Negev airbase takes the houbara under its wings

Negev airbase takes the houbara under its wings
Haaretz - August 8, 2005
By Zafrir Rinat

The houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata) has the ability to walk unusually long distances for a bird. Despite having the entire Negev at its disposal, it has preferred to make its home in land owned by the Hatzerim Air Force Base. And according to a recent study, the base, home to the largest concentration of houbaras in the world, has played a vital role in saving the rare species.

Ohad Hatzofeh, of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) Science and Management Division, and Asaf Miroz, of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), monitored the nesting habits and migration of houbaras in the Negev between 2001 and 2003. The found that the spread of the bird's nesting sites fell significantly over the last two decades, particularly in the northern Negev. However, about 400 houbaras, 80 percent of all houbaras in Israel, came to Hatzerim.

Also found in Asia and Africa, the houbara is the largest bird in Israel that makes its nest on the ground. Miroz said the bird is famous for its "courting dance" performed by males during the mating season. Miroz and Hatzofeh followed the birds' migration from the northern Negev cities of Be'er Sheva and Ofakim to the Nitzana area near the Egyptian border. The two researchers used radio and satellite detection devices attached to the birds' bodies to observe the male birds in their courting display and predict potential nesting sites.

Human activity is directly responsible for the reduced number of houbara nesting sites. Parts of the Negev converted into arable land are no longer appropriate for nesting, while other areas have been opened up for road or military base construction, thereby interfering with the houbara's lifecycle. Animals that follow human beings and thrive under man-made conditions also pose a major threat to the houbara. Egrets and ravens are particularly troublesome, for example, since they reproduce rapidly in areas where they consume feed provided for domestic animals. The incessant movement of herd animals as well as tractors and off-road vehicles also disturb the houbaras in what had been quiet, remote corners of the desert. Moreover, Bedouin shepherds hunt houbara bustards and even collect their eggs.

The expansive, fenced Hatzerim airbase represents a protected island of opportunity for houbaras, where they can survive the many threats of a summer layover. "Airforce staff usually understand the treasure that the houbaras represent on the base, and they make an effort to protect them," Miroz says. "There are even officers willing to take the birds' needs into account when planning additional buildings on the base. However, the problem is the land is not legally earmarked for preservation. It is possible that a future generation of officers might want to develop it without considering the preservation of nature, and the future of the houbaras would rest in their hands."

The INPA recently has tried to influence building plans at Hatzerim and obtain protected status for the loess soil deposits surrounding the base where houbaras rear their young. The association and Keren Kayemet plan to build a large park on loess-covered land in the Hatzerim area.

"One might see the houbara as a species whose protection would assure the protection of other species," Miroz says. "If we make certain to protect this species, we will be providing a habitat in which many other species may continue to exist in the Negev."