israel nature conservation

“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 – Return to the Wild

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.

Returning to the Wild - The Griffon Vulture

Vultures are mentioned in the Bible many times, usually as a symbol of splendor and power. The Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) is the largest raptor in Israel and plays an important role in the food web. In the past, the vulture was common in large areas throughout Israel, but today it is in regional danger of extinction.

Most birds of prey are endangered, with some species having become completely extinct. The main threats to their existence are poisoning, habitat destruction, nesting disruption, hunting, electrocution from high voltage lines and theft of eggs and chicks. To deal with the situation and strengthen the species, a joint venture was created by the Nature Reserves Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature, and the Israel Electric Corporation. Today, more organizations and institutions, such as zoos, veterinary centers, and other civilian and military bodies, have joined the venture. The Biblical Zoo contributes a lot to the cause. The zoo’s National Center for Raptor Egg Incubation was opened in 1998. The center facilitates a large number of projects: it focuses mainly on the Griffon vulture project, however eggs of other species such as the Lesser kestrel, Bonelli’s eagle, Egyptian vulture, White-tailed eagleת and Lappet-faced vulture have been incubated at the center over the years.

During nesting season, vulture eggs are collected from zoos and breeding centers as well as from nesting areas in the wild (because the chances of hatching and the rate of reproduction in the wild are very small) and brought to the incubation center. Incubation is done under optimal conditions to ensure successful hatching. Another reason for the success of the project is the close cooperation between the various organizations.

Once the chicks hatch, they are transferred to adoptive parents in the birds of prey aviary. In the absence of available adoptive parents, the chicks are raised by hand feeding while maintaining careful work to prevent imprinting (Imprinting is the process of the chick identifying the first moving thing it sees as its mother). The chicks are then transferred to the Nature Reserve Authority's acclimation cages and then released into the wild.

Returning to the wild of the Ferruginous duck

The Ferruginous duck is a duck that's chestnut brown. The males have a white eye and therefore are called also the white-eyed duck. They feed mainly on vegetation from the water but also from small insects and fish, which they catch when diving into the water, down to depths of ten meters. Their distribution regions include aquatic areas with lots of vegetation. Most of the nesting is done shrubs or on the banks of water. Their nesting regions spread from Southern and Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and they are considered migrant birds. In the winter, they form large groups and at times together with other kinds of ducks.

The Ferruginous duck is in danger because of destruction of their habitat which include shallow pools of water that are surrounded by rich vegetation. These habitats are threatened by many causes, among them dehydration, destruction and burning of vegetation, covering of bodies of freshwater and edges of fishponds, invading species, hunting, and interruption of nesting by fishing boats that cause abandonment of the nest.

The species population is declining, and in Europe, there has even been a decline of about 20% percent in 8 countries. The species is found in small numbers in several countries in the Middle East. In the Red Book of Species, the species is listed under the definition of "close to threat." Although it is listed as a protected species in fifteen European countries and as a species protected from hunting in six other countries, it has not received sufficient international attention. At the national level, a number of countries are actually working to preserve the species, for example in Bulgaria, there is an attempt to preserve the habitats of the ferruginous duck, while in Italy there is a plan to return them to the wild.

These ducks have disappeared from the wild in Israel as nesters, due to the destruction of aquatic habitats. In 2010, the Biblical Zoo began a breeding program with a breeding nucleus of four ducks arriving from a zoo in France. In the last two years, a pilot of returning to wild has begun, with the release of nine individuals to the zoo’s water fowl lake. Although the ducks were released, they chose to remain in the lake (probably due to the accessibility to food).

Last June, 21 eggs hatched. The chicks were left with their parents until mid-October, when they were marked with a special mark on the beak ahead of their release into the wild. Birds are usually marked on the foot with identification rings that help researchers and ecologists track their condition, but in the case of ferruginous ducks, the identification ring is not suitable, because their legs stay underwater most of the time. Therefore, a special method of marking with a special ring on the beak was developed in Portugal. The ring is customized for each duck and is tied with a special nylon thread to the beak. The ring does not interfere with the duck in any daily activity, such as breeding or eating. The ring is readable remotely and reduces the need for the catching the ducks. They are very sensitive to pressure and can easily suffer a heart attack. Zoo staff work according to a fast and special protocol designed to minimize the need for stressful contact with the ducks.

Returning to the wild of the Egyptian tortoise, or the Negev tortoise

One of the smallest tortoise species in the world is the Negev tortoise or desert land tortoise (Testudo werneri). It is a subspecies of the desert turtle, which is in serious danger of extinction.

Its distribution is very limited to sandy desert areas in northern Egypt and Sinai, as well as in Israel’s Negev. The turtles are completely vegetarian. Negev tortoises, unlike other turtles, do not go into winter hibernation and take advantage of the rainy season for breeding, so the young turtles have plenty of nutrition before the dry summer season arrives. The female lays between one to three eggs in a shallow pit that she digs.

The main threats to the species are habitat destruction due to the construction of the IDF's Baha'i city and other training areas, terrain vehicles that harm turtles and eggs, invasive species, and sand mining. The Biblical Zoo is leading a long-term conservation program that includes genetic research, field research, and the establishment of a breeding center for Negev tortoises in the Small Animals House. An experimental return to the wild program began in the Negev in preparation for a wider program of this kind. Individuals that hatched at the zoo were sent to various zoos in Israel and around the world in order to establish additional breeding centers.

Returning to the wild of the Eurasian otter

The common otter (Lutra Lutra), also known as the Eurasian otter, is a species of mammal that lives in close proximity to streams and freshwater bodies. The population in the country has shrunk dramatically since the 1960s due to illegal hunting, pollution, drying and destruction of habitats such as streams, swamps, and freshwater bodies. The Israeli otter was recently classified as critically endangered.

A comparison of mammal surveys from 2012 and 2009 indicates that the otter population in the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee region is stable, the population in the Beit She'an Valley is declining, while in the rest of the country populations have completely disappeared.

Further research is needed to understand in depth the reasons for the extinction of the otters. Additionally, there should be examination of how to increase the chances of otter survival and what are the suitable areas for future return to the wild.

Our zoo has adopted the otter as a 'flagship species' to raise awareness of the various problems of moist habitats (around freshwater bodies and streams). In partnership with the Nature Reserves Authority, a breeding nucleus for the common otter was established several years ago. A genetic study conducted on four subpopulations (Galilee, Golan, Hula and Harod) found that some of the genetic characteristics of the Israeli otter are unique only to that species and are not found in the European population. For this reason, it was decided that the reproductive nucleus would be based on individuals that would be brought from the wild, and their offspring would be able to be released in the process of returning to the wild.

Returning to the wild of the lesser kestrel

This species is in danger of extinction due to the destruction of its habitat, damage to nesting sites (sometimes within cities) and use of pesticides. In Israel, the lesser kestrel has adapted to life in urban areas, nesting in old buildings and in urban parks. Destruction of old buildings and the growth of cities at the expense of green spaces severely harm the species. The lesser kestrel populations in Israel are shrinking, as in the rest of the world. Today, the lesser kestrel is defined as a vulnerable species by the Red Book of Endangered Animals in Israel and around the world. To help preserve this species, the Biblical Zoo is affiliated with organizations such as the Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature, as well as other zoos and academic institutions in the country.

The zoo has funded research on the species, and the zoo’s National Center for Raptor Egg Incubation incubates lesser kestrel eggs. The hatched chicks are raised by hand and released at the end of their rearing period back to the wild. Additionally, every year a number of injured lesser kestrels or chicks that have prematurely bloomed from the nest arrive at the zoo. These individuals are treated at the zoo and after their rehabilitation are also released into the wild! This exhibit houses a breeding nucleus, whose descendants will also return to the wild in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. The display was built as a facade of a house in the Morasha neighborhood, which used to be a central nesting area for the lesser kestrels in Jerusalem, but with city growth and the hunting areas moving away from the city, the lesser kestrels have disappeared from it.

This is a very herd type species. Nesting colonies can number up to a hundred pair, while sleeping colonies can number thousands of individuals. The main food of the lesser kestrel - insects and small vertebrates.

Returning to the wild of the white oryx or Arabian oryx

The Arabian oryx is in danger of extinction. It is hunted because of its horns and its flesh. The last one was hunted in the wild by illegal hunters in 1972. Fortunately, an attempt was made to establish breeding nuclei in the 1950s, and in 1962, some individuals were sent to the zoo in Phoenix Arizona, USA. The climate there is very similar to their natural habitat.

There is a population in captivity of over 600 individuals, and the process of returning to the wild in Oman and Jordan has already begun, under supervision. Additionally, there are over 300 individuals released in Oman and 100 in Saudi Arabia in a protected reserve and in nature. At the Biblical Zoo, there is a herd of oryx that serves as a nucleus of conservation and reproduction. Our herd of Arabian oryx came from the Yotvata wildlife preserve. You can see them at the African Yard.

In the Yotvata preserve, a return to the wild program is being implemented, as part of which a number of individuals have been released in the Arava area by the Nature Reserves and Parks Authority.

Conservation group of the Arabian toothcarp

The Arabian toothcarp, which live only in the springs near the Dead Sea, are unique in the world and are in serious danger of extinction due to the difficult condition of the Dead Sea and due to the destruction of their natural habitat. Research activities, the establishment of a breeding nucleus at the "Wet Side Story" exhibit, and the restoration of a habitat in the Neot HaKikar area are part of the activities that the Biblical Zoo is conducting to save these fish from extinction, at the only place in the world where they exist!

Conservationgroup of the deep-sea blind shrimp

Inan underground pool of water in Tabha in the north of the Sea ofGalilee lives a unique and endemic species (lives only in this place) of ashrimp called Somit Hagalil, or the blind shrimp. The blind shrimp (Typhlocaris Galilea) is a species of crustacean first described by scientists in 1909. Today, the species is in serious danger of extinction due to threats to theironly habitat, the Ein-Nur pond, mainly due to pumping and drilling that caused water from other water sources to enter the isolated pond and change the composition of salts and temperature in the water.

5/16/2021
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