Imagine sitting at a computer terminal, punching in a secret code and seeing before you the coordinates of a variety of birds in their migratory flight between their European summer home and African winter quarters.
Researchers can access all this through the Internet, thanks to a joint Israeli-German research project. Solar-powered miniature radio transmitters are mounted on the backs of birds, the transmissions are monitored by satellite and the data fed into the Net.
The data from the Argos satellite are sent to a ground station in Toulouse, France for processing and can then be accessed by researchers - a joint team at Tel Aviv University, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the Max Planck Institute in Germany - or by those curious about storks, cranes, pelicans and birds of prey anywhere in the world.
The combination of bird-borne transmitters and satellites is not new: it is also being used in America, Holland and France. But what is new is that this project is planned as one of the foundations of regional environmental cooperation within the Middle East: the birds also cross Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Sudan - sometimes within the course of a day - and so all these countries have a common environmental interest in their welfare.
Each bird is fitted with a transmitter weighing between 45 and 90 grams. "We received signals from the birds from Germany every 90 minutes - through Romania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, the Sudan and South Africa. Each bird gives us a signal, marking its exact location and how fast it is travelling, charting changing weather conditions, transmitting back information on nature conservation areas," Yoshi Leshem, executive director of the SPNI, explains.
Israel is at the centre of the project because the estimated 500 million migratory birds that pass twice a year between Europe and Africa all fly through its airspace, making the country a world centre for bird-watchers. Germany is the other partner because of its strong interest in environmental research and strong scientific ties with Israel.
Another important plan for the future is a proposed network of seven bird-tracking radars across the Middle East, based in Eilat, Suez and Sharm El-Sheikh, Amman, Damascus and Bab El Mandeb (Yemen), with the regional centre at Latrun. Israel is hoping that the United States will grant $30 million to buy the radars, which will also be able to track weather conditions in the region.
Leshem stressed that Israel and Arab countries will be able to communicate by Internet, something being planned in cooperation with the US State Department. "If kids are talking via the Internet on environmental issues, it could have consequences for the peace process," he says.