Extinct possibilities

Hunting and urbanization are threatening the future of the country's wildlife population, but ecologists are fighting back.

Baby Ibex 521 (photo credit: Doron Nissim)
Baby Ibex 521
(photo credit: Doron Nissim)
The landscaped cottage neighborhood adjoining Moshav Geulim is very attractive.
But what most people do not realize is that this suburban neighborhood, located near the community of Pardesiya, east of Netanya, was until 20 years ago open land and home to a diverse population of wildlife. These animals included chukar partridges, hares, porcupines and waterfowl such as ducks and coots that visited small winter ponds that collected annual winter rainfall.
All these animals are gone now, the victims of urbanization that has reduced much of Israel’s open spaces to a fraction of what they were as recently as 15 years ago.
“Things have definitely changed here since the housing projects started in the early 1990s,” says Shalom, a Geulim resident whose 30 dunams (7.5 acres) of land extends to the residential housing community. “I used to let hunters onto the open spaces behind my property, and my children would play in the scrub forest that was there. I also used to plant vegetable crops in some of those open areas. But that is all gone now.”
Geulim is just one of many locations in Israel where natural open spaces have been pushed back or eliminated by real-estate development and agricultural use. Much of what remains as open spaces for wildlife are relegated to 250 nature reserves and 76 national parks, with much of the open spaces located in the southern Negev and Arava regions. In other areas of the country, especially in the coastal regions, many of these nature reserves are not much larger than 10 to 15 dunams.
As a result, many animal species in Israel are being pushed to the “red zone” of that classification given to animals that are on the endangered species list. A recent study conducted by the Israel Academy of Sciences, together with the Environmental Protection Ministry, has revealed that close to 60 percent of all wild mammals in Israel and as much as 80% of amphibians are at risk of becoming extinct if the destruction of their habitats and other threats to their environment continue.
“In regard to these small, fragmented n a t u r e reserves, it is very difficult to sustain animal and plant life if open areas are broken up into small segments,” says Yisrael Tauber, director of forest management for the Jewish National Fund (KKL/JNF). He says that some improvement has been made in protected areas, but this does not hold true for many unprotected spaces.
Although Israel still has a rich diversity of wildlife, many animals are on the endangered species list.
Such animals include Arabian leopards, of which only nine remain in the wild, striped hyenas, sand cats and Nubian ibexes. Smaller animals, such as spadefoot toads (common in Europe including the UK) and giant softshell turtles, have become threatened here due to the destruction of their habitats.
Noam Lider, who works in the statistical wildlife survey department of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), told Metro it is doubtful that endangered animals like the Arabian leopards will be able to sustain themselves in the wild. Their range is now confined to the Ein Gedi area near the Dead Sea and part of the Judean Desert. Many were killed by hunters, as well as by farmers and shepherds who thought the leopards were raiding their flocks. But many other animals are endangered by illegal hunting as well.
“One of the biggest problems involving illegal hunting is caused by the more than 26,000 foreign agricultural workers from countries like Thailand.
Many of these people come from remote rural villages and are used to hunting and trapping wild animals for food. This has resulted in so many animals like partridges and hares being killed and eaten by these workers, that these animals are no longer allowed as game for licensed hunters. This situation has reached the point where hunting for sport will probably be banned in Israel in the near future,” says Lider.
For birdlife, with the exception of a few species on the critical list, the overall situation is somewhat better, according to Ehud Hatzofe, wildfowl ecologist for the INPA, whose territory extends from the salt ponds of Eilat to the Hula Valley and the Golan Heights.
Hatzofe says that most bird species are not critically endangered, except for a few species on the international threatened and endangered species lists.
Some of these include the golden eagle and the golden vulture (found mostly in the Dead Sea area and the Judean Desert). He says that only about 200 golden vultures remain, and some have been captured for breeding stock.
With regard to the fate of the vultures at the Hai Bar wildlife refuge during the fire that raged in the Carmel Forest in December, Hatzofe says that most of them were not threatened because they were able to fly away.
In fact, he thinks the fire did some good to the area because it eliminated pine and other trees that are not indigenous to the area and, as such, are not vital as food supplies for the birds and other animals.
What did suffer from the fires were some species of mammals, especially small creatures like reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates (insects, spiders, etc), Hatzofe adds.
In the case of threatened eagles, vultures and other raptors, Hatzofe says that poisons and “disturbances” by humans are the main factors for their reduction in number. “Desert and aquatic habitats have been destroyed, resulting in severe problems for birds and other wildlife, especially amphibians,” he elaborates.
Regarding the Coastal Plain, loss of wild birds such as partridges has been due mainly to loss of habitat, Hatzofe says. The elimination of wildfowl like chukar partridges has also been bad for raptors, which feed on chukars and other birds. “Chukars are still plentiful in some areas, like parts of the Galilee; but even so, they are now forbidden to be hunted by licensed hunters,” he adds.
Changes in vegetation, especially in regions like the Negev, has been very detrimental for wildlife.
This is especially true for desert birds like houbaras, which are medium-sized ground-dwelling birds resembling a turkey. “Only about 250 of these birds remain in the wild today. There were more than 350 at the end of the 1990s,” says Hatzofe.
He says that large amounts of garbage and sewage were diverted to the Negev, and that has destroyed wildlife habitats. Also crops like potatoes, that are grown using recycled sewage water, are being planted in large amounts for export. “These crops are destroying wildlife habitats,” Hatzofe adds.
Although illegal hunting by Beduin in the Negev is a problem, it is not as big an issue as the loss of habitat, Hatzofe says.
“Hunting of animal species in Palestine during World War I resulted in animals like the [Syrian] brown bear and ostrich becoming extinct. Later, poisons like DDT and other chemicals were used a lot during the 1950s, and these were disastrous to wildlife,” he says.
Birds and mammals are not the only creatures to be affected by human encroachment on wildlife environments. Reptiles and amphibians have suffered a lot; and some species like the Hula painted frog, once common in the Hula Valley swamps, became extinct due to the draining of the Hula Valley during the 1950s. Certain reptiles, such as the Egyptian Nile crocodile, the European pond turtle and the Levant viper, also joined the extinct species list.
One species of turtle, the giant softshell turtle, is now found only in a few parts of Israel, most notably the Hula Valley Wildlife Reserve and on a small section of the Alexander Stream north of Netanya. Sharon Nissim, general manager of the Kishon River Authority, told Metro that giant softshell turtles are being reintroduced into the Kishon following an improvement in the water’s condition after a restoration campaign on this once heavily polluted stream. “Three softshell turtles from the Hula were released into the Kishon in a joint campaign between our Authority and the INPA. The move was to save the turtles that had become threatened at the Hula site and to try to restore them to the Kishon, where they had once flourished.”
She adds that many wildlife species have become threatened due to human interference in the animals’ environment by building roads and other projects that cut off parts of the animal habitats. “Animals don’t know that they now have to cross a roadway or some other obstacle to reach another part of their habitat,” she explains.
The good news: “Israel is a leader in wildlife conservation and protection. Our reserves and national parks are helping to preserve a lot of animal species. And many that were near extinction have been reintroduced,” says Hatzofe.
The INPA ecologist admits that real estate development “due to having to absorb such a large a number of immigrants” has been a big factor in loss of wildlife – as well as government budget considerations. We still have a very rich wildlife population in Israel. The main problems are loss of habitat and overdevelopment by large real estate projects,” Hatzofe says.