Twice a year, the skies above the Jordan Valley become hectic with wings. They belong to the more than 1.5 million migratory birds that make the long and often perilous journey between their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and their wintering spots in Africa.
The route they take is known as the Rift Valley/Red Sea flyway and it is the second-most important air corridor for migratory birds in the world.
The flyway is fraught with danger for the 39 species of high-flying birds that depend upon it, which range alphabetically from the black kite to the white-tailed sea eagle.
They risk being shot by hunters or trapped for sale; colliding with wind turbines, power lines, or pylons; ingesting toxins; becoming ensnared in plastic, wire, or other debris; or eating prey contaminated with agricultural pesticides.
A project funded by the Global Environment Facility is working to reduce the risks these magnificent birds must face as they make their way between where they nest and where they ride out the colder months.
The goal of the UNDP-managed project “Mainstreaming conservation of migratory soaring birds into key productive sectors along the Rift Valley/Red Sea flyway,” executed by BirdLife International and Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, is to encourage the economic sectors affecting the flyway to adopt a more sustainable approach.
It puts into practice the importance of biodiversity mainstreaming, which means ensuring that everyone – from businesses to governments to households – make the preservation of flora and fauna a central consideration when making decisions about their activities.
The project leaders are working on several fronts to encourage flyway-friendly practices in the energy, agriculture, waste management, and tourism sectors in 11 countries: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
The first step on this path is to raise awareness among decision-makers: about the flyway, the vulnerability of the birds that travel it, and why their protection is important.
Of the 39 migratory bird species that use the corridor, six are threatened, including the Egyptian vulture, which is deemed globally endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
Many of the species, particularly the raptors, are the focus of conservation efforts in Europe and parts of Africa that have helped lift their numbers from pesticide-driven 1960s lows.
Several of these birds are culturally important in Europe, where they loom large in folklore. White storks, for instance, are deemed so lucky in some countries that homeowners will attach wheels to their roofs in hopes of attracting pairs seeking nesting sites.
In southern and eastern Africa, meanwhile, soaring birds are highly prized by the tourism industry as part of the safari experience.
But the birds that travel the Rift Valley/Red Sea Flyway offer far more to human society and nature than beauty and cultural appeal.
They help prevent crop losses and the spread of disease by controlling rodents, locusts, and other pests, and by disposing of carrion. As apex predators, many of the raptors – as well as other species – also play a critical role in the ecosystems with which they interact. A fall in their numbers can have devastating knock-on effects further down the food chain.
The biodiversity mainstreaming initiative aims to preserve those numbers by reducing the risks the birds face in their biannual journey across the Middle East.
The greatest of these is hunting.
Soaring birds conserve energy during the epic journey between breeding and wintering grounds by riding thermals, or pillars of rising air. Since thermals do not form over mountains or large bodies of water, populations in transit tend to clump at certain so-called “bottleneck” sites along their route.
The slow-moving raptors, storks, and pelicans make highly visible targets as they pass over countries where hunting is widespread. Birds are shot for sport, taxidermy, and food. Falcons, meanwhile, are often trapped in Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon to satisfy the appetite for falconry in the UAE.
Power generation also poses a risk to the birds’ safe passage, and many are injured or killed by wind turbines, power lines, and pylons.
Toxic agricultural pesticides are another key hazard, since birds can be poisoned by contaminated prey or water. Waste management is similarly problematic, as birds attracted by open landfill sites can eat toxic substances or become ensnared in debris. Many are also found poisoned or drowned at ill-conceived wastewater treatment facilities.
The GEF-funded project is also focused helping the tourism sector ensure that a growing influx to the region can become a force for good.
The idea is that if preserved and properly promoted, the spectacle of thousands of migrating raptors, storks, and pelicans could attract huge numbers of visitors, particularly from the high-end ecotourism segment. This is clear from the tens of thousands of birdwatchers who descend on other bottleneck sites, such as Cape May in New Jersey.
The mainstreaming project aims to help the tourism sector understand and benefit from such trends, while helping make the flyway safer.
Teams are also creating media and social media campaigns to raise public awareness about the corridor and the role of the birds in global ecosystems.
They are also sharing sector-specific technical content that shows how best to improve safety on migration routes, helping to ensure that all industries are working together towards this goal. For the energy sector, for instance, teams have created a map of the movements of migrating species that allows providers to position wind turbines and other power infrastructure out of the paths of these mighty birds as they soar across continents.