Growing hope for plant conservation in Palestine
From vibrant flower carpets amongst ancient olive trees, to small, encroached patches of purple-petals on hillsides, Palestine’s plants are special. And now there’s a growing movement to protect them – one that combines the enthusiasm of emerging young plant conservationists and the wisdom of traditional knowledge.
Palestine is special. So too it is with its plant species. In terms of Palestine’s natural terrain, it sits at the nexus of three major ecoregions, which has given rise to a great diversity of wildlife – over 2000 plant species in fact, 54 of which are endemic. And in terms of Palestine’s geography, it’s surrounded by sea and fences and encroached by human development – much like its endemic plants, which are restricted to small, narrowing, degraded habitat with specific requirements. Add into the mix a rich cultural history that is maintained through traditional knowledge, and it’s clear to see how local civil society organisations are key to tackling the threats facing Palestine’s plants.
For the first time, BirdLife (through its role as Regional Implementation Team for the Mediterranean Hotspot of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)) has provided small grants to five civil society organisations in Palestine, to conserve threatened and site-restricted endemic plants and their habitats. Through these projects, the botanical knowledge and skills of scientists, and conservationists will be strengthened, and hopefully passed down like the ancient farming knowledge held within its olive groves.
Conservation of a symbolic iris
On the hills above the famous ‘most fertile meadow’ in the Middle East, Marj Ibn Amer, a beautiful flower Iris haynei grows. Found nowhere else in the world except Faquaa village, Palestine, this rare endemic iris hangs on in patchy and fragmented populations and is considered globally threatened. In 2015, Iris haynei was declared the national plant of the State of Palestine by Palestinian Environment Quality Authority, and Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS, BirdLife Partner) are making exceptional efforts to save it with support from CEPF. Understanding its distribution, and ecological requirements is of paramount importance.
Findings so far are encouraging, with major engagement of youth from local communities around the village to contribute on the efforts to save the iris – which faces many threats including overgrazing, pests, localised flower collection, afforestation and development.
In cooperation with students from different Palestinian universities, PWLS have made a major breakthrough in germinating Iris haynei from seeds – using a methodology taught by another CEPF grantee and iris expert in Lebanon (University of Saint Joseph). The processed seeds were planted in three places: the laboratory, the natural distribution areas of Iris haynei, and a garden, of 4.5 dunums (0.45 hectares), donated by Faquaa village council to be used as a botanical garden for scientific research and as an educational centre.
A photo and painting contest for the children of Faquaa was also announced through the Palestinian Ministry of Education to help generate a sense of ownership and awareness of ‘their’ special purple flower.
Learning from the past
In Misilyah village, in the north of the West Bank, stand ancient groves of gnarled olive trees surrounded by a vibrant carpet of delicate flowers that, until recently, had never been studiede. Some trees are over 800 years old, passed down from generation to generation along with the traditional knowledge of how to care for them, and are considered by Palestinians as a symbolic attachment to their land. It’s their agricultural practices – such as organic composting, crop rotation and intercropping – that have allowed the remarkable flora to thrive, according to recent research by the An-najah National University.
With a small grant from CEPF, a phenomenal 275 plants species from 48 families were recorded in the groves. Realising the importance of the exceptional diversity, the research team also organised a workshop in the village to raise farmers’ awareness of the importance of their traditional practices, and encourage them to maintain them.
Such a scenic traditional landscape also attracts many tourists to the area, which could have a damaging effect on the groves if not appropriately managed. Thankfully, the primary results of the research have succeeded in qualifying Misilyah village municipality for another fund that will establish an ecological park in the village. This will encourage ecotourism in the sensitive region and raise local community’s awareness of its rich biodiversity.
The iris the sheep won’t eat
When conservationist Dr Anton Khalilieh came upon a rare flower in bloom in the North Eastern Slopes of Palestine (a Key Biodiversity Area, KBA), he immediately video-called his colleague. “This is paradise,” he said, moving his phone from left to right to show the beautiful scenery filled with many patches of another iris, Iris atrofusca. “We have to do something about it.” Although the elegant, rich purple flowers were scattered throughout this area, the challenges threatening their existence are persistent. Found almost exclusively within Palestine, their fragile population cannot withstand further degradation, habitat loss and exploitation by people.
Dr Khalileh is 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 that has received a CEPF grant for their work. Very little was known about Iris atrofusca in Palestine, so a survey was needed. The NPS team wandered around 14,000 dunums (1400 hectares) and, surprisingly, discovered an area of about 1800 dunums (180 hectares) that contained over 7800 iris flowers. Two rare colour variations – yellow and white – were also found nestled within.
During the survey, the team met a shepherd wandering with his 300 sheep and cows, who had fallen in love with the iris after he noticed that his sheep did not eat it. He worked hard to conserve it in the wild and helped the team to figure out its distribution.
A botanical garden for the iris was established as an in-situ conservation site on 5 dunums (0.5 hectares), out of 14 dunums (1.4 hectares) donated by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment Quality Authority within the KBA. Here, 120 clones of Iris atrofusca were planted in 2021.
Five plant micro-reserves will also be established in three schools within the KBA, in cooperation with school environmental clubs in Tammun town, and a large iris mural is being painted to help raise awareness.
An emerging generation of botanists from Palestine
Scientific research is not only important to understand the abundance of species in an area and the threats they face, but it can also be an important way to train the next generation of conservationists. This is very much true for Bethlehem University, who have trained young researchers on plant identification, distribution analysis, conservation and other skills to help encourage more young people to work in the field of botany. This was part of a CEPF-granted project to survey Al Mahkrour (the latest green area of Bethlehem city) and the garden of the Palestine Museum of Natural History.
More than 361 plant species, spread over 12 dunums (1.2 hectares), were recorded within the museum’s garden. Furthermore, the team established a botanical garden, and a management plan is being drawn up to conserve threatened and rare species.
The museum is also an attractive site for tourists, so the University is working to make it an ecotourism site, where they are raising awareness among students and visitors about the plants within the botanical garden and their conservation – which will link to cultural heritage and traditional knowledge.
Plant micro-reserves: vital patches for plant conservation
Moving to Nablus, where status of a third endemic iris, Iris lortetii, is being assessed by the Biodiversity & Environment Research Centre (BERC), through identifying and mapping its localities and collecting samples to study its DNA.
BERC’s assessment showed that flora in Nablus is facing various threats, including overgrazing, land use conversion, quarries, and urban development. In response, the team established six plant micro-reserves to conserve the iris and other flora. Plant microreserves are a recent conservation approach for the Middle East to conserve pockets of high endemism that fall outside networks of protected areas. Here, they are on public land owned by the Ministry of Agriculture in Mount Ebal, in public gardens governed by the village council, and on private land owned by local community who believed in the importance of conserving this remarkable flower.
Reflecting the cultural attachment to olive trees mentioned earlier, one of the requirements to obtain a building permit in Palestine is to inform the Environment Quality Authority (EQA) if there are any olive trees that would be uprooted. BERC is working on creating a similar regulation for irises, which will help in conserving all threatened plant species, and ensure that EQA transfer threatened plants to one of the micro-reserves in the area.
According to Dr. Issa Musa Albaradeiya, Director General of Environmental Resources, EQA Palestine, this work is greatly promoting awareness among government decision-makers and the community on the value of traditional practices and the role of ecotourism in protecting nature. He says: “The support provided by BirdLife International and CEPF to Palestine has strengthened the capacities of civil society organisations in the conservation of Key Biodiversity Areas. Findings are significant and will help set priorities for conserving sites of high natural and cultural values.”
Identifying and mapping the localities of the endemic iris, Iris lortetii, is just one part of BERC – the Biodiversity & Environment Research Centre’s project that aims to assess the status of endemic plants in Nablus – Palestine and collect samples for DNA study. As part of our Lessons Learned series to share advice from civil society organisations, here’s some conservation insight from Salam Abu Zaitoun, head of BERC’s Traditional Arabic Palestinian Herbal Medicine Institute:
“When I saw this beautiful iris (Iris lortetii) on the steep slopes of Mount Ebal, Nablus, I felt it had come back to catch its breath again. Therefore, I decided to help it.”
Your project is tackling an important conservation problem. What inspired you to find a solution?
Every spring, I used to see the beautiful Iris lortetii in the backyard of one of the neighbouring houses, and it stole my heart from the first look. At the time, I thought it was an ornamental flower brought by a plant’s lover who enjoys collecting beautiful flowers. But I was amazingly surprised when one of my friends invited me to a picnic in the Nablus mountains and found this breathtaking flower spread over the mountain. Later, I knew it is not just an endemic species to Palestine but is also endangered species.
I had mixed feelings. I was happy to see this beauty on the slopes of Ebal mountain and sad for its status, where it is under threats of urban development, conversion of its natural habitats into agricultural lands, and uprooting for commercial purposes. Therefore, I decided to conserve this biological, ecological, cultural, and aesthetic genetic resource from extinction and ensure that these flowers bloom again to adorn the mountains of Nablus at the beginning of each spring.
Tell us one big lesson that you’ve learned from this project.
External circumstances may affect your plans negatively; hence, you need to have plan B to achieve your goal. Most iris communities were on private lands; therefore, it was difficult to control the conservation efforts. To overcome this issue, we developed, for the first time in Palestine, plant shelters (plants safe havens) to conserve not only Iris lortetii but all threatened endemic species.
The gained experience from this project is a valuable success worth replicating, including the improved plant propagation method by seeds of Iris lortetii var. samariae and the introduction of plant-safe havens using the quasi-in-situ method.
Given your experience working on this project, what advice would you have for another conservationist in the Mediterranean who is just starting out?
Species live in harmony in their habitat and interact with all other components (biotic and abiotic) within the ecosystem; therefore, we need to ensure that our conservation work is not focusing on one species, neglecting others within the ecosystem. Moreover, for projects focusing on conserving a plant species, the work must be done at different times over the year to ensure the conservation at all stages of its growth. Sustainability beyond the project’s timeframe is also critical to achieving the conservation goal.
*The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, and the World Bank. Additional funding has been provided by the MAVA Foundation. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.
CEPF is more than just a funding provider. A dedicated Regional Implementation Team (RIT) (expert officers on the ground) guide funding to the most important areas and to even the smallest of organisations; building civil society capacities, improving conservation outcomes, strengthening networks and sharing best practices. In the Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot, the RIT is entrusted to BirdLife International and its Partners: LPO (BirdLife France), DOPPS (BirdLife Slovenia) and BPSSS (BirdLife Serbia).Find out more at www.birdlife.org/cepf-med
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