“Flee, my beloved, and liken yourself to a gazelle or to a fawn of the hinds on the spice mountains." Song of Songs, Chapter 8, Verse 14
The Persian fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica) appears in the bible as one of the animals which has split hooves and chews its cud, and as such it is listed as one of the seven animals which are permitted for eating. (Deuteronomy, 14:5). In the bible, although orally recounted, the flesh of the deer is served upon King Solomon’s table. (Kings, 1, 2, 3) Archeological finds found at Carmel support this hypothesis and prove that the flesh of the deer was a common food source during that period. The English researcher Tristram reported that he observed fallow deer on his journey from Tiberias to Haifa in 1863, as well as at Mount Tabor and the Upper Galilee in 1866. The green and forested mountains of the Carmel served as a refuge for fallow deer, as it did for other species, until the beginning of the 20th Century. Then, the deer became extinct as a result of deforestation (as the trees were used for coal and heat), and due to use of various types of pesticides. Until about 1920, deer antlers were available for purchase at markets in Jerusalem and Jordan.
The Persian fallow deer has previously been found in Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Eastern Turkey. In 1875, the fallow deer became extinct from the entire region, except for Western and Southern Iran. The deer, considered extinct in 1940, were discovered “anew” in 1956 in a population of roughly 25 individuals in the Khuzestan Province of Iran. German Baron Von Opel financed a zoological delegation in 1957-58, which departed to Iran to observe the fallow deer, and thus this beautiful species was saved from extinction.
On December 8, 1978, on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, four female fallow deer were airlifted from Iran to Israel. They had been connected to males which were previously transferred to Israel. The airlifting operation was a symbol of friendship between the Persian Sheikh’s brother and the staff at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The entire group was released into the Carmel Hai Bar Nature Reserve by the Nature and Parks Authority. The was the original group of fallow deer from which expanded into Israel’s Persian fallow deer breeding nucleus.
The Persian fallow deer is still endangered of extinction today. It inhabits three small habitats in Iran, and in Israel it is found in the wild in the upper Galilee and in the Jerusalem mountain region. Today, the fallow deer is breeding at zoos in Iran, Israel, and Germany. Since 1996, deer from the breeding group at the Biblical Zoo have been successfully transferred to nature reserves in partnership with the Nature and Parks Authority. The first initiative of returning the fallow deer to the wild was done at the Kziv River in the Western Galilee. Today, roughly 200 fallow deer live among the green valleys and brush of the area. This is the world’s largest herd of Persian fallow deer in the wild. In recent years, the Biblical Zoo, in partnership with the Nature and Park Authority, has begun an additional initiative of returning the deer to the wild, this time in the hills of Jerusalem. The rationale behind this initiative is to create an additional and separate population of fallow deer in the wild in Israel. Thus, the genetic diversity will increase, a fact which will prevent the entire population from potential harm in the event of an extreme situation, such as illness. The area chosen for this initiative is in the Jerusalem hills at the Soreq River. The mountainous area is full of vegetation and accessible water sources for the fallow deer. Dozens of deer have been released to wild thus far at this location. Hikers and cyclists have reported deer sightings among the brush in the neighborhoods of Tzur Hadassah, Kiryat Yearim, Ramat Raziel, and Har Eitan.
Regions for releasing to the wild include an enclosed area which serves as an acclimation corral for the deer. The corral was built with the support of the Friends of the Biblical Zoo and the Aharon Shulov Fund for Research on Animals in Captivity. After a brief period of acclimation in the corral, the deer are released to the wild and outfitted with transmitters to enable their monitoring for research purposes. Zoo staff continues to monitor the deer, together with inspectors from the Nature and Parks Authority and students from the Ecology, Systematics, and Evolution Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Monitoring methods were donated by Elbit Imaging Systems and were installed on special collars fitted for the necks of the deer. The transmitters enable us to gather information on the deer’s survival and on their behavior in the wild. This information is very important, given that these deer are very rare throughout the world.
The Biblical Zoo and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have partnered on an additional and similar initiative, this time in the Judean hills. The benefit of this additional initiative is the creation of a separate deer population, which enables the protection of a wider genetic range and reduces the risk of extinction in the event of a major blow, such as disease. The location chosen is a nature reserve and includes vegetation and water sources. In 2003, construction of an acclimation enclosure began, thanks to monies budgeted for it by the Aharon Shulov Fund, named in memory of Professor Shulov, founder of the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, and also by the Zoo’s friend organization. In 2005, with completed construction of the Israel Railways in the area, the first deer were transferred to the enclosure. In summer 2005, the first group of deer was released to the wild in the hills of Jerusalem, and since then, additional groups have been released.
In 2015, estimates numbered released deer in Jerusalem at 50. Some of them were outfitted with transmitters in order to enable tracking of their acclimation to their new environment. The tracking is done by zoo staff and representatives from the Nature Authority. The initiative continues its work with the aim of creating a sustainable fallow deer population in the region.