One of the most difficult missions faced by nature preservation organizations in small, crowded countries is to ensure the existence of wild animals in nature without human intervention. In Israel, the Nature and Parks Authority has succeeded in maintaining the survival of many wild animals, but for many others, such as the wolves on the Golan Heights, the organization is no longer capable of protecting them without incessant intervention in their way of life.
In the first four months of this year, 11 wolves were shot on the Golan Heights by cattle breeders, with the permission of the Nature and Parks Authority. If this rate of killing continues, nearly a third of all the adult wolves on the Golan Heights will be killed by the end of the year. And this is only part of the damage, as wolves die also from poisoning, being run over by vehicles and sickness.
The sanctioned shooting is not the result of a sudden decision by the nature authorities. It is part of a new strategy, intended to make the existence of a stable population of wolves on the Golan Heights possible, alongside the agricultural development of settlements there. One of the tactics here is thinning out the wolf population.
In the 1990s, any calves were attacked and devoured by wolves, and the cattle breeders demanded a large-scale dilution of the wolf population. The nature conservation organizations retorted that the wolf is a unique creature and that thorough research had to be undertaken before making decisions affecting its fate.
The Nature and Parks Authority conducted a study from 1998 to 2001, one of the most comprehensive of its kind ever done in Israel. Its central conclusion is that there is a highly stable population of wolves on the Golan Heights (nearly 100 adults), which can be thinned out. The researchers also said the process of reducing the wolf population should be carried out in several areas of the Golan Heights. In the southern Golan, far-reaching intervention could be undertaken by shooting or otherwise killing young wolves.
This policy is intended not only to protect cattle breeders but also to enable the wolf population in the southern Golan to recover. The number of deer in that region has declined in the past nine years from 3,000 to fewer than 400. Wolves prey heavily on deer and thus jeopardize their existence.
Even though the thinning strategy rests on a scientific foundation, it raises questions. One of them concerns the degree to which the authority is working to implement the demands of the Golan Heights settlers, including the improvement of methods to protect herds of cattle and the proper maintenance of these methods. There is also an urgent need to prevent the phenomenon of discarding large amounts of food at refuse sites. This enables predator populations to develop on a basis other than the food available to them in nature. The increase of the predators causes friction with cattle breeders and imperils the deer population.
The Nature and Parks Authority should take into account that its new policy of thinning the wolf population is liable to place the wolves in danger of extinction. If that happens, it will be very difficult to reverse the process. The authority's calculations about the wolves' staying power are based in part on forecasts of the growth of the wolf population, which could be wrong or inaccurate.
The authority is aware of this danger, and therefore the director of the study, Alon Reichman, recommended that the wolves be monitored to detect changes in their population at an early stage. He also recommended the improvement of the sanitation on the Golan Heights (treating the refuse sites) and protection for cattle. However, implementing these recommendations is likely to run into difficulties due to the authority's meager organizational and financial means. Additional problems are also likely to arise in long-term scientific monitoring and in running an enforcement system that will restrict the breeders to the shooting conditions laid down by the authority and bring about better protection for the cattle.
The test that the Nature and Parks Authority faces in regard to safeguarding the wolf population on the Golan Heights reflects a more general problem that relates to the preservation of nature throughout the country. If funding is not found for continued investment in research about wolves and for monitoring them, the future of the wolves on the Golan Heights will be seriously imperiled. The howls that Reichman heard night after night, in some cases from several flocks at once, will gradually fade and vanish.
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