The Persian Fallow Deer Conservation Program
Photograph: Zoo Archives
Photograph: Zoo Archives
The Persian Fallow Deer (Dama dama mesopotamica) is mentioned in the Bible as one of the animals with cloven hooves that chews the cud. As such it is one of the seven animals mentioned in the Bible as permissible to eat (Deut.14:5). The Bible also reports that this meat was served at King Solomon’s table (1 Kings. 4:23). Archaeological finds in the Carmel region support this account by proving that it was a popular food source during that time. An English researcher called Tristram observed and reported sightings of Persian Fallow Deer in 1863 on the road from Tiberias to Haifa, and again in 1866 at Tabor and the Upper Galilee. The Carmel region was a refuge for the species which had vanished from other parts of the area until the beginning of the 20th Century. However, increasing use of firearms and the use of poisons in agriculture, led to their extinction in the Carmel at the end of the 19th Century. Their horns could still be bought in the bazaars in Jerusalem and in Jordan in the early 1920’s.
Persian Fallow Deer were formerly found in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and eastern Turkey. By 1875, their range was restricted to southwestern and western Iran, having disappeared elsewhere. Habitat destruction of tamarisk, oak and pistachio woodlands have contributed to its population decline. Since the Mesopotamian fallow deer is a primary consumer in its ecosystem, it is negatively affected by the destruction of the habitat that supports the primary producers on which it feeds. The decline of the deer’s habitat is also likely to have contributed to increased pressure from predators due to the loss of dense areas that can be used as a refuge from predators as has been noted in similar deer species. However, the primary historical pressure on the Persian fallow deer has been human hunting. The species, thought to be extinct by the 1940s, was subsequently rediscovered as a population of approximately 25 individuals in the Khuzestan Province in Iran in 1956. Baron Von Opel of Germany financed a 1957-1958 zoological expedition to the Khuzestan region and the species was saved from complete extinction.On December 8th, 1978, before the commencement of the Iranian Islamic revolution, four female Persian Fallow Deer were brought to Israel from Iran in a special operation funded by the Shah of Iran’s brother. These females, together with males that had been previously brought to the country, were released in the Hai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA). This became the basis for the growth and development of Persian Fallow Deer in Israel.
Persian Fallow Deer are nearly extinct today, with probably the only wild populations remaining in Israel. They are bred in zoos and parks Israel, Germany and elsewhere today. Since 1996 they have been gradually and successfully reintroduced from a breeding center in the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. The first reintroduction efforts of Persian Fallow Deer into the wild in Israel occurred at the Kziv Stream Nature Reserve in the western Galilee and today there are more than 200 deer in that area, making it the worlds' largest wild herd. In recent years, the Biblical Zoo and the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) initiated a second reintroduction project, this time in the Jerusalem hills. The rationale behind the second project is to create a second, separate wild population that will instigate higher genetic variation among the wild deer and reduce the chance of an unexpected event (for example, disease) decimating the whole wild population. The area that was chosen for the project is situated within a nature reserve, amidst dense vegetation and with readily available water sources. Many deer have been released and reports have been received of spotted deer in the Ramat Raziel, Kiryat Ye'arim, Zur Hadassah, Ein Karem, Sataf, and Mt. Eithan areas.
The reintroduction sites include a fenced reserve area and an acclimatization area constructed with the support of the Israeli Friends of the Zoo Association and the Zoo's Prof. Shulov Fund for the Study of Animals in Captivity. After a brief period of acclimatization the animals are released having been fitted with radio-telemetry transmitters for tracking and research purposes. The Zoo's staff is also involved in the daily tracking of the reintroduced deer, together with INNPPA rangers and students from the Ecology, Systematics and Evolution Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The tracking devices were donated by Elbit Imaging Systems and are fitted on special collars placed on the deer. This tracking allows us to collect data about the survival of the deer and learn about their behavior in the wild – very valuable information because of the rarity of this species in the world.
Although this project has experienced the unforeseen problems of animal loss due to feral dog attacks and railway accidents, it has proven to be successful overall - proving that species can be brought back from the brink of extinction. This reintroduction program is a long-term conservation project aimed at re-establishing this historically significant species in the wild and impacting other local species through habitat preservation and improved community attitudes.