Tracking the lone rangers

Parks Authority enforcers juggle mix of law and field science while lookingfor illegal hunters and za’atar harvesters, and protecting endangered species.

Park rangers inspect torch light 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Park rangers inspect torch light 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
“We have the only job in Israel that is more secret than the Mossad or the Shin Bet. You know why? Because no one knows what we do.”
It’s near midnight in the back-country near Latrun, and Maor Pariente, 31, is riding shotgun in a Toyota pickup truck on dirt roads with his partner for the night – 30-yearold Dekel Gad. They’re looking for illegal hunters who take to the countryside at night seeking to bag wild animals.
The Israel Parks and Nature Authority park rangers are armed with Jericho handguns and NIS 20,000 night vision goggles. As they drive through the vineyards and apricot fields that overlook Highway 1, they keep their eyes open for the telltale signs that hunters are nearby. Driving in the pitch black with his headlights and brake lights out, using his goggles to see the dirt road ahead, Gad slams on the brakes and jumps out of the pickup next to an irrigation pipe.
On the path he finds a 12- gauge shotgun shell, most likely left behind by hunters. It’s not fresh enough to smell like gunpowder, but the lack of rust on the primer at the bottom of the shell indicates it was fired in the last couple of days.
“This wasn’t too professional of them leaving it out here for us to pick up,” says Gad, as Pariente swings his searchlight, shining the beam on two deer on a hill before they dash off over the midnight horizon.
The fields have heated up for the park rangers recently.
Twice in June unidentified hunters left severed antelope and porcupine heads tied to fences in the Galilee, in what the INPA says were blatant attempts to intimidate rangers.
A few weeks before that, a ranger’s car was torched outside his house in the North, and masked men wielding metal poles severely beat another ranger in a rural area of the Galilee.
“The severed heads were a way of saying ‘We’re here, we’re not going anywhere, we’ll hunt whenever we want and we aren’t afraid of you,’” Gad says.
Hunting is part of the culture of many Israelis, in particular residents of Druse, Muslim and Christian villages, not only in the North but also in the Triangle, the South and the Jerusalem area. There are around 2,000 licensed members of the Israel Hunters Association, but also an unknown number of illegal hunters, many of whom take to the countryside to earn money, with the meat of a single antelope selling on the black market for between NIS 1,200 and NIS 1,500, and that of a porcupine for several hundred shekels.
Pariente explains how the hunters also manage an elaborate, illegal trade in wild goldfinches (huhiyot), which they catch by laying field nets and then closing them around the birds. The prized songbirds are sold in the West Bank, Jordan, the Persian Gulf and beyond.
The rangers also ticket people who illegally harvest wild za’atar and sage. Typically, it’s small groups of Israeli-Arab family members who gather the herbs while out on picnic, but at times the rangers come across truckloads of Palestinian laborers gathering kilos of the herbs by the dozen, to sell back in the West Bank or in Jordan, where – as in most of the Middle East – wild za’atar is endangered, according to Pariente.
The teams of laborers work in shifts filling sacks and then hiding them in the countryside for an accomplice to pick up and sneak into the West Bank.
In between chasing hunters and illegal herb gatherers, park rangers set up hidden cameras to catch Thai farm workers setting improvised traps for wild animals that end up getting barbecued after the laborers’ workday is done.
As he and Gad describe their various enforcement hats, Pariente gets a call from the control room at an IDF infantry base near the West Bank Seam Line, where a soldier asks if he knows anything about illegal hunting in the area.
After hanging up, Pariente explains that the base heard something that sounded like gunshots, and it is up to him to figure out what it was. It could be hunters, or it could be fireworks or celebratory gunfire in an Arab village.
Such calls are a nightly matter, and part of a two-way street: Park rangers often call the army to determine if what they suspect might be hunters is in fact IDF troops taking part in a live-fire drill.
The moment is a microcosm of sorts of the complex and largely unknown job they’re asked to do as rangers for the IPNA. On one hand, they’re law-enforcement officers looking for poachers and firearms violators, gathering evidence and confronting hunters who typically have them outnumbered and outgunned.
At the same time, they look for violations of littering and campfire regulations, and gather data to track flora and fauna.
“On any given night I can get a call about a group of illegal hunters somewhere near Modi’in and then a call later on that someone has found a sea turtle nest on the beach near Tel Aviv, and you have to go and seal off the area and take the eggs to be hatched and the turtles taken to the sea,” Pariente says.
“On the one hand you have to be the police for nature, but also almost scientists.”
They have to cover large areas – Pariente is the one area ranger for the 100,000 hectares (247,100 acres) of the “Paleshet” area from Ashdod to Tel Aviv and east to the Green Line, while Gad covers the 50,000 hectares of the Judean Mountains.
Altogether the IPNA has five districts, each one with between two and four subdistricts, and each has a couple of areas with a single ranger in charge.
In addition to the hunters, typically out in pairs or as many as four at a time, in pickup trucks with rifles and sometimes IDF-issue guns and equipment, rangers have to contend with wild animals that many Israelis don’t know live among us – often right near highways and suburbs.
Pariente describes how a year-anda- half ago he answered a call about hunters near Elad. He found three large wild dogs standing in a field.
When he walked closer he realized they were larger than usual, and then he did a double take – they were striped hyenas and they were only about 5 meters away and looked ready to pounce. He slowly backed up into his truck and then hightailed it out of there.
Despite the fierceness of hyenas or wild boars, humans tend to be the most dangerous animals. Gad describes how a few months ago he came across a group of men in a field near Beit Shemesh catching goldfinches. When he told them to stop, they got in their truck and floored it straight at him. He pulled his Jericho pistol and the hunters swerved, and then tore off down the road, disappearing into the countryside.
“If you see five people, you have to assess the situation and decide whether to come over, and when you do you have to try to calm the situation and be relaxed, you can’t come out with your gun drawn,” Gad says.
The two men, Gad, an ex-Nahal Brigade officer and moshavnik, Pariente, a former paratrooper from Kfar Truman, say they were drawn to the work because they love the outdoors, and because it’s never boring – you start every shift having no idea how it will end.
But along with the excitement and the danger of facing illegal hunters in the dead of night in the backcountry, there’s another menace they say is more bothersome: Israeli hikers treating the parks as their own private trash dumps.
“The criminals, the hunters – they actually respect or fear us,” Pariente says, shaking his head as he stirs a pot of Turkish coffee. “The young Israelis or families who you come to and ask to pick up their trash or not start a fire where it’s not allowed – they can be much worse.” •