Night safaris in the Negev show Israel's diverse desert wildlife

“There is a whole world out here in the Negev Desert. When people think of the desert, they think it is something dead and lifeless."

For Dr. Haim Berger, jeep tours join different worlds together (photo credit: COURTESY HAIM BERGER)
For Dr. Haim Berger, jeep tours join different worlds together
(photo credit: COURTESY HAIM BERGER)
We are on a jeep, holding high-powered flashlights that reach a few meters into the dark. Suddenly, a pair of eyes shines in the blackness, catching the light of the flashlights. While it is not obvious at first what these eyes belong to, we watch the animal race through a field as our expert tour guide explains.
“It is a wolf,” pronounces Dr. Haim Berger, a licensed tour guide and zoologist who runs NegevJeep, a desert excursion tour company. As the lone wolf leaves our range of vision and disappears into the night, we continue to spotlight other desert animals out and about in the Negev highlands.
“This is what the night safari is all about,” Berger told the Magazine. “We all have the desire to explore, search and discover. When you see a wolf like this in its natural habitat, doing what wolves do, it is an eye-opening experience.”
Along with wolves, the night safari on that particular night also featured jackals, foxes, scorpions, a breathtaking herd of gazelles and a young fawn.
Lone wolf in the Negev (Courtesy Haim Berger)Lone wolf in the Negev (Courtesy Haim Berger)
Berger, who lives in Midreshet Ben-Gurion with his family, has been leading outdoor excursions, including the popular night safari, for nearly 20 years. His PhD from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev focused on the behavior of predators, and he is passionate about explaining the desert to visitors.
“There is a whole world out here in the Negev Desert. When people think of the desert, they think it is something dead and lifeless. Most think that there are just some beautiful views and that’s it.”
However, Berger emphasizes that the desert is teeming with life.
“While we don’t have elephants and lions roaming around like in Africa, people are still impressed to discover that there’s a lot going on in the Negev desert, especially at night,” he explained.
Each NegevJeep excursion highlights different kinds of wildlife, including both predators and prey that are active at night. Other night safaris can spotlight a completely different set of animals that include desert hares, jerboas (a hopping desert rodent), porcupines, snakes (from a safe distance), and even hyenas, a species that Berger is particularly partial to.
“It’s like going to the theater, except you don’t know what is going to appear on the desert stage during the tour,” commented Berger, who is just as interesting to talk with as the animals are to watch.
The jeep tours bring different worlds together for Berger, combining his research at the university, his enjoyment of teaching and providing an income.
As a child, he spent many hours exploring nature around Kfar Uriah, a moshav between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“I would go out exploring nature with my dad all the time. Animals were a big part of my ‘playground’ growing up,” he recalled. “Everything from snakes, mice and rodents of all kinds, in addition to the pets we had at home. We would just watch and observe.”
It might be surprising that as an expert with a PhD, Berger actually detested going to school as a child.
“I never thought I would return to higher studies after I finished with the high school matriculation exams. I never felt challenged at school and did not like the concept of formal education.”
But his post-army trip to Africa changed all that.
“My first safari was in Africa and I was blown away,” he recalled. Berger rented a jeep and drove around the nature reserves on his own, watching the lions and cheetahs for hours.
“I would watch how these predators would move, hunt, take care of their young. It was fascinating to watch the social dynamics of predators and how they often worked together to outsmart their food, even when exhausted from hunting.”
Lion prides and spotted hyenas especially drew his attention.
“Hyenas are fascinating creatures, but The Lion King movie did some terrible PR damage to this species. The female often leads the group and decides who to mate with. The hyena is a great symbol of feminism,” he said as an afterthought.
(In Israel, hyenas are striped and solitary, unlike their spotted African counterparts who live together in tight-knit clans).
Group visit to Ein Akev spring (Credit: Courtesy Haim Berger)Group visit to Ein Akev spring (Credit: Courtesy Haim Berger)
UPON HIS return to Israel, Berger realized that in order to be outside spending time researching animals and wildlife, he had to pursue university studies.
“It was a pretty difficult adjustment, but once I got through the biology, physics and difficult beginner courses at Ben-Gurion University, I met a professor with whom I could really connect. He became a mentor for me.”
That professor was the late Amotz Zahavi, an evolutionary biologist and co-founder of SPNI (Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel), whom Berger describes as coming to class wearing shorts and sunglasses.
Dressed for the outdoors, Zahavi was just the kind of academic Berger was looking for. Once he completed Zahavi’s course, he joined his professor at his research station at Hatzeva that is devoted to researching a bird called the Arabian babbler.
“Doing research outside in the desert gave me the motivation to continue studying. Once you have the drive for something, you can ultimately do anything,” commented Berger.
One animal that he enjoys discussing is the leopard, which he has seen himself while doing research. In 2000, Berger was able to capture video footage in Ein Gedi of the fleeting leopard with its kill, an ibex. He believes it to be the only such footage of an Israeli leopard hunting, and has made it available on YouTube.
“It was right before our wedding, and Tamar, my wife-to-be, was with me at the time. We were so excited for the opportunity to see the leopard together. It was the best wedding gift I could have asked for,” he joked.
He also recalled a time in 2007 when a leopard entered his community of Midreshet Ben-Gurion.
“He was hungry, weak and limping and was wandering around, looking for easy prey. Eventually, he entered a home, on the hunt after a house cat that went inside. The owner woke up to see the leopard in his bedroom and caught him barehanded,” Berger described.
The malnourished feline was handed over to the Nature and Parks Authority. It spent its last years in the Hai Bar Nature Reserve in Yotvata. Berger believes that it was the same leopard he saw in Ein Gedi, which had also limped and shared the same-sized paw.
In addition to the jeep tours, Berger also manages an educational center in Midreshet Ben-Gurion devoted to snakes and other species of the Negev Desert, which was originally set up by the Sde Boker Field School and is now called Snake Park. Berger offers guided visits of the center, which includes zoological collections, a live snake exhibition and video screening. He often starts his desert excursions at the educational center before taking visitors out on the jeeps.
Berger introduces a youngster to a wriggling friend at the Educational Center for Snakes and Other Species (Credit: Anav Silverman Peretz)Berger introduces a youngster to a wriggling friend at the Educational Center for Snakes and Other Species (Credit: Anav Silverman Peretz)
Recently, Avner, a nine-year-old boy from Holon who took part in a desert excursion with Berger during a family vacation, was very excited to be able to hold a snake at the center.
“I love snakes! It is so cool to actually hold the California kingsnake!” Avner exclaimed after Berger carefully handed him the black and white banded snake to hold. Avner knew a lot about snakes and the desert environment but conceded that he had much to learn from Berger.
“Until the coronavirus, 60% of the visitors on my tours were from abroad. For the past six months, all my visitors have been from Israel,” commented Berger after the tour with Avner’s family.
Throughout July and August, Berger has led a safari almost every night, while also conducting desert tours for groups during the day that include visits to natural water springs.
“My mission is to make people aware that there are animals out here and that we need to do everything possible to preserve the wildlife in the Negev,” he concluded. “Now that Israelis are spending vacation time in Israel and are looking for unique experiences in nature, the night safari is a great way to experience what we actually have here in Israel.”  
For more information about NegevJeep safaris and desert excursions, call Dr. Haim Berger at 054-534-3797 or email [email protected]
The writer immigrated to Israel from Maine in 2004. She lives in Yeruham with her family and works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion.