we have observed certain species actually surpassing their natural abilities to survive in the wild with the introduction of cities into their habitats.  With a more readily available food supply, thanks to trash thrown out by humans, and the decrease of natural predators in cities, certain species can grow unimpeded.

In order to ensure the continued survival of nature and wildlife within Israel, the urban conservation plan spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) employs both the mapping and maintenance of local nature hotspots in cities throughout the country.  These surveys supply the data needed for policy reforms that focus on creating tools for sustainable development.

Until recently, every weed in Tel Aviv was killed using harmful herbicides.  Upon reviewing the data, SPNI realized that this was incredibly harmful to the local animal population.  Together with several local activists groups, SPNI managed to persuade the municipality to change its method of operation.  Now, all weeds are mowed to safeguard the local animals.

Amir Balaban at the JBO Photo Aya Tager

This example highlights the need for public intervention in the preservation of nature, especially when it comes to public policy.  SPNI’s newest public policy campaign surrounds the design of new public building.  We are urging the Knesset to implement legislation that would call for architects and urban developers to integrate spaces on roofs, entrances and walls that could serve as shelter for local wildlife, thereby mitigating the negative environmental impact of these structures on the surrounding natural habitats.  Hopefully, this effort will be successful, and Israel will lead the way toward green building practices, fortifying nature’s place within our society.

With Israel’s population on the rise, continued urban development is guaranteed.  As such, conservations activists across the country will have their work cut out for them in the years to come.  But with every city expansion, we see great opportunities to implement change.  However, the activists simply cannot do it alone.

Living within nature, side by side with local wildlife, is part and parcel of life.  We may take it for granted, but it would impact us tremendously if it all slipped away.  It’s time for individuals to speak out and insist that their local government officials implement pro-environmental policies and become fully aware of the impact of urban development on the local environment.  At this crucial stage, it’s all about safeguarding the survival of nature itself, the future of which is firmly rooted within every city and town.


Amir Balaban is the urban nature coordinator at
the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).  He also serves as the co-director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and continues to be a force behind the renovation of the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem, a pinnacle of urban nature innovation.

 

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Urban Nature, Amir Balaban

 

For Gazelles, Love Is Different (But the Same)

Shmulik Yedvab, SPNI Mammals Expert
September 25, 2016

Gazelles Photo Dov Greenblat

The love life of the Israeli Mountain Gazelle

If you were to ask a female gazelle to detail the most important qualities of an ideal mate, the domination of an area with the tastiest and most nutritious food would most certainly top her list.

Male gazelles do their utmost to dominate territories that will attract females.  The richer the site, the more likely females will spend time there, thus providing the male with better opportunities to mate.

Gazelles Photo Dov Greenblat

But don’t be fooled.  A decent territory is never a matter of sheer luck.  Fierce male competition over quality area is simply unavoidable, as males are constantly busy marking their territory and chasing away other males who are challenging their control.  From time to time, these battles for dominance get violent, with goring incidents by intruders or defenders resulting in a loss of life.

It should be understood that not all males manage to dominate a territory.  In fact, most males are either too young, too old or simply incapable of such domination.  These males tend to huddle together into bachelor herds or dwell alone in less attractive areas, thus minimizing their chance of ever finding love.

So, it turns out that female gazelles are not at all shallow, but rather incredibly practical.  Their mating choices are not based on the short-term gains of occupying the areas with the best food and shelter, but the long-term gains of mating with a male capable of securing and dominating such an area, namely the ability to pass on traits like stamina, agility, and competitiveness to their offspring. In other words, for gazelles, love between a male and female is all about survival and progression of the species.

Gazelle Photo Dov Greenblat

But what about the love between a female gazelle and her fawn? A mother gazelle will do almost anything to protect her offspring. Though it defies human logic, this sometimes includes long periods of separation.  The reasoning is that predators are naturally attracted to the young fawns, who are slow and, thus, ideal targets.  In order to keep the predators at bay, the female gazelle hides the fawn away for long hours, only returning for brief nursing breaks a few times a day.

Every once in a while, hikers encounter an “abandoned” fawn.  In most cases, these animals are being well-cared for and protected in a way best suited for the survival of its species survival.  So, if you spot such a fawn while outdoors, please keep your distance and allow its mother to take care of it properly. 

We must remember that while animals love differently than humans do, and we may not understand their methods of care and survival, they are simply rooted in their nature, which is profoundly beautiful in its own way.

(NOTE: If you find an injured animal, please call the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hotline at *3639.)

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Gazelles, Shmulik Yedvab, SPNI Mammals Expert

 

Eilat, in feathered frenzy, chooses a city bird

Noam Weiss
July 3, 2016

Eilat's Mayor holding the poster of the city’s official bird. Photo Shachar Weiss

Official bird for the city of Eilat

If you know Eilat, you know it is a very unique place. It's remote and beautiful, surrounded by fantastic natural treasures such as the marine life, desert landscapes, bird migration, and the people who live here who have their own unique character.

So we at SPNI wanted the people of Eilat to embrace their uniqueness by connecting them to the birds of Eilat. The Environmental Education Unit of the Eilat municipality called it "place-making" and I called it getting the birds in to the hearts of the people. I guess it was both.

 Our basic assumption was that the uniqueness of Eilat – the extreme climate, remoteness and outstanding landscape - creates a special character for both humans and birds, which adapt to the habitat. We picked 10 flagship bird species that seemed to have identity issues: The Sunbird is a tiny and energetic bird that originated in Eilat but is widespread across the country; the Blackstart that looks grey and shy but has a built-in colorful character; the Little Green Bee-Eater – the most beautiful bird in town and knows it too; the Rosefinch, connected to the desert ground;  Brown Booby, is a “Tropical Storm” at sea that no one can ignore (it's a bird, just Google it!) and the Flamingo – that art-deco pink and ever-optimistic bird. 

White eyed Gull Photo Noam Weiss

Two months of bird madness struck town. Every school took a day to discover its Bird Identity, the local radio station was pumped with nonstop campaigns for birds and interviewed every possible person about their chosen bird, and signs were hung throughout the town and in work places. Our nature guides, dressed with the competing birds’ costumes, went through town and lobbied people to take a vote. The town was in a total birdy madness. 

 

Last week everyone gathered in the Eilat Bird Sanctuary; school children, teachers, families and even the Municipal Council moved their monthly meeting to the festive venue, SPNI's important birding research center at the southern tip of Israel's crucial global migration flyway. The mayor announced the iconic White-eyed Gull as the official bird of Eilat, having received 5,670 of the 15,769 votes. Eilat chose our calmest bird, one that can only live in quiet sea water, and is endemic to the protected waters of the Red Sea– local patriotism at its best.


Eilat's Birding Center team Photo Shachar Weiss.jpgThe event was nothing less than touching and exciting. The school kids played and guided the visitors, and the guides of SPNI, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and El Arzi educators quizzed and entertained the children with the bird costumes and games. It felt like the whole town was at The Bird Sanctuary, in spirit if not in flesh, from the Mayor and his Council to my favorite checkout girl at the supermarket. A flamingo and curious Caspian Terns showed up too and we all enjoyed the best celebration in town for a long time, in 113 (Fahrenheit) degree heat, but who cares. It's our party.

Thanks to all the 'dream-come-true' makers – the Municipality of Eilat’s Environmental Education Unit, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature and Parks Authority and the religious field school – El Arzi.


Noam Weiss is the Director of the International Birding Research Center in Eilat, SPNI

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Birding, Naom Weiss, Eilat

 

Nature on your plate

Aya Tager
February 23, 2016

Foraging tour feast

SPNI Foraging Tour

One sunny Saturday in November, I participated in one of SPNI’s Foraging Tours along Nahal Taninim (Crocodile Creek).

We are all familiar with the term ‘hunter - gatherer’ which relates to mankind’s food sources prior to agriculture, when human communities relied on naturally growing fruits and vegetables  as a main source for food and medicine. 

SPNI Foraging Tour Modern agriculture and urban living enabled humankind to produce food and on a much larger scale. A relatively comfortable routine was born, but this evolution entailed a down side; we lost touch with our gathering traditions, and most botanical information, that was once common knowledge in every household, was forgotten.

In modern times, the uses of Israel’s wild plants are mostly remembered by women in Druze, Bedouin or Arab rural communities and with every new generation less and less of this herb lore is being passed-on.

Luckily, some professionals have made it their mission to provide us with first-hand experience of traditional harvesting and cooking of commonly -found wild plants. 

One such culinary educator is Yatir Sade, whom I met on SPNI’s guided gathering tour, which took place along the Taninim stream one Saturday in November.

Sade’s family name fits him well – it means field in Hebrew and he certainly possess a field of fascinating knowledge on wild leafy greens.

Yatir opened his tour with a brief introduction, and made it perfectly clear that we will pick only wild plants that are abundantly found and under no risk of extinction.

As we made our way towards the stream, he picked seemingly different plants only to show us it is actually the different development stages of the same plant; thistle (Gdilan in Hebrew).

he informed us when will be the optimal picking stage and what will be the best use of each stage.

Rumex stew

The Taninim stream was chosen by Yatir since it is one of the few clean rivers left in Israel - another SPNI success story - so the wild vegetation that grows along its banks are safe to eat.

The first plant we encountered grows almost everywhere in Israel but is often overlooked, maybe because it has no remarkable features -  rumex, (Humea in Hebrew) has medium sized leaves that form a basal rosette at the root. But don’t let the plain-looking weed deceive you; once stir-fried with a couple of chopped onions and mushrooms it creates a delicious dish, prepared in no-time!  

Rumex is also considered as possessing anti-oxidant qualities and the ability to alleviate skin irritation. 

The second plant we gathered was watercress (Gargir Nahalim in Hebrew) an aquatic plant and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans. Since it only grows in fresh flowing water, you need to get your feet wet to pick it - but it’s truly worth it! 

 Watercress is botanically related to mustard, radish and wasabi and is often added to salads in its fresh form. We turned it into a mouthwatering pesto spread; balancing the piquant flavor with roasted cashew nuts, traditional olive oil and crushed garlic. Watercress was traditionally used to ease digestion and raise low blood pressure. In Arab culture it was believed to prevent impotency in men. 

wild celery and tangarine salad We collected three more wild herbs that are found in wetlands - a type of wild celery (Apium nodiflorum) and two types of wild mint which we used to season a fresh tangerine salad.

The rising awareness of sustainability and the growing realization that nature is disappearing around us does not mean we can’t enjoy the great nutritional and medicinal benefits of native plants – it’s simply calling on us to get educated and learn how to do it responsibly.

 

If you want to join one of SPNI’s tours please contact our call center +972-3-6388688

Category: Nature Trips