This Week In History: Bringing Biblical animals home

In 1972, Avraham Yoffe initiated IAF operation to airlift 12 African wild asses from Ethiopia to Israel.

African wild ass 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
African wild ass 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On September 14, 1972, the IAF's international squadron embarked upon a special mission to airlift a dozen African wild asses from Ethiopia to Israel, where they had become extinct. The man behind the mission, armed with a vision of returning biblical animals to their homes in Israel and reinforcing populations of endangered species, was the late Major-General Avraham Yoffe
Alongside Uri Tzon, Yoffe established the Hai Bar nature reserve in Yotvata in 1968, as part of this vision. He later became the first director of the Nature Reserves Authority (NRA), which assumed responsibility for the Hai Bar reserve, preparing desert animals for the wild, acclimatizing them in a "reintroduction area" until they are ready for release.
By the beginning of the 1970s, the wildlife sanctuary already held six wild asses, four antelope and four rams. But there was a long list of biblical animals missing, among them the African wild ass, which is mentioned several times in the bible and Talmud. The ass, with its it striped legs, is the forefather of the modern domestic ass and is extremely rare both in nature and captivity.
In 1972, the African wild ass was on the brink of extinction, and the surviving few were in a troubled region in the Ethiopian desert, in the clutches of famine, disease and war. A small number of the animals were held in different zoos across the world, but they never bred in captivity, and the chance of getting hold of one was slim.
According to an IAF account of the mission, in June 1972, Yoffe flew to the US where he met with an old friend who ran a zoo just outside of New York, and told him about two Italian animal traders in Ethiopia who had encountered a large herd of African wild asses in a remote desert village. Initially the Americans intended to purchase the animals, however, they were deterred by the fear that the asses carried dangerous diseases. Yoffe, however, seized the opportunity, and informed the Ethiopians that he would buy the animals for the Chai Bar animal association.
The Ethiopian government demanded that $90,000 be paid in cash, according to the IAF report, which was no easy feat for Yoffe. He made numerous attempts at raising the cash from various entities in Israel, eventually convincing the Education Ministry of the historical and biblical importance of bringing over the animal, and the Treasury granted him the loan. Check in hand, the Nature Reserve Authority's Giora Ilani flew to Ethiopia for approval to take the asses. This took a month and a half.
The next obstacle was the Air Force. IAF Major General (res.) Motti Hod initially ridiculed the request, quoted as saying, "Why African wild ass? Take a normal donkey, paint stripes on his legs, and you have an African wild ass!" But Yoffe's persistence paid off, and finally all the required participants were on board.
The mission required the use of a Hercules aircraft, obtained by the IAF a year earlier, as it was the only military Israeli aircraft capable of taking off and landing on dirt paths. On September 12, the plane embarked on its special mission, under the command of Brigadier General (Res.) Joshua Shani, then deputy commander of the squadron. The plane flew to Addis-Ababa airport, and from there to a makeshift airfield in Assab. "It was a huge plane…in the middle of nowhere in Africa. We had to make every decision on our own, the responsibility was huge," Shani recalled to the IAF magazine. "And then suddenly, on the horizon, I saw a big cloud of dust and some trucks approaching us. It was simply an unbelievable scene: trucks emerged from the heart of the desert, in the middle of the wilderness, and inside them 12 African wild asses, strange types of donkeys with stripes on their legs. And we had to load these donkeys into the cargo and take off with them."
Just after midnight on September 15, the Hercules landed at the Etzion air base in Sinai, and the 12 asses were brought safely to their new home in Yotvata.
Yaffe's triumphs did not stop there and he continued his tireless efforts to bring biblical animals back to the land they once inhabited.
"These are times when nature needs some help," Yoffe told The Milwaukee Sentinel 10 years later, after having obtained addax antelopes from a New York animal park, Asian wild asses from European zoos and having revisited the Ethiopian desert for some ostriches. "The Hai-Bar project is one of the best ways we can think of to help get back on with the process of living and growing."
Thus Yoffe ensured that biblical wildlife did not disappear from Israel's landscape, and the African wild asses now roam free in the 4,000 acre Yotvata reserve, together with brown Asian wild asses, Arabian oryx, ostriches, scimitar horned oryx and addax.