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In the middle of the night, when the people of the southern Arava are fast asleep, Yael Olek goes out to the Samar dune. Armed with a flashlight and a special scale for weighing wild animals, she scans the dune until sunrise, finding toads, hyenas, wolves and the dwarf sand lizard, the subject of her research.

But in the coming weeks bulldozers will be coming in to dig up the sand and then trucks will cart it away for construction - and the wild animals who call this dune home will be in serious trouble.

After an obstinate battle against the quarrying of the Samar dune, spearheaded by the local action group Sababa (a Hebrew acronym for "healthy environment in the Arava" ), the moment of truth is near. Alternatives have been suggested, among them using the huge mounds of material left over after mining in nearby Timna, or digging deeper into areas quarried in the past. "Some people are willing to stop the work and be arrested," one activist said.

The contractor who won the tender published by the Israel Lands Administration is about to start by digging out half a dunam (about an eighth of an acre ) of sand.

Eilat residents and Sababa are planning a major protest in the area of the dunes in about two and a half weeks. At the forefront of the battle are scientists like Olek and her research adviser, Dr. Uri Shanas of the University of Haifa - Oranim campus, who became activists when they realized that a treasure of nature, filled with countless animals, was about to be seriously harmed because of construction needs in Eilat.

The dune has already been quarried for sand and some has been cultivated, Shanas says. All that remains is about 2.5 square kilometers. "Only part of it has been declared a nature reserve and now they're going to quarry the sand in another section," he says.

According to Shanas, everything done before to rehabilitate quarried areas has failed. He points out the northern part of the dune, that looks completely barren. "There are no plants here to stop the sand from migrating and accumulating, so there are no wild animals," he says.

In the fight to save the Samar dune, some people tried to emphasize the economics - its contribution to tourism and quality of life. But Olek says the creatures who live in the dune are priceless. "The home of these wild animals is about to be destroyed and they have nowhere else, no other apartment they can rent," she says.

Shanas says studies of the Samar dune show that it is unique in terms of the species that call it home. "The dune is built to a great extent on a plant known as white saxaul. The sand that comes from the area of the Arava streams collects around its roots and become places were animals can find shelter and dig burrows," he explains.

Footprints in the sand show that gazelles, hares and a great many rodents had been by, Shanas says, as well as the endangered Arabian horned viper, now found only in the deserts of Israel and nearby areas.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority will be taking some animals from here to another place in the wild before the bulldozers start work. But Olek says most of the animals will end up in zoos or in research projects. "Those released to the wild won't survive a week in competition with other wild animals," she says.

Doron Nissim, director of the INPA's Eilat Region, agrees. "We're evacuating the animals more for ethical reasons," he says.

Nissim also says the INPA recently submitted a plan to the Building and Planning Committee to declare a nature reserve in the area of the dune slated for quarrying, to create another hurdle for the ILA to face before quarrying can begin. But the ILA said this week in response that they are obligated to honor the tender.

The already-quarried areas under consideration as an alternative to quarrying the dune "are not available for quarrying in terms of planning," the ILA said. Case surveys conducted so far showed that these areas were "not promising," but the agency said it will comply with the results of the studies when they are finalized.

The fighters for the dune fear that the ILA will not want to be forced by environmental activists to change its decision, even if other alternatives exist. "But the sand does not belong to the ILA. It belongs to all of us," one activist said.