Seeing ostriches roam freely in the Negev desert was one of the Israel Nature & National Parks Protection Authority's (INNPPA) most important missions. But their efforts toward this end have failed. A few weeks ago, the bones of four ostriches, remnants of the second group the INNPPA attempted to return to nature, were found in the Eilat mountains. The massive birds were apparently eaten by stray dogs or wolves that live in the Southern Arava desert.

The first, experimental reintroduction took place two years ago when 11 mostly young ostriches, up to a year and a half in age, were freed. Some of them were fitted with transmitters to make it possible to track them, but they all gradually vanished in the Negev and Arava deserts.

"Four of the ostriches died while trapped between the Israeli and Jordanian border," says Guy Alon, director of INNPPA's Eilat Region. "One ostrich was shot by an Egyptian soldier and another died of unknown causes. The remaining ostriches disappeared. It's possible that they wandered toward Egypt."

More than 30 years ago, the authority launched a program at the Hai Bar reserve in Kibbutz Yotvata reintroducing small groups of large animals, extinct in the region, to the wild. One of those groups, which then included several ostriches, now comprises 50 birds. Once common in the Negev, ostriches became extinct in the region in the 1920s as a result of widespread hunting. Ostriches now live in the wild only in Africa. Israel is the only nation in the world that has attempted to reintroduce them to the wild.

One of the main conclusions from the first attempt to free the birds was that the young ostriches lacked the vital knowledge to defend permanent territory. They therefore wandered vast distances and were exposed to greater danger. In light of these findings, the authority decided to free older birds, up to three years of age, in the hope that they would defend permanent territory closer to the region, making it possible to track and protect them if necessary.

In that second reintroduction attempt, six months ago, four ostriches fitted with transmitters were freed, and the birds were tracked for several weeks. "We were optimistic and we thought we were headed in the right direction," Alon said. "But then they disappeared and only later we received reports that they were spotted in a place called Nahal Seifim. When we arrived there, we found remains of their carcasses and footprints and blood stains that led us to believe that they were eaten by dogs or wolves."

The INNPPA has decided to temporarily halt the ostrich reintroduction program because of the failed attempts. But Alon says the authority intends to try again in the future. "We have to rethink how to continue because we want to see the ostrich return to nature in Israel. In the first phase of future experiments, we will probably have to transfer the ostriches to a closed compound and let the first generation grow and become accustomed to that site so that they won't scatter. I hope that we will be able to collaborate with Jordan and Egypt to ensure that the ostriches can live in a broader range."