The Natural History Museum
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 17.01.2007:
By Simon Awad
Palestinian natural heritage is an integral part of the Palestinian national identity. This is because of the diverse range of fauna and flora that is found in such a small area that Palestinians call home. The richness of the land’s biodiversity is linked to the variety of landscapes, climate, and its strategic location. Thus, one can say that Palestine is a natural museum in itself. However, to better understand the relation between nature and nation a visit to the Natural History Museum – the only one in Palestine – of the Environmental Education Centre (EEC) of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) is in order. The ELCJHL donated the old Martin Luther School’s collection of preserved native and migratory birds to the centre. This collection is the work of the late German professor and theologian Gustav Dahlman. The Museum also contains works donated by the Talitha Kumi School, the family of the late Dr. Sana Issa Atallah and Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, both nature scientists from Palestine
Located on the Talitha Kumi School campus in Beit Jala, the museum has a professional staff that will take visitors on an adventurous and educational journey to learn about the environment in Palestine and how each individual can make a difference by being more environmentally aware. The botanical garden contains a wide array of native trees (many of them Biblical), plants, and wildflowers. Once inside, the first thing that strikes the visitor is the number of specimens on exhibit. There are more than 2,500 preserved birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insects, fish, sponge and fossils on display. Many of the species have been preserved for more than 100 years and some are even extinct, making the Natural History Museum the only place where one can see such animals.
More than 4,000 people visit the museum each year, mainly from schools and universities. In their visits, they learn about the importance of all creatures, no matter how small they may be, and their specific impact on our environment. Visitors learn about the circle of life and how to achieve the natural balance that we all desire. They also gain valuable information on an assortment of animals as well as the secrets behind them. Furthermore, they have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the animals that are native to Palestine, such as the mountain gazelle, porcupines, foxes, etc.
In addition to viewing specimens that are extinct in the Middle East, such as the brown fish owl, one can also view endangered animals such as the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni) and the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) which, through widespread awareness, have a fighting chance. Due to wrong beliefs and myths some people consider the owl a sign of bad luck and kill it whenever in sight, forgetting that it plays an important role in the natural balance by eating rodents that harm crops. This causes economic and agricultural damage for many farmers who are forced to buy expensive pesticides that are often unhealthy and environmentally dangerous. Another example pertains to the destruction of the nests of the common swift, a regular summer visitor and migrant bird that eats on average a few thousand insects per day. Thus, simply by allowing this creature to come and go freely, one is helping in insect control and minimizing the need for expensive insecticides that pollute our water resources, soil, and air all.
Moreover, visitors can gain new insight on some of the country’s indigenous species such as the Palestinian sunbird, one of the smallest birds in Palestine, or the red fox, mole, hedgehog, rats and bats. Facts regarding bats often astonish visitors because they break many false beliefs by being flying mammals (without an airplane!), warm blooded, that they nurse their babies with milk, and have fur. Although fruit bats are pests to people who own orchards because they eat their crops, bats spread the seeds of the fruit they eat and are responsible for scattering up to 95% of the seeds needed for new trees in tropical rain forests. There are also a number of bats that eat insects, fish, frogs and other small animals. Speaking of insects, there is a wide range of them in the museum such as butterflies and moths. Most visitors also enjoy seeing the snakes and getting new information regarding their various types.
After visiting the museum, visitors exit leaving behind the myths that society fed them and re-enter the world with a better understanding of the surrounding environment. The museum provides a unique educational experience that raises people’s awareness of many environmental issues and which will help change their behaviour for the better, thus protecting biodiversity through natural conservation.
Simon Awad is the Executive Director of the Environmental Education Centre/ELCJHL. He can be reached at email@example.com. For more information visit www.eecp.org.
This Week in Palestine