Thais view Israeli wildlife as fair game

September 03, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

NAHAL ME'AROT RESERVE, Israel -- Ranger Nir Angert bumps his jeep along a banana grove, a lone patrol trying to keep Israeli wildlife from becoming Thai food.

Ever since Israel began importing laborers from Thailand about eight years ago to replace Palestinians, environment officials say, wild animals, birds and fish have disappeared into the cooking pots of the workers.

"They eat everything on the ground, everything in the air that's not an airplane, and everything in the water that's not a boat," said Mr. Angert, a ranger for the Israel Nature Reserve Authority.

The 19,000 imported Thai laborers in Israel work on farms or on building construction sites. After work, some of them trap animals in nearby fields or nature reserves with simple snares, or they fish in local waters with nets.

They do it simply to vary the diet provided by their employers, or in some cases because they are given too little to eat, say officials.

"It's a serious problem. They can wipe out some species of endangered animals," said Eyal Shy, director of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Department. "Israel is a small country, and its wildlife is threatened anyhow."

Israel has increasingly turned to foreign workers -- primarily from Asia and Eastern Europe -- to replace Palestinians in its attempt to separate Palestinians from the Jewish state.

The foreign workers are often cheaper than the Palestinians, and desperate for work. But their arrival in greater numbers -- there are now nearly 42,000 here -- has led to cultural clashes. Israelis complain about groups of Romanian construction workers who gather on street corners to drink beer on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath and their one day off work.

The Thai workers are more rural and are rarely seen in the cities. But they, too, have brought some lifestyle habits that unsettle Israelis.

"The culture is definitely different," said Dr. Shy. "They like to catch and eat almost anything that moves -- insects, invertebrates, reptiles, lizards, snakes, turtles, birds, mammals."

At this nature reserve 8 miles south of Haifa, Ranger Angert examined a wire noose that held the remains of a jackal's head.

Other animals -- probably jackals -- had attacked and eaten the ensnared victim.

Farther down a trail he found the remains of a boar. One species of the wild pig practically disappeared from a stretch of Israel's Jordan Valley after a group of Thai workers came to work the local fields.

Environment officials suspect that Thai workers have "harvested" grouse, owls and other birds, taken nets full of fish supposed to be caught one at a time with fishing rods, dug up endangered turtle eggs, and have trapped martins, mice and small rodents.

"Not all of these are endangered," said Ranger Angert. "But that's not the point.

"They may put up a snare for a jackal, but they get something else. And usually the animal doesn't die right away, but dies of thirst. It's a very cruel death."

Mr. Angert demonstrated one trap he found, a wire box with a trapdoor. But most snares are a simple piece of thin cable hung as a noose along an animal path. The animal's head gets caught, and the noose tightens as it struggles.

"It's so simple, it's annoying," he said. "And because it is simple, they can put hundreds out."

Israeli officials are trying education -- and threats. They insist employers tell workers before they arrive in Israel about the wildlife laws. Ranger Angert goes into the farm camps and fields to distribute warnings printed in the Thai language.

"Anyone who breaks the laws on wildlife will be expelled from the country," the warning says. "Have a pleasant stay in Israel."

"We know it is prohibited. We don't do it," insists a laborer who identifies himself only as Wassam, 23, one of 10 Thais working on a nearby communal farm. "I have never seen anyone do it," he says, under gentle questioning from the ranger.

Israeli employers say foreign workers get about $700 a month for their labors. Wassam said he can earn that much only if he works 12-hour days or longer. Without overtime, he gets $385 for the month, he said.

The 10 Thai workers in his camp pay $500 each month for their food, he said. Most foreign workers are brought here by middlemen labor contractors, not the kibbutz or collective farm where they work.

The labor contractors often arrange the housing and food, and critics in Israel say the system allows the kinds of abuses one finds of migrant laborers in the United States. Ranger Angert said some workers live in good conditions, but others have inadequate housing and food.

Law enforcement officials acknowledge that it is difficult to catch the poachers in the act, and the evidence gets eaten. But they say they have found some clues in the cooking pots of the workers -- a 150-pound boar carcass is hard to hide.

Dr. Shy said officials are considering holding employers responsible for any wildlife law violations by the workers, a tactic that prompts protests from the Israeli employers.

"I know what they do when they are working, but not after work," complains Yehuda Rosenberg, who helps manage foreign workers at the Nir Ezion communal farm. "We would have to stay with them day and night."

But Dr. Shy said, "If the problem is not solved, it will get worse. And it's bad enough already.

"When [the government] thought about bringing large numbers of Thai here, they thought about the economic profit," he said. "They didn't think about other problems."

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