After 1992, I was following my people in my generation who were hunting birds. Because of my conservation background, in my mind and my heart, I had to protect my nature. I started to stop them. At that time I shifted from flora to becoming an ornithologist. I became, in 2010, in Brazil, a global ornithologist. ~ Imad Al Atrash
With Imad Al Atrash, Executive Director, Palestine Wildlife Society and Lukas Padegimas, Kirtland Bird Club
Hi, my name is Lukas Padegimas and today is September 14, 2016 and I’m here interviewing Imad Al Atrash, who is the Executive Director of the Palestine Wildlife Society and a very important conservationist. Without further adieu, please tell us more about yourself.
Part One: Early Life
Imad Al Atrash: I was born in a small town in Palestine in the Bethlehem area, where Jesus was born on the tenth of September in 1958. My hobby was helping my Mom in the field, planting crops and vegetables. We raised enough for our family and I helped her plant and sell it to our neighbors.
Since my childhood until I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I went to agriculture school and then on to my higher education, earning a diploma in agriculture. This was how I got started connecting to my work in nature back home in Palestine.
I joined the Boy Scouts. The Boy Scouts taught us how to manage our country as a clean country, and how to recycle, reduce and reuse. Plus, I had been traveling with them active in walking nature trails, a program which I led later on in the Boy Scouts.
After graduating from the Agriculture Institute (Khadory Institute), I started to teach at Bethlehem University, which is located in Bethlehem, also in Palestine, as a Biologist where I was an assistant to the Professors of Ecology and Geology of Palestine.
Plus, I arranged the field trips for the students to many different areas in Palestine. I started my work at the University in 1979 and left there in 1992. During that time, I studied Biology also and in England in 1982. While studying Biology, I discovered photography.
I love nature, walking nature trails, and photography. All three in one!
Part Two: Flora, Birds & International Film Award
Lukas Padegimas: Got it! So, how did birds come into the picture?
Imad Al Atrash: I started first in my life, classifying flora. Flora is in the ground, and we have about 2,700 different species back home. I started getting interested in flora in 1984. Later on, I published a book about the flora of Palestine in 1992.
After 1992, I was following my people in my generation who were hunting birds. Because of my conservation background, in my mind and my heart, I had to protect my nature. I started to stop them. At that time I shifted from flora to becoming an ornithologist. I became, in 2010, in Brazil, a global ornithologist.
Lukas Padegimas: Got it! So it all starts in the 1980’s when there’s still hunting for birds in Palestine and the surrounding regions?
Imad Al Atrash: Yes.
Lukas Padegimas: Not at all regulated by the government?
Imad Al Atrash: No. Because the hunting there is manual, not weapons or shooting, just manual. People used rubber slingshots. But even a slingshot, I don’t like. I like to keep everything as nature intended it.
Lukas Padegimas: Of course!
Imad Al Atrash: I wrote about 15 books and booklets so far on nature preservation and especially birds, breeding birds in Palestine. And in 2005, I produced a film, “The Birds of Palestine” which won a Czech Republic Film Festival, International Environmental Champion award presented by the Minister.
You can watch the film on YouTube. Watch it tonight.
Part Three: Palestine Wildlife Society and Conservation Education
Lukas Padegimas: Cool! So it’s called “The Birds of Palestine”? Make sure you check that out. Very cool. And so, tell us more about the Palestine Wildlife Society. What exactly does this organization do?
Imad Al Atrash: It is similar to the National Audubon Society but in nature conservation. I trained here in 1996 by the Quebec-Labrador Foundation/Atlantic Center for the Environment (QLF) which is located in Ipswich, Massachusetts and I learned one word before I established my organization. I worked there in “conservation education” and following up in my work in nature conservation for flora and fauna starting with data collecting, through mobile and smart phone.
Lukas Padegimas: So advanced!
Imad Al Atrash: I can teach you now. It is called, “Observation International” or “ObsMapp”.
I learned conservation starting with that collection and started working on the regional Action Plans with Bird Life International and Important Bird Areas (IBA’s). I started five IBA’s in Palestine out of fifteen in the region under the auspices of Bird Life International. For that collection and up to the Action Plan for the site, we organized it as Habitats, Species and Site.
Now, we have a program to protect threatened global species, which is in Europe and Africa but not in the United States to protect the Lesser Kestrel, smaller than the American Kestrel but in the same family.
The Palestine Wildlife Society is about nature conservation. We focus on empowering people, environmental sustainability, and for example, we do Biogas. I don’t know if you heard about it, using animal manure.
Part Four: Bedouins and Sustainable Energy Sources
Lukas Padegimas: How interesting! I may have heard about the concept before but I don’t know anything about it and I don’t think it’s used often here in the United States, but that is very interesting.
Imad Al Atrash: The leader, he’s American, and he came to Palestine in 2010 and he came to teach me through the American Consulate in Jerusalem.
Lukas Padegimas: Interesting. So, an American comes up with this idea and then you are one of the first to implement that technology…
Imad Al Atrash: He attracted us and we attracted the idea. Because of our Bedouin, similar to what you call “indigenous people”, they are living in the wild and there is a lot of livestock, goats and sheep and they don’t use the manure. I went to them and we talked about if they would be able to use it for themselves.
They were shocked. The same as you were. And then I suggested to them that this would make an easier life for them and they agreed but they opened their eyes on me, if I would succeed or not.
Now, we have about one hundred and sixty-five digestive systems working back home supplying daily hot water and cooking food using biogas and it cost you nothing.
Lukas Padegimas: Wow. So, it’s fueled by the manure? Wow. Isn’t that crazy?
Imad Al Atrash: Yeah, it is a little bit crazy!
Lukas Padegimas: In a nomadic society, the Bedouins go on living a way of life for thousands and thousands of years and all of a sudden, here’s the twenty-first century using manure to power things!
Imad Al Atrash: It’s an easy way for them with small daily efforts to bring only the manure inside the water tank and that’s it. The gas will come to the lady in the kitchen - easy come, easy go. No complicated issues.
And also we trained younger generation facilitators from the University and relocated among the families. So there is no need for me to travel from district to district to address issues. The families can manage and maintain their system all year round. This is an example of the type of sustainable work we do.
Plus, as we see here with solar panels, we are advising our people in the countryside to use solar panels, even my office which is two floors, have working solar panels.
We also have grey water systems to reuse the greywater for irrigation or reuse it for the biogas. You can see the water drop will be in a circle and all the time and you do not need to push from the bottom of the water system more and more water. We are seeing that the stability of the “Three R’s” - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - we are already there. We are training the ladies, the housewives, and the youngest generation, the “ObsMapp” method of collecting data.
We also have a smaller project called, “Animals Helping People”. We are trying to help the donkeys to be strong donkeys because they are there doing the job of vehicles, they are the official transportation like cars are here in the U.S. We are getting a small amount of help from The Donkey Sanctuary in the UK (United Kingdom) and from the Society for the Protection of Animals. We are trying to help the animals there because they are a good support to the farmers in the field.
Part Five: Conservation Practices and National Politics
Lukas Padegimas: Right. You had mentioned the use of graywater, as you call it, through the cycle of many different things and I understand there has been a water issue in the whole entire region. Can you tell us more about it?
Imad Al Atrash: Yes, it is kind of political. Palestine is still occupied by Israeli government and 85-86% of the water resources, the groundwater, is controlled by the Israelis. The residents have a very small access to their own water resources. This makes it a little hard for them in the summer time. In the summertime the temperature is like Phoenix, Arizona.
Lukas Padegimas: Okay, so very warm!
Imad Al Atrash: If you can imagine Phoenix or Tucson in July, when the temperature is very high and being without water. This is the big challenge for us there. So, if we can use the greywater or reuse the water that will be helpful at least for the people in the countryside away from the cities or a house. It’s a real conflict there.
Lukas Padegimas: Right, and this summer was one of the warmest in the region, I heard record temperatures? So, it exacerbated the problem.
Imad Al Atrash: Yes, of course. We have a similar area to Arizona called Jericho and their valley it will be unbelieveable temperature in the warm area there.
Lukas Padegimas: Like 40 degrees celsius and higher?
Imad Al Atrash: It is around 50 to 55 degrees celsius.
Lukas Padegimas: 50 to 55 celsius. And without water. It sounds like a very big problem.
Imad Al Atrash: Can you imagine?
Lukas Padegimas: No, I can’t imagine 50 degrees celsius, I have a hard time imagining 40 degrees celsius because 35 - as hot as it gets here - that is pretty bad and we have plenty of water with Lake Erie being only a few miles away. But 50 degrees celsius and no water makes one think about how to use it best.
Part Six: Disease Knows No Boundaries
Lukas Padegimas: Another question I have, and you mentioned the constant conflict with the ground water, the whole region has seen a lot of conflict in the last half century. In your work, have you seen conflicts like this impact migratory birds? Perhaps in the wars in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the Levant region?
Imad Al Atrash: As for birds, we have to think realistically. With the Avian Flu, for example, when the birds would come with the Avian Flu viruses they will not ask a gentleman if he is Jewish or Christian or Muslim. It will come to anyone. And this is the big challenge to all of the people in our region.
It’s not easy and as you know, it’s a conflict. How do you want to pass over the conflict with Avian Flu? You will not be able to. You have to face the problem as a region and this is the biggest challenge. It’s not only the Avian Flu, it’s many different diseases. The viruses do not know about boundaries. Nature does not know boundaries. Environmental pollution knows no boundaries. If the pollution starts in Tel Aviv, the one living in Jerusalem, or Bethlehem, or Jericho, the wind will bring all the pollution to them. That means there are no checkpoints, no boundaries, all the people will be affected by the pollution.
Pollution, nature, environment, flues, viruses, these know no boundaries 100%. For that reason, a little bit, as the countries, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, even in Egypt, and Lebanon, they have to think about how to solve the environmental issues. Starting with the virus to the pollution. Through, and admitting, the water issue. The water issue is also connected to the human being in this region. If it is polluted, that means that everyone will be sick or ill.
Lukas Padegimas: Certainly. Have you seen any chances for cooperation, despite so many conflicts, so many divides, to work on these common problems?
Imad Al Atrash: Yes, the Avian Flu, the environmental problems, there are many different issues - and they are, at high level issues they are working under the table to solve all the conflicts.
Lukas Padegimas: Yes, that’s a good thing!
Imad Al Atrash: Yes, for sure. There are many big issues. With the Avian Flu, every single organization is very aware of the Avian Flu. Because it’s everywhere - no boundaries.
Lukas Padegimas: Certainly, it’s a public health risk.
Imad Al Atrash: And economic. Economy, health, environment, human health, wildlife, and so on.
Part Seven: Together for People and Nature
Lukas Padegimas: Can you tell me more about additional smaller challenges that you and your organization have helped to resolve or mitigate?
Imad Al Atrash: At a national level or a regional level?
Lukas Padegimas: On a local level around Bethlehem. Maybe smaller issues like desertification happening and plant use practices to combat that...
Imad Al Atrash: Our office is located in Bethlehem. But our work is national in the West Bank and Gaza.
Lukas Padegimas: Okay, so it just covers that whole entire region?
Imad Al Atrash: Yes, the whole region. Now, what is the biggest issue, and of course we are thinking all the time and advising the school's, first of all, to establish the Eco Club, the environmental eco club among the schools. We have around five hundred schools belonging to our network.
And the second issue, is if we were to go to Jericho, there is very intensive agriculture because it is located in the Jordan River Valley, one thousand two hundred feet below the sea level, and there is a lot of pesticide use there, chemicals, which has polluted the food, the soil, the water, the air, the health, and we thought that if we can advise our farmers to think about the biological control. Do you know what this means, biological control?
Lukas Padegimas: To a certain extent, but please explain it for us.
Imad Al Atrash: Now, because we have very intensive work in agriculture in the Jordan River Valley, there are a lot of rodents. And because of the rodents, they are eating the crops and the vegetables, the farmers will go to use the chemical pesticides a lot, in high density. We thought that if we can advise the farmers to use a barn owl or kestrel boxes, that means we will attract these birds, they will come and breed, come and have chicks, and come have family.
Every single owl, eating a day, ten rodents, and if you have a family of seven that means a day seventy rodents. If you have ten boxes provided for the owls and kestrels, each with seven members of the family, that means you have seven hundred owls, and that means seven hundred times ten and that means seven thousand rodents every day eating from the field and there is no need for the farmer to use chemical pesticides. No pollution to the water, the vegetables, the crops and by the end of the day, no pollution for the human.
So, we admit to teach the farmers, which in our culture, is a little hard to explain to the old people, the seniors, that this is an owl because we know owls to be bad luck for us.
Lukas Padegimas: Oh, no! So, that is part of the challenge, that this will really not be bad luck but it will be good luck! You are not going to have any rodents and there is just going to be more to grow and everything else will benefit.
Imad Al Atrash: No costs, no pollution. This is how our Wildlife Society thinks about how to do sustainable work. How to be so friendly to our nature and our people. This is the main point: together for people and nature. This is our slogan. This is our mission for Palestine Wildlife Society: to raise up the awareness and to be very close to nature. Nature does not need you. But you need nature. Do you see?
Lukas Padegimas: I think I agree with that slogan. Having the capacity to, well, destroy nature many times over, we have a responsibility not to. And that we are destroying ourselves and we don’t really have the right to even though we can.
Imad Al Atrash: This is some of how we deliver our message to our people: conservation, education. By the way, you are implementing something that never ever happened in Palestine. Second, you start to have a good number of people who are supporting you, even by sending their kids to our activity, or they are participating with our activity. It’s a long, long, long journey. It’s not one year, or ten years, it is so far, seventeen years, but I am there and I hope that God gives us the life, and we are doing something for our society.
Lukas Padegimas: Wonderful. So, we have a start to the journey and hopefully, there will be more and more people that will take on the baton and continue it forward.
Imad Al Atrash: Yes.
Lukas Padegimas: Thank you very much!
Postlude: Leadership and Community Cooperation
Imad Al Atrash: Did you like it?
Lukas Padegimas: Yes, I do. That is very cool in terms of what you do. Just all of the different projects. I’ve never heard about the manure being used, and I’ve heard about the Bedouin people, I knew they are nomadic and very tied to their traditions but this introduction to something so new, so avant garde into their society, and they’re accepting it! Most importantly, it’s a wonderful start.
Imad Al Atrash: Of course. You need to be grateful (patient), to let them accept it.
Lukas Padegimas: Right! I can only imagine!
Imad Al Atrash: It’s not easy. You know with the Chief, and the responsibility of every single community with the Bedouin, it is taking a lot of time to explain to him. And if by the end of the explanation, he said to you, “No”, that means No. You will not be able to get inside the community. But, if he says, “Yes”, you will be working with him, his family, his daughters, his women, all of his community will work with you 100%.
Lukas Padegimas: So, I understand you managed to take some of those communities to change by allowing them to have access to this resource. But, what are the chances of success when approaching a Bedouin community? I would imagine there are a lot of different things that have to be taken care of to convince a Chief to allow this within his community, right? Working within the core, and working with an open minded individual? Or, for him to see the benefit to his community?
Imad Al Atrash: I think the people who are in charge of the community, first of all, they are not educated in a school or a university. They will be by experience, a Chief, or a Shaykhs, we call it. And of course, with some of them because they have a lot of problems, they can solve any issue. They will face it among the community. And with the cooperation of other Bedouin communities in the same region.
Now, for myself, with the hotspot issues, I will go by myself. I have the capability to look at you and to go with your mind and your heart. Whatever you start with me, I have a great experience with how to deal with you immediately. You know, even sometimes like a hyena, one time I put my hand, this hand, to his mouth and you cannot imagine if the hyena will bite.
Lukas Padegimas: No hands?!
Imad Al Atrash: Yes, no hands. Within seconds. I can show you the photos. I put my hand inside his mouth. No one can do it. I have, thanks to God, my great spirit for dealing with animals, with birds, with people - at a high level.
Lukas Padegimas: Got it! So, you can see them, you can understand what kind of animal or person you’re dealing with. Whether they’re a nice animal or not-so-nice animal and what will make them do something that you want them to do?
Imad Al Atrash: Yes. For sure, for sure.
Lukas Padegimas: Nice.
PDF Download: Bird Migration Knows No Boundaries with Imad Al Atrash, Executive Director, Palestine Wildlife Society and Lukas Padegimas, Kirtland Bird Club
The Palestine Wildlife Society was founded in 1999 and based in Beit Sahour, Palestine, believes education is an essential element to achieve environmental and sustainable outcomes. To that end, the PWLS seeks to raise awareness and educate Palestinians about the importance of conservation. One of the results of its success has been the inclusion of environmental studies in the Palestinian national education curriculum. PWLS is also part of the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for Palestine in conjunction with the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. The Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS) is a Palestinian non-profit NGO involved in conservation research and education within Palestinian society and the region. Founded by environmentalist Imad Atrash, the PWLS seeks to conserve and enhance Palestinian biodiversity & wildlife.
PWLS objectives include:
- Conservation and management of native species and habitats
- Monitoring and promoting important bird areas
- Education and promotion of wildlife and nature
- Work with local communities in conservation, sustainable development and eco-tourism.
The Kirtland Bird Club (KBC) was formed on September 28, 1940 and has a long tradition of quality contributions to the Northeast Ohio Birding community. In its early years the club conducted monthly meetings, field trips, breeding bird population studies, Christmas bird counts, and wintering duck population studies. The objectives of the KBC are the serious study of ornithology with a view to increasing the knowledge of individual members, the exchange of ornithological experiences and records, the compilation and publication of important information on birds, and the promotion of good fellowship among its members.