Drained, dried and diverted for decades, Israel’s wetlands are being restored to give half a billion migrating birds relief from past environmental errors.

Nadav Israeli smiles as he peers through binoculars at a flock of Eurasian jackdaws soaring over Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in the Jordan Valley.

It’s mid-September, the beginning of a migration season when about 500 million birds rest and feed in Israel on their journey from Europe and Asia to Africa.

“Israel is the last ‘gas station’ for 3,000 kilometers. If they don’t find enough food here, they won’t make it over the Sahara Desert,” explains Israeli, northern project manager of BirdLife Israel for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

Until a year ago, migrating birds had fewer places to stop on their trek across Israel.

“Israel is the last ‘gas station’ for 3,000 kilometers. If they don’t find enough food here, they won’t make it over the Sahara Desert.”

Like many kibbutzim in this part of the Jordan Valley, Kfar Ruppin sits on spring-fed wetlands whose water sources were diverted in the 1930s to establish fish farms. Ecologically, this policy spelled disaster.

“Fish farming wasn’t great for the birds or the wildlife,” says Israeli, who was raised on another fish-farming kibbutz, Ayelet Hashachar, near the Hula Nature Reserve.

With millions of birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals in need of habitats, SPNI decided to shift the paradigm for nature protection from preservation to rewilding.

Kfar Ruppin was chosen as the pilot site for this bold $11 million project, dubbed Start-Up Nature.

What happened at Hula

To understand the significance of Start-Up Nature, let’s take a brief detour north to the Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee.

The 3.3-mile-long marshy Lake Hula was drained in the 1950s to create agricultural fields — not to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes, as is popularly believed. That ill-conceived tactic had been discontinued by then because malaria was largely eradicated in Israel. Moreover, ecologists understood that healthy biodiversity keeps swamp mosquito populations under control naturally.

In the 1990s, Keren Kayemeth L’Israel-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) led a national project to restore a small portion of Hula Lake to its essential place in the ecosystem.

Today, Agamon Hula is the Middle East’s most critical migratory bird “gas station.” Hula Lake Park is also northern Israel’s top tourist destination, drawing 400,000 visitors annually to see 390 species of birds and other animals that flourish here – including some that were feared extinct.