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Pollution in a Promised Land An Environmental History of Israel

Read Chapter 6

6. A General Launches a War for Wildlife

It was a brisk winter's morning on the old Eilat-Beer Sheva highway in February 1959. Avinoam "Finky" Finkleman was doing his daily run, driving the truck from Kibbutz Yotvata's dairy to the north of Israel. As he approached the Nahal Chayon stream bed, a large animal meandered across the road. From a distance Finkleman thought it might be a monkey. As he got closer, it appeared to be a very large dog. The animal began sprinting alongside the truck at the astonishing speed of eighty kilometers per hour. After driving for about two kilometers, Finkleman braked to a stop, and the animal climbed atop a nearby hillside to look the driver over. Finkleman admired his speedy escort, identifying it as a large spotted cat. "Must be a leopard," he though.

Every kibbutz has at least one nature fanatic, and Giora Ilani was the resident expert at Yotvata in those days. He seated Finkleman in front of a police lineup. The identification was definitive: What Finkleman had seen was no leopard. Its head was too short, its forehead too high, its body too sinewy and "grehoundlike," and its tail too bushy. The animal was a cheetah. The location also supported the classification. The highway cuts across a wide-open plain that is a favorite grazing area for gazelles. Leopards and most other large cats are not fast enough to catch them, but cheetahs are. That cheetah wast he last wild cheetah ever seen in Israel.

During the nineteenth century, zoologists visiting Israel reported that cheetahs were more common than the leopards that prowled throughout the wooded and rocky desert regions. Like many African species that migrated north, they thrived on the 128 species of mammals and the disinterest of a dispersed human population that rarely ventured into the wild. But all that changed with the advent of accurate firearms and the population explosion that Zionism spawned. By midcentury, only 400 dorcas gazelles remained of the herds that had once covered the plains of the Negev. The ibex was so rare that the only specimen available for years was a taxidermy artifact. As the immutable laws of all food chains decree, the predators were soon to follow.

The body count is long and discouraging. In 1966 a dead ostrich was washed onto the edge of the Dead Sea during a flash flood. Although in recent times several Israeli farms have been raising the big bird commercially, it is not the indigenous subspecies; none of those remain. When the first Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century, its skies were filled with thousands of imposing vultures and birds of prey that cleaned the land of debris. Pesticides have ravaged almost all thirty-nine of these raptor species, and only a handful of the majestic lappet-faced vultures can be found in Israel today. They are confined to pens as scientists try to coax a few fertile eggs from them. A 1996 study summarized the damage to the breeding avian population at fourteen extinctions, with fifty-eight species presently threatened. When the Huleh Valley was drained, several fish species disappeared forever. In this way an eclectic collection of reptiles, deer, bats, bear, birds, and other long-term residents of the land of Israel has quietly vanished.

Israel's twenty-six hundred plant species (including 130 that are endemic only to Israel) and almost 700 vertebrates (including 454 bird species) reflect a unique biological juncture where Africa meets Europe and Asia. By the 1960s, trends suggested that precious little would be left for such biodiversity. The mighty thrust of Zionist progress was too great for the vulnerable creatures in the land. When the Knesset established the Nature Reserves Authority (NRA) to serve as an independent agency, its members were uncharacteristically pessimistic. With the pace and pattern of Israel's development, many simply felt that "it was too late." But it was not.

The Zionist vision from the Diaspora had no clear concept of the Jewish relationship to the other creatures that called Israel a homeland. Herzl's conception of Palestine's biodiveristy was completely theoretical and not particularly friendly. In his manifesto, The Jewish State, he called for the clearing of wild beasts in the new country by "driving the animals together, and throwing a melinite bomb into their midst."

The early settlers were less hostile. Among them were botanists and zoologists who catalogued the flora and fauna of their new land with a passion that was almost unparalleled. And the people of the Yishuv and in Israel quickly came to know and cherish their nonhuman neighbors. Tapping this affection, from 1963 the NRA began to spread a checkerboard network of lovely and diverse sanctuaries that now covers thousands of square kilometers. The National Master Plan for Parks and Nature Reserves approved by the government in 1981 envisions the eventual establishment of additional reserves and set aside a full 25 percent of Israel's land. (To date, 159 reserves on 575 million acres of land are formally protected, and an additional 373 reserves on 1.3 million acres are planned.) Real estate alone, however, does not convey the full picture.

The wildflowers that had begun to thin in the wake of Israelis' passion for springtime blossoms have made an astonishing comeback. Viper bites doubled in the 1960s after the Egyptian mongoose popluations fell victim to massive government-run poisonings, but today the ecological balance has been restored: The mongoose is back, and snake bites are down. In a land where neither Muslims nor Jews eat pork, there are more wild boars running around than anyone knows what to do with. Hawks, vultures, fallow deer, wild asses, and the elegant white oryx have all been successfully reintroduced to the wild. For thirty-five years the NRA has made a compelling case that human intervention with the natural world can be beneficial and that trend need not be destiny.