שמעון פרס/In memory of Shimon Peres

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Dr. Heinrich Mendelssohn and Azaria Alon, co-founder of the SPNI, presenting Shimon Peres with the poster of a Bearded Vulture from the Raptor Conference in Eilat in 1987 (painted by Walter Ferguson)

On September 28th 2016 Shimon Peres, Israel's 9th President, passed away. Usually we focus on the political and social aspects of his immense contribution to the country, and his aspirations for peace. For us in the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and Tel Aviv University, Shimon Peres was a true friend and enthusiastic supporter of our vision for nature conservation in Israel and the Middle East. For many years he was very involved in regional cooperation on subjects of security, nature and environmental conservation, and education focusing on science and technology, so he felt strong ties to our intensive activities in the fields that he loved. I had a very special relationship with the former President over many years, and he was always involved in the national and international projects that we initiated since the 1980s. The story of Peres with birds, and especially with the raptors, began with him changing his name. He immigrated to Israel from Poland, and his original surname was Persky. In 1944 Shimon led an expedition to the Negev, its true purpose for gathering intelligence about the Negev roads. The well-known zoologist, Dr. Heinrich Mendelssohn, joined the expedition to provide an alibi so that the British would think it a zoological expedition as otherwise it wouldn't have been authorized.

Left: The Bearded Vulture (“Peres” in Hebrew), whose name was adopted by Shimon Peres, went extinct as a breeding species in the Middle East as of 1982. In that year the last pair nested next to the Dead Sea in the Great Rift Valley (Drawing: Martin Rinik) Right: Negev 1944: Shimon Persky on a camel in the Negev expedition


During the expedition at Wadi Shchoret, a Bearded Vulture ("Peres" in Hebrew) flew low over the group and above Peres' head. Mendelssohn was thrilled and started shouting "Peres! Peres! Peres!" The young Shimon got so excited that on the spot he decided to change his name to Peres. Later in the trip, when the group had almost reached Umm Rashrash (Eilat today), the British arrested them, as they only had a permit till Ein Evrona north of Eilat, and they were all thrown into prison for 24 hours. Only Mendelssohn got 48 hours inside, as he was an academic. Undoubtedly, Peres changing his name to that of a raptor extinct in Israel contributed to his dedication and support for nature conservation, especially for raptors. Gary Goldberg, Chair of the Ontario Region and a national board member [director] of Nature Conservancy of Canada, writes about Shimon Peres: He was a great man, but had many of the special attributes of a magnificent bird – he flew high and had great vision. He could lead the flock. He transcended borders. His voice was calming like birdsong. He was a leader who contributed immensely to the strength and success of Israel and the Jewish people. I always looked forward to his comments – in person or video – at the annual Ilan Ramon Space Conference. I will never forget when he said “Israel is a small country – challenged in length and in width. But in the vertical dimension there is no limit. So Israel must excel in this dimension”. In every large project that I promoted, I received support and encouragement from Shimon Peres, already in 1987 when we held the first international conference on raptors in Eilat. The first copy of the poster of the conference with a Bearded Vulture was presented to Peres by Mendelssohn and Azaria Alon who were close friends. The drawing was done especially for the conference by the artist Walter Ferugson. Jim Brett from Hawk Mountain assisted me at the conference, and the conference "operations officer" was the late Ran Lapid who was a pilot and birder. In April 1999, a short time before the elections, I held the first conference for flight safety in the Middle East at the Armored Corps Memorial at Latrun. It was attended by Generals and senior officers of the Jordanian, Turkish, Greek, American and of course Israeli Air Forces. I invited Shimon Peres to participate in the festive dinner at the then new restaurant at Latrun and he accepted the invitation. Efrat Duvdevani, his Bureau Manager, apologized and said there was no chance of him attending as he would be at the time between an intensive elections campaign meeting at Modi'in and another one in Jerusalem. I refused to give up! I called him up directly, and he came. That evening he received a beautiful framed picture of a Bearded Vulture from the Jordanian, Turkish and American Generals… which he hung in his office.

On right Jordanian Colonel Malek Al-Habashneh, in charge of flight safety in the Jordanian Air Force and later on Commander-in-Chief, presenting the picture to Peres with the Generals from Turkey and the USA (Photo: Yossi Leshem)

Shimon Peres was an enthusiastic supporter of projects for regional cooperation. The project for using Barn Owls as biological pest control agents in agriculture, a collaboration between the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians, received his blessing, and he helped us greatly in building the ties with the Jordanians and Palestinians.


Shimon Peres holding a Barn Owl from a nesting box monitored in a research study, together with Shauli Aviel (right) from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, one of the project founders, and Yossi (center) (Photo: Hagai Aharon)

In 2008, together with my partner Dan Alon, Director of the SPNI's Israel Ornithological Center (IOC), we initiated the national bird project. The President's Bureau sponsored the project, and Peres took it under his wings. He always believed in the importance of education as a central tool in nature conservation0, and was very excited by the full involvement of the entire formal educational system and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the project. The ceremony proclaiming the winner of the elections for the national bird was held at the President's Residence.

President Peres, together with the late Moti Kirschenbaum who convened the ceremony at the President's Residence (also an enthusiastic birder), unveiling the Hoopoe, the country's choice for the national bird (Photo: Amir Ezer)


Peres supported the Griffon Vulture as the candidate for the Peres participating in a birding activity at the Science School in national bird, but of course accepted the nation's choice of the Yokneam, and hearing about the school's study preparation Hoopoe. He was especially thrilled that 1.1 million before the national bird elections schoolchildren, soldiers and citizens took part in the elections

Every year during the Passover Peres enjoyed travelling to the Negev Desert in south Israel, because of the special connection to Ben Gurion and the Negev. About six years ago, Yosef Avi Yair Engel (Jucha) who was the President's adviser, organized a Passover holiday in the Negev for the President, together with Shmulik Rifman, Mayor of the Negev Heights Regional Council who was also his friend. They asked me to take Peres to the Griffon Vulture feeding station at Sde Boker, but I was afraid that it might be risky if no vultures arrived to the carcass, and it would be a flop. The President slept at a hostel at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh, and so I suggested that in the morning before breakfast we would show him bird ringing right at the entrance to his room. Amir Balaban, Director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory (JBO) (located on the Israeli Parliament grounds), and Meidad Goren, Director of the Birdwatching Center in the Negev Heights, met me at first light to organize the ringing. Jucha and Rifman were afraid we wouldn't catch any birds but I promised that during the spring migration there was no chance of that happening!! When Peres came out of his room at 07:45, there were already 44 birds in cloth bags, 20 species, mostly migratory. A few local species included a Syrian Woodpecker, Palestine Sunbird and Spectacled Bulbul. The ringing which had been planned to last half an hour, went on for an hour and a half, and Peres didn't want to leave the ringing to go have breakfast. He was amazed by the wealth of the nature at the entrance to his room. All the children and parents at the hostel gathered around… a celebration!!

Peres holding a Syrian Woodpecker (Photo: Amir Balaban) th

Shimon Peres set off the 5 Crane Race in November 2016 at the Agamon Hula. Participants in the race included Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, Commanding Officer of the Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Yossi Bachar, Commander of the Northern Corps, and three reserve major generals: Maj. Gen. (Res.) Doron Almog, Chairman of the Hoopoe Foundation, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Noam Tibon, race initiator who has participated in all the races till now, and Maj. Gen. (Res.) MK Elazar Stern. In addition, for the third year in a row, a delegation of Jordanian runners participated in the race. All 50 of the students from the pre-army preparatory course “Swifter than vultures” at Ma'agan Michael directed by Muki Betser (who was Yoni Netanyahu's Deputy at Entebbe) ran as a group, for the fifth successive year.


Peres setting off the half marathon race at the Crane Race (Photo: JINI Photo Agency, Ancho Gosh (KKL))

The Jordanian delegation presents Peres with a small gift with the emblem of peace (Photo: JINI Photo Agency, Ancho Gosh (KKL))

It's not every day that the Jordanian runners get to be photographed with the President of a neighboring country (Photo: JINI Photo Agency, Ancho Gosh (KKL))

On the evening before the Crane Race, I gave a lecture about bird migration and cross-border cooperation at the Mitzpe Hayamim Hotel. Peres was also staying at the hotel and came to the lecture, enjoying it greatly. Peres loved Israeli songs about the country, so in his honor we organized a song evening with Sarale Sharon. Peres greatly enjoyed the event and summarized it in one sentence: “Birds and songs without borders”.


Enjoying the event with Sarale Sharon the evening before the Crane Race (Yosef Avi Yair Engel (Jucha))

In January 2016, I organized together with my Swiss colleague Prof. Alexandre Roulin from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, an event at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos titled "Birds Without Borders" in which we explained the importance of regional and international cooperation for nature conservation as a tool for peace and economic growth. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Baruch Spiegel, the Jordanian Major General (Ret.) Mansour Abu Rashid and the American musician and composer Paul Winter (seven times Grammy Award winner) also participated in the event. Peres was meant to open the event as our guest of honor, but due to a mild heart attack just before Davos, he was unable to attend. His son, Chemi Peres, took his place at our event. Foreword by Shimon Peres from booklet prepared for our event at the World Economic Forum in January 2016

I was told that without Peres the event wouldn't succeed, but it was extremely successful. Peres wrote the foreword to the booklet we handed out at the event. After the event, back in Israel, Prof. Roulin, Major General Mansour Abu Rashid, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Spiegel and I came to the Peres Center for Peace in order to personally update Peres about our event.


When I entered, Peres received me with a warm hug. We told him about the success of the event, and we presented him with a beautiful painting of a Bearded Vulture especially painted by the Swiss artist, Laurent Willenegger.

Shimon Peres with Prof. Alexandre Roulin from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; with them the Jordanian General (Ret.) Mansour Abu Rashid (Photo: Guy Saly)

During Israel's 60-year anniversary events, 12 Israelis were awarded a prestigious prize for their contribution to nature and environmental conservation in Israel, among them Prof. Amotz Zahavi and Azaria Alon (the founders of the SPNI), Yoav Sagi and me for my contribution for promoting birding in Israel. The ceremony for presenting the awards was held at the Roman Theatre in Caesarea with 3,000 guests under the auspices of President Shimon Peres, the Minister for the Protection of the Environment the late Gidon Ezra, the former Deputy Head of the General Security Services, Chairman of the Judging Committee Jacob Turkel (former Supreme Court of Israel Justice). As I was on a lecture tour in the USA, my oldest grandson (then 9-years old) received the award on my behalf, wearing the t-shirt with the Hoopoe, Israel's national bird which was proclaimed at the President's Residence the same year. Peres enjoyed my "heir" and said to Nadav "you're much nicer than your grandfather…".

President Peres kisses Nadav Milo, my oldest grandson

Due to his name and his special connection with raptors, Shimon Peres was especially supportive of the "Spreading Wings" project, jointly run by the SPNI, Israel Nature and Parks Authority (NPA), Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) and Jordanian and Palestinian organizations. Peres was meant to speak at the 37th Annual Birding Lecture Day which will be held at the Tel Aviv University on December 26th 2016, focusing on 20 years of the "Spreading Wings" project. To our sorrow, this will not be. Peres was also scheduled to participate in the international nature conservation birding race "Champions of the Flyway" that took place in Eilat in March this year, but unfortunately he had to cancel his participation as he was invited to an important UNESCO event. He had promised to participate in the 2017's race, but this too will not be.


Shimon Peres was a very unique person, warm, eloquent and intelligent. I believe we had a special connection. Also because of his name and his special link with birds, and also because he was a man of vision, and perhaps identified a similar spark in me. He wrote for me (by himself!) a personal and warm letter of recommendation before my trip to Switzerland for my sabbatical at the University of Lausanne, and this touched me greatly. Shimon will be sorely missed by the State of Israel and on a personal level by me. I have lost a dear friend and partner to my vision. But his legacy will remain long after him. May he rest in peace.


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