rehovot - Daniel Bar-On - June 10 2011
LAST CHANCE TO SEE? Construction work encroaching on sand dunes in Rehovot. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Israel's coastal sand dunes are disappearing rapidly due to development, threatening the habitats of many rare species of plants and animals and destroying unique geological formations.

The dunes are made up of ridges of calcareous sandstone known as kurkar, interspersed with red, sandy loam, or hamra.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is calling for a comprehensive plan that would give some of the remaining areas protected status under the law. According to a report issued by the organization this week, less than one percent of the original hamra deposits have retained their pristine nature, untouched by either developers or farmers.

Until the early 20th century, there were 285 square kilometers of kurkar and hamra formations, from the Galilee in the north to Gaza in the south. But construction has reduced that to just 109 square kilometers.

Studies conducted in recent years revealed that nine species of wild plants found only in Israel, including the coastal iris (Iris atropurpurea ), live in kurkar and hamra formations. Researchers also discovered hundreds of species of wild bees in these areas, including a number of previously unknown species.

Because so many of the surrounding areas have been built up, the remaining areas have become a refuge for many wild animals that failed to thrive in urban areas and which now face extinction. The kurkar ridges, for example, provide nesting sites for the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster ). This endangered species of bird nests in the sandy banks. They feed on bees that they carry to the rocks and smash against it. The birds then rub their bellies on the bees to remove the stinger and poison gland.

In addition to the dangers posed by farming and development, the kurkar and hamra formations are also being destroyed by offroad vehicles and the theft of hamra soil.

Construction recently began on Iris, a new community near Nes Tziona, nearly all of which will sit on a kurkar ridge. An expansion of Atlit will obliterate the last remaining kurkar ridge in that community, while the city of Rehovot is planning to build 2,000 homes on a kurkar ridge that has survived until now. The Central District Planning and Building Committee is to discuss this plan on Monday.

"In our opinion," said Alon Rothschild of SPNI, "the city should examine alternatives that could allow for building on part of the area while leaving the kurkar ridge as a protected area."