Researchers lay out plan to save endangered biblical gazelle

Rapid human expansion in the past 200 years has taken a heavy toll on Israel's gazelle population.

Mountain gazelle looking at a highway intersection, Jerusalem mountains, Israel (photo credit: AMIR BALABAN)
Mountain gazelle looking at a highway intersection, Jerusalem mountains, Israel
(photo credit: AMIR BALABAN)
“When the day blows gently, And the shadows flee, Set out, my beloved, Swift as a gazelle, Or a young stag, For the hills of spices!” reads a verse in Song of Songs, a powerful celebration of love that is traditionally read as an allegory of the connection between the people of Israel and God (translation Sefaria.org).
Indeed, for millennia, mountain gazelles have roamed freely around the land, with their graceful slender bodies and their dark gaze becoming an integral part of its ancient landscapes. But Israeli researchers have raised an alarm about their survival and are proposing a comprehensive plan to protect them.
With about 5,000 gazelles, Israel has remained the last stronghold of the species once common all over the so-called Levant, including northern Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, according to a paper published in Oryx – The International Journal of Conservation on Wednesday.
“The mountain gazelle – which in Hebrew is called ‘tzvi Eretz Yisrael,’ the gazelle of the Land of Israel – is one of the three species of gazelles living in the country,” Dr. Uri Roll, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and co-author of the paper, told The Jerusalem Post. “It is slightly more adapted to mountainous areas, while usually gazelles live in flat areas.”
Archaeological evidence of the gazelles’ presence dating back thousands of years recurrently emerged, reinforcing the deep connection between this species and the land. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible. A verse of the Book of Daniel even calls Israel Eretz Hatzvi, even though most commentators agree that in this instance, tzvi should not be translated as gazelle, but rather as glory or splendor.
“For many animals and plants in the Bible, we cannot really be sure that they are the same as today,” Roll said. “For gazelles, however, we are more confident for several reasons: They are actually not only mentioned but also described in the Bible, and the description fits the species that we know. Moreover, the name has remained the same also in Arabic.”
Rapid human expansion in the past 200 years has taken a heavy toll on the population, as gazelles require vast areas of land to prosper and their habitat has progressively and dramatically shrunk and been invaded or fragmented by urban development, he said.
“Gazelles feel trapped very easily,” Roll said. “They need large swaths of land, and they have become very scarce, specifically in the central part of Israel and along the coastal plain. So instead of having one large area with 1,500 to 2,000 gazelles that can move in between and breed, they are confined in de facto encaged areas.”
An example of this process can be found in the Gazelle Park in Jerusalem, where gazelles previously in the wild have found themselves living in an area surrounded by new neighborhoods.
This fragmentation has led to highly detrimental consequences, Roll said.
“They lose the ability to exchange genes with one another, and also the interactions with humans are problematic,” he said. “Dogs chase them, they get hit by cars and so on.”
Illegal poaching also constitutes a threat, Roll said.
“Moreover, in Israel we are not very good at taking care of our trash, which is often abandoned in nature and in semi-regulated dumpsters,” he said. “This increases the numbers of predators, such as jackals. These animals chase gazelles and especially their young.”
“There are several courses of action that need to be taken in order to help gazelles and several species,” Roll said. “As far as fragmentation goes, something that has already started and needs to be done even more is building over- and underpasses around highways. Where this is not possible, it is advisable to check the genetic makeup of small populations and transfer individuals if needed.”
“In the more holistic approach, Israel needs to have a general plan for the future, incorporate large passages and large swaths of lands that will enable animals to roam freely between regions,” he said. “Some areas that still allow gazelles to move between the North and the South coastal plains are been developed rapidly to the point where such movements will no longer be possible. Steps need to be taken immediately if we want our land to continue to include this animal that we are called after.”
In working to save its gazelles, Israel could be able to provide important lessons to the world, Roll said.
“We are talking about a particular species in a particular country,” he said. “But when we look at the rest of our planet and at the human population increase, we think that our story will become more and more relevant in other places. Potentially, what we learn here will be helpful to others.”