IDF, parks authority butt heads over grazing animals

On several army bases in Israel, a touch of the wild can be found. Not far from young conscripts marching in dusty uniforms, kudu, eland, oryx and other antelope, red deer and wild sheep graze in open areas. Over the past 20 years these natural grazers, most of them from Africa, have been sent to Israeli army bases as part of a project aimed at restoring natural vegetation and reducing brush which in turn prevents wildfires. The animals were initially sent to the bases by Israeli zoos and petting farms that no longer had room for them. Their presence eliminates brush without the need for herbicides, which could contaminate ground water and damage vegetation. But the project, possibly the only one of its kind in Israel, may be in danger following a dispute between the army and the Ministry of Agriculture over the ministry's new guidelines, which call for some 1,000 animals to be vaccinated annually and given blood tests. The ministry says the issue is about preventing disease and overpopulation. "The outbreak of diseases among animals can create an emergency situation," ministry spokeswoman Dafna Yorista wrote in a statement. Army officials argue that no animals on their bases have become ill and that vaccinating wild animals could be dangerous to their health. "It goes against standard procedure in the rest of the world. It is not good for the animals. No one benefits from it." said Maj. Ofir Cohen, head of the army's office in charge of grazing animals. But Roni King, a veterinarian for the Israeli Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, said that while it is difficult to do the vaccinations, they do not pose a threat to the animals. Rounding up the animals can be a challenge, King said. Such an operation involves being able to tranquilize an animal, take blood samples and administer the immunizations or contraception. It is not clear whether the project will be shut down if the army deems the guidelines too difficult to implement. Roni Malka, head of the parks authority's law enforcement division, said that in recent years the animal population on the army bases has increased and may even outgrow the bases. It is important regardless, he said, that the animals be vaccinated against illnesses such as hoof-and-mouth disease. Possible solutions to reduce the animal population include separating male and females. "There are options when it comes to breeding control, there is not necessarily a need to put the animals down outright," he said. Using grazing animals in settings such as urban lots and fields is not a new concept. In the United States, Africa and Australia, grazing has been reintroduced to restore grasslands and minimize the growth of invasive plants including brush. Grazing is also known for increasing the diversity of habitats, and for encouraging the growth of new plants including wild flowers and native grasses. King said that the animals, because they are not native to Israel, should possibly not be on the bases at all. The bases are not zoos, he said, where the animals' well-being can be supervised. If the bases want to control brush fire, they should take domesticated animals like sheep and goats to graze. "For the welfare of the animals it is not right to just put them in the army camps - it is not the way to deal with animals because you cannot control them there," he said. (JTA)