oryx Hans Hillewaert
An oryx. A new study shows they have largely returned to Israel. Photo by Hans Hillewaert
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A few decades ago, the appearance of animals such as wild oryx, fallow deer and roe deer on Israeli pathways, after they became extinct in this region, would have seemed like the fantasy of some romantic naturalists. Yet data released recently by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority indicate that this image has turned into a practical plan that has been successfully implemented in some places; such animals have returned to areas such as the Galilee and Negev. They are even playing important roles in the reduction of excess vegetation in areas at risk of fires, and the scattering of seeds in desert areas.

Last week, the Parks Authority held a conference to present its activity in a number of areas. Among other things, Prof. David Saltz of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev presented results of a years-long project involving the return to nature of rare species of animals that once dwelled in Israel, and then became extinct. These include large wild mammals such as the ox, deer and oryx. The Parks Authority raised them in facilities on the Carmel and in the Arava, and returned them gradually to nature over a long period spanning two decades.

Saltz claimed that most of the efforts to return these types of animals to nature have been successful. With regard to onagers (wild Asian ass ) that were returned to nature in the Negev, there are today some 200 roaming the desert, and they are healthily multiplying. The return of wild oxen has been a partial success in the Arava. Saltz mentioned that comparable projects undertaken in countries such as Oman were not successful. He alluded to research studies that show that some such animals are useful spreaders of seeds of various types of plants.

Fallow deer have been returned to nature in the Achziv region of the Galilee. Some 200 such deer live there today. Attempts to bring such deer to the Nahal Sorek region of the Jerusalem Hills were not successful - deer were attacked by stray dogs, and the effort was halted. Saltz said that options for bringing such deer to other areas of the Galilee are under consideration. Recently there have been reports of wild dogs attacking the deer in the Achziv area, which had been considered a safe area.

It bears mention that Israel is undertaking efforts to return to nature types of animals that have remained in the country, but are in danger of extinction. These include eagles - some 100 eagles that were raised in captivity have been released in nature.