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Ariel Shamir coordinates Tatzpiteva, the Golan Ecological Community Monitoring project. He discusses how this initiative came to be, where it is going, and how a successful smart phone application can actually connect people to nature instead of alienating them from it.

by Asaf Kugler

The lions that once lived in the heart of the city of Tel Aviv are one of the factors that led Ariel Shamir to become the coordinator of Tatzpiteva, the Golan Ecological Community Monitoring project.

“When I was a child, my mother took me to the Tel Aviv zoo,” he says. “That was the first time I went to a zoo and the moment I saw lions in cages, I felt a pinch in my heart. It was sad to see caged animals. As a child, I began volunteering at the zoo on weekends, cleaning cages and feeding animals. That became my profession and way of life.

“A zoo is not a good place. People do not always understand that. Yet it is clear that there also is a need for zoos, for research, breeding, and education.”

The understanding that since zoos are not good places they need good people prompted Shamir to continue to work with animals in zoos around the world and to participate in several studies conducted in the wild.

“I went from the zoo in Tel Aviv to the safari in Ramat Gan and then to the zoological garden at Tel Aviv University,” he says. “After that, I continued my education at Gerald Durrell’s wildlife park in Jersey, England, where there is a special program on breeding endangered species and reintroducing them to their natural habitats. From there, I moved to Canada and worked at the zoo in Toronto for eight years. Then I returned to Israel and spent many good years at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem.

“I decided to move from Jerusalem to the Golan about 14 years ago when I started a family. I never really lived in a city – I always was on its periphery. Nature is part of my soul, so I wanted to be near nature. Even though it meant a sacrifice career-wise, I set down roots in one of the best and most untouched places in Israel. I wanted to raise my three children with a different education, different values, and different ideology, near nature and open expanses.”

The move to the Golan made it possible for Shamir to return to an old love.

“I passed up studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design to care for animals, yet in the Golan, an opportunity arose to do the second thing that I love: I opened a studio to build sculptures,” he says. “I always sculpted and painted. My specialty is creating large wood sculptures with chain saws. I believe in the principle of recycling so I do not buy or pay for material. I am not a consumer. Instead I take trees that already were chopped down or fell in storms or due to illness and create art from them.”

About two years ago, Shamir came across a tender for a coordinator for what now is known as Tatzpiteva (Hebrew for Nature Lookout). The project invites residents to use their mobile phones to monitor and document their encounters with nature, animals, and plants in the Golan by photographing flora and fauna and indicating where they saw them. This project was born in the Open Landscape Unit for the Golan Regional Council amidst the work to prepare the Master Plan for Open Spaces on the Golan Heights.

“The council took a very large step that no other council in Israel has taken,” Shamir says. “There is a need to develop the Golan, but also a need to maintain the balance between population growth and nature conservation. The question is how to do this correctly. Tatzpiteva’s goal actually is to collect information by monitoring open spaces and to enter this information into a database so that it can be used to conduct scientific studies on the state of nature in the Golan.”

Once the Open Landscape Unit understood the need to learn more about nature on the Golan, the next question to address was how to do this.

“We still are pondering this,” he says. “There already are studies and surveys of nature on the Golan. There are surveys conducted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, universities, and research centers. There also are specific surveys that are performed annually monitoring wetlands flora and fauna populations, raptors, migrating birds, gazelles and so on. In addition to all that, we realized there are people who have lived on the Golan for many years and have accumulated a great deal of knowledge that only they and their close friends enjoy.”

This led Shamir to seek an approach that would recruit the residents of the Golan to the effort to learn more about nature.

“We understand that the community has the ability to collect this information,” he says. “This is what is known as civic science among professionals and as crowd-sourced science popularly. It has a number of advantages. For example, say you could use your budget either to recruit researchers or to recruit the community. Researchers’ budgets generally have time and geographic limitations. In contrast, once a community is committed to a project, the community can continue to maintain it for an extended period throughout the entire Golan.”

All this led Shamir and his partners to conclude that working with the community would be beneficial on multiple levels. They decided the best approach would be a monitoring process.

“Monitoring is defined as a close, ongoing survey,” he says. “We set out to run a monitoring marathon. Actually, we set out to run an ultramarathon since we will receive information about what is happening to nature on the Golan over the course of many years. With time, we will be able to use this information for scientific research on the balance between development needs and nature as well as where intervention is needed to correct the balance.

“When we decided to invite the general public to join this project, we did not yet know what we were getting into. There is no guide book to community monitoring initiatives. So we had many meetings, consulted with professionals from Israel and abroad, and looked at projects in other parts of the world. Civic science is very varied. You can ask a specific question, such as asking the public to monitor a single species, but you also can say, ‘Give me what you want and we’ll make do with the information.’”

At the same they were exploring civic science, the project’s staff members installed trail cameras in areas that are less accessible to the public. They also sought out the technology to support the initiative.

“We developed an application and a website,” Shamir says. “Professor Ofer Arazy from the University of Haifa is an expert on information systems for civic science projects. He checked what applications are available in the market today that could be useful for us and found iNaturalist, a civic science application to monitor flora and fauna around the globe. It was developed at the University of California at Berkeley in the US and allows anyone to post an animal or plant observation in a global database, including a photograph, location, date, and identification.”

For Shamir, incorporating technology into fieldwork was not a trivial matter.

“I did not have a mobile phone before this project or know anything about applications, computers, and websites,” he says. “However, I understood that cameras have a great advantage: they are not invasive. I am familiar with many invasive studies that involve catching animals and using transmitters and traps. When humans want to study animals in the wild, they tend to put their hands on them. Here you do not need to touch anything to collect information to learn what is happening in nature.”

In cooperation with iNaturalist, Shamir and his colleagues developed an Israeli version of the application so that anyone can document encounters with nature on the Golan, complete with the date and location. (The latter, however, can be hidden when posting the observation in order to prevent any harm from being done to nature. For observations of endangered species, the location is hidden automatically.) The result is a friendly, easy-to-use application that can be easily downloaded to a mobile phone. After downloading the Tatzpiteva application, all that is left to do is register and start posting observations. In addition to the application, there is a Hebrew-language website (www.tatzpiteva.org.il) where observations also can be posted and the entire community can learn in real time what has been seen where, receive updates from the field, read articles, and find other information.

There aren’t Boring Observations

“The Golan has a highly varied population scattered over a very large area, 1,800 square kilometers, and we need to reach this population and convince it that this project is important and worth participating in,” Shamir says. “To accomplish this, it is important to understand who lives on the Golan and how varied this population is. There are towns, moshavim, and kibbutzim. There are religious and secular people. There are Jews and Druze. The Tatzpiteva circle begins with people whose profession brings them into constant contact with nature such as ranchers, farmers, beekeepers, and photographers. From there, the circle widened to nature lovers and weekend hikers and even to individuals who are not even nature enthusiasts. Even after two years – we currently are starting the third year of the project – there is no common denominator among all the Tatzpiteva monitors with regard to profession, age, location, or religion. The only common denominator is love of nature.”

Building a community of monitors broadened Shamir’s role.

“The moment that you create a community like this, you need to cultivate it constantly,” he says, “support it, manage the website and the database of observations, and more.”

The community has grown significantly since the project started.

“Over 12,000 observations have been posted in the database since we began and over 1,700 species of flora and fauna have been identified,” he says. “Today the application has more than 550 registered users, though only 40-50 percent of them really use it. We intend to translate the application to Arabic so the Druze community can use it too. About 20% of the regular monitors post 10-20 observations daily. On average, 300-350 observations are posted each week. That is a lot of observations, especially since a photograph must accompany each observation.

“We ask the community members to monitor everything that they see in nature. Nothing is trivial, nothing is simple, and we do not only want the extraordinary sightings. Every species is worthy of documentation. One must look at all this not only through the eyes of here and now, but also with regard to how it will be received as a source of information. What now seems like another regular photograph of a eucalyptus tree will be useful in a few years when someone wants to research the state of eucalyptus trees on the Golan. The researcher will be able to pull out all the observations and analyze them. There are no boring observations. From ants to large animals, birds and butterflies, thorns and flowers, insects and reptiles, we want them all.”

Despite that, people naturally post more “exotic” observations than regular ones, which could distort the picture that the observations provide.

“Tatzpiteva is the result of cooperation between the Yitzhak Shamir Golan Research Institute and Dr. Dan Malkinson of the University of Haifa, who is responsible for all the program’s research aspects,” Shamir explains. “His job is to take all of this data and try to understand how to use it in research despite the distortions. It is not simple. He needs to develop analytical methods that take into account that some monitors love birds and others love insects. Some monitor only from their cars and others do so by foot. Some monitor only near their home and others monitor all over the Golan. This means that time is highly significant since over the years, these distortions will be balanced by the quantity of data that is entered into the database.”

To ensure that the observations contain precise information and species are identified correctly, some monitors also serve as curators (identification specialists).

“All the monitors and curators are volunteers. This should not be taken for granted since they sometimes need to dedicate a great deal of time to identifying each plant in an observation, recording the identification, going through the confirmation process, and adding the scientific name,” he says. “Monitors can identify the plants or animals in their observations, but are liable to be mistaken, so the curators must correct them. Tatzpiteva is built upon an American system in which we do not tell a monitor that something is incorrect or mistaken, but politely offer another identity. This approach is much pleasanter. The curators are, as we said, volunteers from the Golan. We have 10 of them and each one is an expert in a specific field – botany, birds, reptiles, butterflies, and so on. Even though the curator’s role is not simple and carries great responsibility, anyone who has scientific expertise and knowledge can be a curator. The emphasis is not only on expertise, but also on commitment.”

The monitors’ and curators’ dedication to the online initiative is leading to the formation of relationships in the real world too, Shamir adds.

“I am on the application all day long because I think it is important to respond,” Shamir says. “Tatzpiteva is not a social platform and everyone works independently in his or her own way. You do not know what others are doing the way you would in a class or group that meets regularly and exchanges experiences. All communication is via the application or the website, so it is very important to respond quickly so that the people who post observations know that someone is looking at what they do.

“Last year, I started to facilitate real-world interaction in order to build a community of monitors. It began with organizing conferences – 25 people came to the first one. At the most recent conference, this had grown to 50 people. So the community is growing slowly. I think it is very important to recognize one another, to put faces to the names. All sorts of connections are developing as well as joint initiatives: tours to search for herbs or butterflies and even a doctorate. It is beginning to take shape, even though we are talking about a building process that is very slow and needs to be very slow and thorough so that it will not blow up at some stage.”

One of the next stages will be to add guests and hikers who visit the Golan to the community of monitors. Shamir hopes that signs will be posted soon at the entrances to nature reserves in the Golan that tell about the project and include a barcode through which hikers can connect to the application and share their encounters with nature during their visit. In the more distant future, the project may broaden to include areas beyond the Golan, perhaps all of Israel.

“We began this program with two major goals,” Shamir notes, “to create a connection and affinity between residents and the nature around them because we know that when a person is familiar with his surroundings, that breaks through the alienation. It becomes more intimate when you know the names of the flowers, the birds, and the animals around you. This also stimulates the desire to know more.

“The second goal is to create a professional, precise database of Golan species, a database that works on the principle of open coding. So anyone can go into Tatzpiteva at any given time and find what he wants. We do not keep the data to ourselves. It does not belong just to us. That is the beauty in open coding, that everyone can put in what he wants and take out what he needs.

“In addition, Tatzpiteva is an educational tool to promote nature preservation. We want to spur people to get up off the sofa and understand that they have the power to preserve what is. If we read that a nice plot of land that we care about is being destroyed in the Golan and we want to share our objection to this as loudly as possible, to speak from the gut that is one thing, but presenting proof and data puts us on a completely different level. For example, if there is an area where a unique iris grows and someone wants to build a soccer stadium there, we can argue, ‘Look, there is something rare here.’

“We want to educate pupils, from pre-school to high school. It is important to teach children and youth to connect to nature from a young age, to love it, and to want to preserve it. We began with fifth graders and today we already are up to seventh graders in a number of schools on the Golan. Each school adopts a segment of the Golan Trail and so we connected Tatzpiteva to that initiative. While engaging in activities on its segment of the trail, the school monitors for Tatzpiteva as well. We perform a wealth of activities. We also cooperate with religious seminaries and pre-army programs.

“We are dedicating time to turning Tatzpiteva into an educational tool for nature preservation, a research tool for scientific research, and a learning tool for use outside the classroom,” Shamir concludes. “Tatzpiteva is not just an application. It is a way of thinking. That is how we see it. When you go out into nature, you connect to what is around you and understand the value of collecting information. That is something that needs to be internalized as a way of life. Tatzpiteva is not merely working or volunteering on a project, but a way of life.”

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