Going to bat for nature
Environmentalists hope that a recent, unprecedented survey of Jerusalem's plant and animal populations will serve as a basis for future planning and construction in the city
At night, when the human residents of Jerusalem hunker down at home or are sleeping, the city comes alive. A family of porcupines, long-time residents of a grove near the Knesset, prepare for action, and jackals roam about other neighborhoods. In the skies above the capital, bats go out for a juicy meal of insects, and owls' hoots echo in the trees.
The municipal planning division and staff from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, headed by Ayala Geldman and Ido Wachtel, have just completed the first comprehensive survey of an urban nature site in the country. The project was funded by the Environmental Protection Ministry, and its conclusions are being incorporated into the capital city's master plan.
No fewer than 150 nature spots with plentiful flora and fauna were found in what is Israel's biggest city, and one of its poorest and most crowded. Nearly 200 gazelles in several herds live in and around the city. Furthermore, surveyors observed foxes, jackals and even hyenas in local green areas, spotted rare butterflies and also identified nine species of bats, including a rare European one.
"This is a complex survey to conduct in a city that has some of the most ancient buildings in the world, with the separation fence now going through it," says Amir Balaban of the SPNI, who supervised the study and is a leading advocate for urban nature conservation.
"We knew there was a wealth of biodiversity, but there were a few surprises in store for us. For example, in the Zimra Stream, adjacent to the Pisgat Ze'ev neighborhood [in Jerusalem's northeastern corner], we discovered a large colony of hyraxes. There we also found the black-eared wheatear, a bird that is almost extinct, and the last remaining nesting site in the Jerusalem region of the long-billed pipit."
The Valley of the Cross, between the Israel Museum and the Rehavia neighborhood, turned out to be a paradise for crawly life-forms: "Our reptile expert, Ilan Narinsky, found tortoises, scincidae, lizards and several snake species," Balaban continues. "We managed to catch a coluber nummifer, a snake that is more than a meter long, as it devoured an insect-eating lizard. Apparently, because this valley has remained relatively isolated and reptiles do not have many enemies there, they are thriving."
The surveyors also documented on camera a couple of green toads mating in the Mamilla Pool. This is one of only a handful of sites in the city where amphibians have survived. By contrast, hedgehogs and porcupines are veteran, familiar residents, including the family near the Knesset that has been discovered during night patrols the SPNI conducts in that area.
Several Jerusalem neighborhoods have nesting colonies of the rare lesser kestrel, a small falcon. The Old City's buildings and walls have attractive habitats and hiding places for quite a few species, such as snakes with impressive climbing skills; in recent years the Western Wall itself has become home to an extensive common swift colony.
Balaban says that the integration of the survey results into municipal planning procedures will make life easier not only for environmental organizations in their conservation campaigns, but also for real estate developers.
"The survey constitutes a catalog of information on the natural value of every site, and includes geographic and other information that will be constantly updated," Balaban explains. "This way planners will be able to know ahead of time what to expect at each site - what is special and worth preserving. If such information had been available in the past, we would have avoided some of the problems we have. Planners and architects also care about the environment."
The Jerusalem municipality sees the survey as yet another means for highlighting the advantages of living in a city from which certain "strong" human populations are fleeing.
"It is clear that what will draw people to live in this city is not only quality housing and employment, but also the quality of life that parks and urban nature can provide," Ofer Aharon, director of the municipality's policy planning department, told a recent SPNI conference on preserving biodiversity in Israel. "The survey will help determine a price tag for development. Already 40 of the sites included in it have been integrated into Jerusalem's new master plan."
Aharon and other city officials hope the master plan for urban nature sites, based on the survey, will eventually specify criteria for conservation and development at each site. Thus, when an application for a building permit is submitted, it will be possible for the authorities to know whether the site in question has particular natural significance, and how the planned construction there will affect the local flora and fauna.
"Planners will have to take the findings about nature into consideration," a municipal document states. "This has already been done in the case of a plan for construction near the Jerusalem Theater. Certain details were introduced into it to protect the adjacent Moon Grove and the population of owls that nest there."
Armed with a master plan, and at the municipality's initiative, environmentalists hope to fight off the host of threats to Jerusalem's natural treasures.
"All it takes is one pack of stray dogs to wipe out the gazelles living in northeastern Jerusalem, and now their movement will be restricted because of the fence," Balaban warns, adding that "this is what happened to the gazelles in the western part of the city."
In cases such as these, say nature activists, special measures will have to be taken to protect the animals. In other cases, other sorts of action will suffice, such as abstaining completely from the use of chemical pesticides.
It is estimated that more than 100 indigenous plant species have become extinct in recent decades in the city. Furthermore, butterflies that until recently were spotted in Jerusalem are gradually disappearing. At sites like Emek Tzurim national park, between Mount Scopus and Sheikh Jarrah - where olive groves have been preserved in the heart of the city - little remains of the large colonies of birds once living there due to large-scale construction in the surrounding areas.
Maintaining peaceful coexistence between city residents and the wild animal population will require creative solutions in some instances. For example, the rabbits in the Pisgat Ze'ev area treat private gardens as if they were a restaurant, according to Balaban, but special fences can be designed and erected to cope with the phenomenon.
In East Jerusalem the survey was at times conducted under police escort, for security reasons and, Balaban adds: "We had difficulty finding people with the appropriate professional knowledge in the eastern part of the city."
One of the primary tasks of the municipality and the SPNI, he explains, is informing the general public about the survey's findings, which "are aimed at all the residents, including the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox." The necessity of preserving the city's flaura and fauna will be instilled through enrichment programs in schools, and adapted to different religious and cultural values.
Balaban notes that besides their beauty and uniqueness, the natural sites in question are important for a variety of other reasons. "The [topography of] the Valley of the Cross enables rainwater to trickle down, enriching the groundwater, and moderates the flow of the runoff. It cools the surroundings by several degrees, and improves the quality of life in the area. Indeed, this is a valley surrounded by schools and sites used by youth movements for activities, and it allows them to study and experience nature inside the city. I hope that in years to come, we will be able to map and plan the preservation of nature sites not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the country."