Palestinian conservationists overcome adversity to research rare plant
When conservationists came upon a rare flower in bloom in the North Eastern Slopes of Palestine, they were determined to secure its survival. But besides existing threats, 2020 presented a number of new and unforeseen challenges. Discover how they persevered in the face of adversity.
A while ago, I got a video call from Dr. Anton Khalilieh, the executive director of Nature Palestine Society (NPS): a three-year-old NGO aiming to research, conserve, and educate about biodiversity and the environment in Palestine. “This is paradise,” he said, moving his phone from left to right to show me the beautiful scenery of the North-eastern Slopes Region Key Biodiversity Area in the West Bank, filled with many patches of Iris atrofusca (Jal’ad Iris). “We have to do something about it,” he told me. Although the beautiful, rich purple flowers were scattered all through this area, the challenges threatening their existence are persistent. This fragile flower population, found almost exclusively within Palestine, cannot withstand further degradation, habitat loss and exploitation by local people.
Not much later, the team at NPS stumbled upon the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund‘s call for proposals for conservation projects, and for the first time Palestine qualified to apply. We had no doubt in our minds that we should apply in order to conserve this precious and imperilled flower. Writing the proposal was a challenge for the team: because there had been no serious research on the species before this point, very little is known about Iris atrofusca. But perhaps the stars were aligned, as soon after, NPS was awarded the grant.
March 2020, and as the first warm breezes arrived to signal the beginning of spring, the work began. Two men were wandering the area carrying their binoculars and a small notebook, looking for Iris atrofusca plants, counting the numbers of flowers, taking GPS points, talking to the local people and collecting seeds for further investigation. They had just begun to find their rhythm when the unexpected happened. COVID-19 had spread worldwide, and Palestine was no exception. The government ordered a total lockdown of the whole country. Nevertheless, the NPS team was determined to continue their work, so they contacted the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority to facilitate their movement, taking into account necessary precautions that would allow them to come home safely to their families.
Then, to make matters worse, wildfires spread over sizeable parts of the study area on the 18th of May. More than 3.5 km2 were completely burnt out. Yet despite these obstacles, by the end of May, the team was able to complete a survey of around 14 km2. Moreover, the team was surprised to discover an area of about 180 hectares that contained more than 1444 Iris atrofusca plants, and 7800 flowers.
This shows that nothing is impossible with persistence. There are challenges, of course, especially when working with all sort of different stakeholders in disciplines ranging from coastal management to cultural landscapes. But we work with determination and a clear objective to empower people for biodiversity conservation.
Even when the flowers are not in bloom, there is still plenty of work to do. We plan to put fences around areas with a particularly high density of Iris atrofusca, but we know this is not enough to protect such a threatened species. NPS will also be engaging with local communities, stakeholders and decision makers to increase public awareness of the unique flora found in their region and involve them in conservation efforts.
At Nature Palestine Society, we see Palestine’s nature as a coin with two faces – not only beautiful but incredibly diverse – which is why we are so passionate about our work to protect and conserve our threatened species. Moreover, the team at NPS is enjoying implementing the project and the chance it has given to open up the eyes of our citizens to the wonder of the environment surrounding them.