The Israel Air Force (IAF) is not in charge only of defending the skies of Israel, according to a report on the country's wildlife, issued by the Nature and Parks Authority. The air force base near Kibbutz Hatzerim, near Be'er Sheva, has become the site of the last large concentration of the hubara, a turkey-sized bird that lives in Mediterranean and desert habitats, which is in danger of global extinction.
The latest count of the birds took place about 10 months ago at five different locales in the western Negev. Only 225 of the birds were sighted, of which 179 were in the area of the air force base. In that area, the birds are protected from hunters, building and environmental pollution - three of the major causes of the disappearance of their breeding grounds in other regions of the country.
The plight of the hubaras in large measure reflects the situation of wildlife in Israel today. So intense are the human pressures on these creatures that, in many cases, they continue to survive only because they are located in isolated and inaccessible areas maintained by the defense establishment. Such places exist in the defense establishment zones in the dunes of the coastal plain, around the Nuclear Research Center in the Negev and in some of the army's training areas.
Obviously, though, the protection accorded by the defense establishment is only partial. In areas held by the army or the military industries, wildlife is often at the mercy of heavy machinery and weapons tests.
For full protection, wild animals need a large open area without the cumulative pressure of building or other hazards that bring about their extinction. The latest report of the Nature and Parks Authority shows that some of the major species of wildlife in Israel are encountering pressures of these kinds even when they live in desert areas.
One of the leading symbols of the preservation of wildlife in Israel is the ibex. The latest counts conducted by the Nature and Parks Authority show a tendency toward a decline in the ibex population in the Judean Desert. One of the major reasons for this development is apparently extensive hunting being carried out by Palestinians.
The mountain gazelle in the Golan Heights and the coastal plain is suffering a similar fate. The gazelles in the coastal plain managed to survive in areas consisting of sand dunes despite being hemmed in by the ring of development and construction. In recent years, though, construction has spread deep into areas of the dunes. The problem has been aggravated by the extensive use of all-terrain vehicles, that rip through the dunes, and by the multiplication of wild dogs, which prey on the gazelles. The result is a significant decline in the size of the gazelle population in the region of the coastal plain, from 300 in 1998 to 184 last year.
The Nature and Parks Authority report does not include data about raptors, but counts conducted in the past few years make it plain that the situation of eagles, golden eagles and others of the same family has been deteriorating constantly due to poisoning, theft of young birds for commercial purposes and electrocution on high-tension wires.
Various types of songbirds are under threat because wild animals, brought to Israel to be sold, escaped captivity and multiplied in the wild and are mounting an aggressive assault on the local birdlife.
The worrisome conclusion from the data is that the considerable achievements of the nature preservation network in Israel are in genuine danger of being undone. Thanks to a system that combined nature reserves, Nature and Parks Authority inspectors and public awareness, creatures of the wild such as turtles and ibexes, which were on the verge of disappearing, returned to their old habitats in many regions. Now, though, the reverse trend is manifesting itself.
Given that the partial protection accorded by military zones is obviously not enough, it follows that there is a crying need to reinforce the nature preservation system by enhancing inspection and supervision and preventing development in regions where agreement exists about the need to preserve them in their natural state. However, it is far from clear whether Israeli society - which does not place nature preservation high on its order of priorities and which is in the midst of intensive physical development - will succeed in protecting the country's wildlife. At the same time, this is certainly a mission that has broad social consent. Maybe not many people have heard of hubaras, but we will all miss turtles, gazelles and eagles.
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