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In the early 1980s, American actress Brooke Shields came to Israel for the filming of the movie "Sahara" in the sands of the Arava. In those days, we didn't believe that the time would come when, instead of saving the beautiful Brooke from the sheikh (at least in the eyes of the young soldier I was then), we would be forced to save the dunes where the sheikh galloped from the Israel Lands Administration, which plans to mine them in the coming weeks to put up real estate.

To be precise, Brooke Shields' dune turned into an agricultural field long ago, and except for the small Samar dune, the Arava has no sand dunes anymore. It is "small" because the Sands of Samar, which once spread out over seven square kilometers or so, have shrunk to a strip of 2.3 square kilometers. Some of them were used to reduce construction costs in Eilat, while another part was polluted by the waste from the Timna quarries, and yet another was turned into agricultural land.

The last time I was asked to go to the Arava to save animals from part of the Samar dunes that had become agricultural land, we discovered one of this country's most beautiful rodents, a large jerboa that we did not know lived in the area. And maybe that's the greatest tragedy of the Samar dune - only now are we beginning to reveal just how special it is. When government officials discover its unique qualities, it will be too late.

It's possible that it will also be too late for the spider that received its scientific name, Cerbalus aravensis, from the area. This amazing spider, whose leg span can reach 20 centimeters, became known to the scientific world only in recent years. There were calls from around the globe for us to make every effort to save its habitat.

Overall, it's a disaster for all the creatures whose living space is being destroyed. The jerboa that we supposedly saved from the bulldozers has not been returned to nature because there is nowhere to send it to. All the creatures that the Israel Nature and Parks Authority captures before the sands become raw material for construction will have nowhere to return to and will end their lives in cages.

In recent years, we have also discovered another layer of the rich biological diversity of the Sands of Samar. We have seen an exceptional diversity of species that includes beetles and spiders unique to the sands, a gecko named after the wastelands of Timna for which this is the last habitat in the country, a poisonous "big ringed" snake, a rodent known as the southern gerbil that is in danger of extinction, a desert porcupine, a common hare, a common fox, a wolf and a hyena. All these and others can still be seen in the Sands of Samar. A special sand dune cat can no longer be seen. It disappeared from this country with the disappearance of the Arava dunes.

The additional layer of biological diversity lies in its genetic diversity. Genetic diversity plays an important part in the survival of species. It allows species to handle a changing environment because it increases the chances that a gene will be found in the population that will enable the entire species to survive even if most of the individual animals do not. It turns out that both the Timna lizard and the southern gerbil in the Sands of Samar are showing exceptional genetic uniqueness. They are different from other populations but, despite their isolation, they demonstrate extremely high genetic diversity.

All this is likely to disappear because in the same way that the destruction of one dune too many led to the disappearance of the sand dune cat, more quarrying of the little that remains will lead to the annihilation of the special species of the Sands of Samar.

 

The writer is the head of the biology department at the University of Haifa-Oranim