Game On: Israel’s Rare Wildlife Under Threat From Poachers

A new law intended to stop the slaughter is meeting with fierce resistance from men who consider hunting an honorable tradition.

I

Onn Valensi is tall, broad-shouldered and very good-looking. His gray-black hair infuses his “good boy” look with a certain authority. And if that’s not enough, Valensi is in charge of enforcement in the central district of the Nature and Parks Authority, so he has the powers of a cop, the grit of a cowboy and the compassion of a vet. We’re sitting in the NPA’s offices in Afek Park, hard by Antipatris Fortress. Valensi switches on the computer and shows me photographs that document illegal hunting.

As he peruses images of Indian crested porcupines in traps, dozens of partridges caught in one hunting event and gazelles whose heads were cut off to streamline packing, Valensi explains that gazelle hunting is a countrywide phenomenon. Its purpose: to sell the meat. A kilo of gazelle meat sells for between NIS 90 and NIS 120. A poacher can make NIS 1,500 to NIS 2,000 for an adult gazelle weighing − after beheading and the gutting of its internal organs − 25 kilograms. This is criminal activity in every respect. It’s not a sport and not a hobby. Valensi shows me a video.

Valensi: “This is the largest nature reserve in the center of the country. These are two hunters from Yarka, a Druze community near Carmiel, both adults, in possession of a hunting license. Look, they are arrested and they say, ‘What are you arresting us for?’ and ‘We’re all right; here, look.’ The vehicle was searched and a little blood was found.” He hesitates, because this is a still-ongoing investigation, then continues, “And look at the vehicle. Yes, a nifty pickup. And then he is asked, ‘Tell me, why do you have an electric screwdriver in the vehicle, and why are these screws loose?’ Now look, they built a special compartment, and it’s filled with freshly dead partridges they shot. In the reserve. Shamelessly, yes? In broad daylight, Friday morning. Friday morning. They just cut with a welding torch and put in a false compartment, and we found the same thing with slaughtered gazelles. And these are, you know, totally legal hunters. This is what we are dealing with. Now the problem is that we are dealing with professionals.”

We are meeting in the wake of a newspaper report I read a month earlier about this very event. The report quoted the new director general of the NPA, Shaul Goldstein, and Onn Valensi himself, as being concerned that the poachers, who were captured after a great effort, would get off too lightly. In 2008, the maximum fine for hunting wild animals illegally was doubled; it now stands at NIS 150,000. In other words, as NPA officials emphasize time and again, the legislators thought the previous punishment was too lenient. In practice, however, few fines reach even NIS 5,000. In rare cases of repeated offenses, a fine of NIS 10,000 is levied. No one can remember a fine of more than NIS 15,000, which is 10 percent of the maximum permitted under the law. Valensi can’t understand it.

“This is not a hit-and-run accident. It’s not a case of criminals who arguably had a rough childhood. These are people who arrive with the deliberate intention of inflicting injury on nature. But most of the courts don’t treat it seriously.”

Valensi’s opening statement ushers me into the world of poaching in Israel, which turns out to be more complex than anything I could imagine. For example, there are squads of Palestinians from East Jerusalem who specialize in hunting goldfinches. They sell them alive for crossbreeding with canaries to produce a banduk ‏(bastard in Arabic‏), which is raised as a domestic songbird. Sometimes the goldfinches themselves are used as pet songbirds. The method of hunting is cruel. A goldfinch is glued to a stick and placed in the wild. The glued bird screams for help, and when other goldfinches arrive to rescue it, they are caught with a net. Jewish hunters dub this the “joker method.” In some cases, a harness is used to hold the decoy goldfinch. Trying to fly while harnessed in this way, the bird breaks its wings. Valensi shows me a photo.

There are also invisible nets, which used to be unavailable in Israel but can now be bought for NIS 30 each. The net is hung in the wild and every bird that flies into it is irrevocably entangled and entrapped. “Like a fishnet in the water,” Valensi explains. This method is cruel in a number of ways. First, considerable skill is required to extricate the birds. Researchers who use this method − under controlled conditions to monitor the flight of birds − take a special course to learn how to free the birds. It goes without saying that poachers do not take any such course; as a result, this form of hunting generates a high percentage of secondary killing. In addition, if the poachers flee the area for fear of inspectors, the nets remain in place and become, like abandoned nets at sea, death traps that will never be removed because they are not visible. Every bird that passes their way will be caught in the net and die, even if there was no intention of catching it.

We move on to a topic about which I will learn a great deal more in the weeks ahead: the hunting of the large Indian crested porcupine for its meat, for which there is much demand among the Druze. The first method of hunting these animals Valensi describes inflicts terrible suffering. It involves placing a mousetrap-like device on the ground or at the entrance to the porcupine’s burrow. The trap is baited with an onion or a potato, because these porcupines live on plant bulbs. When the animal lunges for the food, it is caught. It starts to twist and turn desperately in the trap, ripping off its quills. The hunter then removes the animal from the trap but does not shoot it, because death by gunfire spoils the meat. Instead, he beats it to death over the head with a club. Onn shows me a video, in case my imagination is insufficiently developed.

In another method, hunting dogs are used. This is doubly cruel, because the dogs themselves are hidden three or four at a time in the trunk of the car on the way to the killing field. Once there, they are let loose to sniff out and pursue porcupines. The hunters cannot catch these animals, because when they encounter an assailant they fire their quills and continue to run. So the hunters send in the dogs first. They are shafted by the quills and some of them are blinded. When the porcupine feels it has escaped its predator − the dog − the hunter kills it, again by clubbing it on the head.

The third method of hunting is by running over the porcupine. The hunter drives back and forth in the terrain until he finds a porcupine and then runs it over. Naturally, it is very difficult to prove that a hunter used this method, as he will almost invariably maintain that he ran over the animal accidentally and took the carcass because he didn’t want to leave it in the field.

Porcupine hunting takes place mainly in the north of the country and is done mainly by Druze, for whom this large species of porcupine is a delicacy. In the south, from Highway 3 southward, beginning around Latrun, Valensi says, there are groups of Bedouin who specialize in hunting with the use of saluki dogs ‏(also known as Persian greyhounds‏). The Bedouin hunt everything, from gazelles to hares and birds. They too bring dogs to the hunting area, concealed in car trunks. Released, the dogs run the animal ragged and then the hunter administers the coup de grace. In some cases the hunt is purely for entertainment: The hunters apparently enjoy seeing their dogs running down hares and tearing them to pieces.

To my question, Valensi admits that the scale of such poaching is difficult to gauge. The NPA inspectors know that there are groups of poachers who trap and kill dozens of porcupines a month. And according to internal intelligence, about 150 gazelles were hunted and killed in the past six months. Generally, the estimates in the field, of both the inspectors and the hunters I met, is that the NPA gets its hands on between 1 and 5 percent of the hunted animals as described by Valensi. Simple arithmetic, then, means that between 7,000 and 8,000 cases of poaching take place in Israel every year. And this does not take into account hunting by Thai farmhands (more about that in the second part of this article).

I try to keep cool in the face of the images Valensi shows me. Cows subjected to kosher ritual slaughter are not a very pleasant sight, I remind myself − we are just not used to seeing it. But cows are not in danger of extinction, not now and not anytime soon. Valensi refers me to Dr. Yariv Malihi, the ecologist of the NPA’s central district, so I can better understand the ecological impact of poaching.

Malihi, who is tall and impressive-looking, works in an office in one of the low structures in Afek Park. Their modesty is all the more striking against the background of the past glories of Antipatris Fortress, built by Herod the Great. Unlike Onn, Malihi does not need pictures: he creates them with the help of numbers. And his numbers are harsh. “Nature in Israel is fragile and hanging by a thread,” he says. “It is under assault from every direction: infrastructure, development, activities in the field and the desire of people to live. In recent years this has been compounded by criminal hunting, which involves night pursuits with the use of projectors, indiscriminate shooting and intimidation of the wild populations. The animals are harmed in a number of ways.

First, there is a direct reduction of the number of individuals in the population. But over and above this, the fact that animals are in constant distress has a critical influence. From the viewpoint of the wild animals, the hunter is a new predator who has entered their environment. His presence causes a large and intelligent mammal like the gazelle, for example, to be on guard, and that comes at the expense of critical physiological functions. Gazelles stop courting when they are under stress, because the battles between the males, which constitute part of the courting process, require a great deal of energy. In addition, stress can have implications for the males’ production of semen and for the females’ ability to become pregnant. The element of stress that the hunter injects into their world can bring about the collapse of whole populations, and these are populations that are already at risk.”

“You have to understand,” Malihi says, “that in the small units of territory we are talking about − such as eastern Rosh Haayin, the Ben Shemen area and around the Nitzanim area − the animal population was small to begin with. If it falls below a certain critical size, the genetic variation of the animals will be too low for them to survive. A critical example of this phenomenon is known from the hunting of gazelles in the Golan Heights. In the 1980s, there were about 7,000 gazelles in the Golan Heights and hunting them was permitted. When the population decreased to 4,000, the permit was revoked. But then the population was attacked by foot-and-mouth disease, which spread from the cattle bred in the Golan, and the gazelle population, which was so genetically homogeneous, was unable to recover. At present there are only 200 individuals in the Golan Heights.”

“Another way that hunting causes genetic homogeneity is by reducing the separate populations to a level where they can no longer ‘speak’ with other populations. Let’s take a local species of gazelle as an example. In the past it was extant in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but as a result of uncontrolled hunting in those countries it is now extant only in Israel. The estimate is that there are about 3,500 individuals. In the past, the Judean Hills population would sometimes ‘speak’ with the population of eastern Rosh Haayin, and the Lachish population would succeed in wandering westward and exchange genes with other populations. The exchange of genes reinforced the animals’ survival capability. As these encounters dwindle, the population’s ability to recover from every blow becomes negligible.”

Malihi emphasizes the distinctiveness of the danger stemming from poaching. “Animals can cope with a city that is built next to them and with harassment by hikers during the day. They are able to keep their distance. But they cannot cope with unbridled hunting. It’s as though a pack of wolves is unleashed against them. The moment there is a phenomenon that focuses on the elimination of the animals themselves, their chance of survival is very low.”

And if the extinction of the animals doesn’t strike us as dangerous enough, Malihi suggests that we look at the complete picture. “Every animal is a thread in an ecological tapestry,” he says, “and when you cause its extinction you cannot know what the implications will be for the rest of the system. For example, when the gazelle disappears there could be a chain reaction that will also bring about the disappearance of protected wildflowers. In the ecological system you don’t know who pollinates whom and who fertilizes whom with his droppings. You don’t know which thread, if removed, will cause the whole fabric to unravel. The consequences are not only that we will not have picnic grounds where we can take our children; there will also be consequences for our way of life, our health. “For example, if the hare, the gazelle or the partridge disappear, certain plants will also disappear in their wake. The soil will no longer be covered by those plants, which absorb the water, delay it and allow it to seep into the earth and not to flow directly and be wasted in the sea. Every element in the system contributes to having water in the ground and oxygen in the air.”

I ask for examples and learn that goldfinches, for example, play a key role in disseminating the seeds of plants and are preyed upon by wildcats and hawks. Goldfinches are a cornerstone of an entire region. In a healthy state of the system, many birds of prey base their existence on devouring partridges. If the partridges disappear, many birds of prey will stop nesting here. And the porcupine, for example, is critical for loosening the soil, constitutes food for natural predators and disseminates plant bulbs. Without porcupines, the survival of a large part of the bulb plants will be endangered.

Driving along the path that leads out of Afek Park, the images Valensi showed me and the information I received from Malihi make me feel nauseous. I stop the car by the side of the road, in case I have to throw up. Breathing in a little, I ask myself whether the veganism I practice has made me more softhearted, or maybe it’s those who live in the city who distance me from the cruel war of survival in nature, or the motherhood that fills my imagination with Bambi-like stories of noble animals and evil hunters. But I’m not sure these are the reasons. Valensi, for example, is not a vegan, does not live in Tel Aviv and is certainly not a mother, and he did not look even a tiny bit less shocked than I at the sight of the headless gazelles. In the end, I drive on.

II

“It is clear to us all that to serve a particular interest of a body like the NPA, they use various advisers, ‘scientists’ in quotation marks,” says Ilan Fisher, an energetic man in his mid-seventies who is a former chairman of the Israel Hunters Association. When I try to understand what reason he has for questioning the scientific authority of the NPA’s ecologists, attorney Said Haddad, the association’s legal adviser and a defense counsel in poaching cases, intervenes and says, “Because the science unit is against hunting.”

We are sitting in the living room of attorney Haddad’s home in the village of Turan in Lower Galilee. It’s a blustery February day and Haddad is getting over a serious bout of the flu. A glance around the handsome, well-kept house creates the impression that Haddad is on his way to the summit of the Israeli-Arab dream. His 8-year-old son, at home because of the storm, unable to realize his wish to watch television, goes to his room.

The main issue on the Hunters Association agenda is an amendment due to be added to the Wild Animal Protection Act ‏(see box‏). Fisher: “I have the feeling − and I am not the only one − that one of the reasons the NPA wants to put an end to this hunting is that they are looking for a way to cover up their failure to protect the birds and the animals. They are hiding the fact, for example, that 15 or 20 years ago, at the NPA’s initiative, it was decided to cultivate the wolf population in the Golan Heights. Everyone knows what a wolf is capable of. They played a large part in the dwindling of the gazelle population, because wolves prey in packs, they are smart. They destroyed all the gazelle offspring and all the other animals, such as the partridges − but the authorities conveniently forget that.”

Haddad tries to anchor Fisher’s argument in legal language. “The right of a person to hunt is a natural right. It was granted to us by God since our birth, as human beings. Man lives by gathering and hunting. Nowadays there are certain restrictions, in the light of the deterioration of the animal population, [but] the implication should not be the annulment of the right. I say: we have no problem with restrictions. But they should not come as dictates or be implemented brutally as a cover-up, as a way to cover ass, pardon the expression, for other things.”

According to Fisher and Haddad, the NPA’s failures go beyond the neglect of wild animals. The inability to deal with illegal hunting indicates to them that the NPA is instead imposing collective punishment on the country’s hunters. They dissociate themselves completely from the illegal hunters − those Haddad defends in court. Fisher: “There will be no criminal hunter in our organization. If people who have committed hunting offenses are caught, they should, as far as I am concerned, be punished with the full rigor of the law, and the sky’s the limit.”

Haddad: “As an organization, we agree with the NPA that more severe punishment is needed against illegal hunting or the illegal harming of animals by criminals. Because from the standpoint of the legal hunters, those people hurt them more than they hurt the NPA. They do damage to nature, and for the hunter nature is the most important thing. A person who brings down 11 gazelles should be cast out. Because he did more harm to us, to nature, than to the state, with the damage he caused it.” This is perhaps one of the only points on which the licensed hunters agree with the NPA: the fines the courts levy on hunting offenders are too low.

Before we conclude, Haddad shows me a photograph purporting to prove that an NPA inspector from the area allegedly framed hunters for a crime they did not commit. Frustrated, he says, “You don’t always have to believe the inspectors.” Fisher corrects him: “You should say the opposite, that you always don’t have to believe the inspectors. Do you know what the difference is between a policeman and a criminal? The policeman wears a uniform.”

III

But on Friday evening, when I join Liad Ling, who is in charge of investigations and intelligence in the northern district of the NPA, in a stakeout in a farming region on the Lebanon border − this lasts until 4 A.M. − it is very difficult for me to see the inspectors as a manipulative, lazy bunch who are trying to pin their mistakes on others.

At 10 P.M., five NPA vehicles rendezvous at a kibbutz in the north. Out of them step six men, each of whom has something better to do at this time of the night, but who are nevertheless here. After a few of the jokes that typify male get-togethers, someone starts to make coffee. Someone else pulls out a food package and places it on the hood of one of the vehicles. Concurrently, Eyal Miller, a sea and Western Galilee inspector, briefs the group. Tonight they will be setting up a stakeout in farmland in the north of the country, where indications of porcupine hunting were recently discovered. Referring to an area of 10 dunams ‏(2.5 acres‏), Eyal draws in the air the section that the inspectors are going to enclose: about 300 square meters which, they think, the hunters pass through. Miller outlines a T shape − a vehicle will be stationed at each tip, with two inspectors inside. The expectation is that the hunters will be accompanied by dogs and will arrive after 1 A.M. If a hunter is spotted, Miller says, an attempt should be made to seize him on foot, not using a vehicle, because not long ago a poacher eluded them when he noticed the approaching car. Then they all drive off.

When we arrive at the designated place, each vehicle proceeds to its observation point. Windows and doors are to be kept open. Now I understand why I was told to dress warmly − it’s cold at night on the northern border. Around midnight we hear dogs barking. Ling and Miller go to check it out. They return a few minutes later − false alarm. An hour later, focused and aggressive barking is heard again. It’s easy to imagine that they found the porcupine. Ling and Miller again set off in the direction of the sounds. Ling says I am not insured and need to stay in the vehicle: Heaven forbid that someone should suddenly decide to wallop you.

I sit alone in the dark vehicle. Miller has darkened the dashboard, so the vehicle will not be visible from a distance. Outside, a battle rages between two different ecosystems: environmental ecology and cultural ecology. From where I sit, it looks like only one of them will be able to triumph. If we choose to protect ancient hunting customs, environmental ecology will be seriously damaged. Certain breeds of animals will die out in our lifetime, others will no longer make a stopover in this country and still others will change their habits. The damage to nature might be inestimably great and affect our own survivability as a mammal. On the other hand, if we choose to protect the animals and eradicate the hunting customs, we are liable to push the already fragile cultural ecology that exists between the Israeli Druze and Arabs and the Jews one step closer to the edge of the abyss.

After a few minutes, which feel like an eternity, Ling and Miller return. Apparently the dogs were farther off than they thought − the wind makes things hard at night; the direction of the sound is deceptive. ‏(The next day, when I meet with Druze hunters from Yarka, they will confirm that illegal hunting did in fact take place in the area just next to the place where we sat and waited all night.‏)

By now it is 2 A.M. “Our forces at Suez had a quiet night,” Miller says, quoting a popular song by Meir Ariel. But suddenly he gets a radio call. He listens and we can’t hear what he’s being told by someone in one of our other vehicles, but he grabs Ling’s arm and tells him − he just passed them going north on foot with five dogs. Quietly and quickly they slide out of the car.

IV
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“In an ambush I know exactly where we will be. I sit in a place where the boar will not smell me. I let him get close and then I shoot him,” says Hamdi Abu Kaaud, explaining the secrets of hunting to me. “Sometimes the wind comes from the boar to you. He doesn’t feel it, but half an hour later the wind has changed. You have to know. So I tie something, a plastic bag, that lets me see where the wind is all the time. If the wind changes, I get up and I move somewhere else. You need skill and you need patience. There are hunters who see a boar and boom, they shoot from a distance. That’s the hot blood of a weak hunter. And there are hunters, and I am famous for this, who, like me, you know, don’t get excited. Whether it comes or not, I don’t care, I come to get some air, so I let it come close, closer, closer, until I shoot where I can’t miss.”

Abu Kaaud is one the most popular hunters among NPA inspectors in their struggle against damage to farming. We are sitting in his family flat in Jaffa. Not far from the neighborhood where I grew up, next to Andrei’s Ice Cream parlor. I’ve always felt rather like a Jaffa person. I am not totally cut off from the place where I grew up. I splash about in the learning pool with Abu Hassan’s daughter, while our daughters learn how to swim with the same teacher, and I am learning Arabic with a delightful teacher who lives deep in the Ajami neighborhood. Still, Abu Kaaud reveals a world I never knew about. Nature lurking in the city. A war of survival waged by animals that takes place on the fringes of the cultural war of survival involving one of the traditions of Israel’s Arabs.

Abu Kaaud’s face would look boyish were it not for his beard, which reflects his growing closeness to Islam. Behind him on the wall is a huge panoramic painting of a hunting scene. It shows a hunter against the background of a stream; in front of him is a deer at which he is aiming his rifle. The mural certainly attests to the importance of the subject in the life of the man of the house. The message is heightened by a glass case containing pistols, knives and bullets. I ask about the knowledge and the skills that set him apart from other hunters.

Abu Kaaud: “The jackal starts to wander around exactly when it gets dark. Like an imbecile, he starts to run and sniff, looking for eggs, for a rabbit, for everything. He’s so dumb he can get to within two meters from us and not really sense us. Not like the boar. The boar is a very, very smart animal. It’s already happened a few times that we felt he was coming out of the hill, coming in our direction, but then he suddenly stops, senses that something is not right and turns around. That’s it, he’s gone. It’s enough for the telephone of one of the hunters to buzz, the vibration of the phone if someone just called. The boar turns around. Even if he comes down every day, today he will not come down.”

But what Abu Kaaud likes best is hunting wild boar with the aid of dogs. “We come in the day, see footprints and know, for example, that this herd slept on the hill here, or that they slept on this patch. So we bring in the dogs, they locate the boars and bark at them, and we encircle this area and the dogs chase the boars. So they come out, maybe to you, to him, to me. That is the hunting I love best. I love to see how the dog behaves. For example, when you tell him, Search, search, and he starts to search, suddenly he moves over there, suddenly you sense there is a boar here, or that a boar passed by an hour ago. Because for the dog, a boar is, you know, the greatest enemy. He doesn’t care about cats, he doesn’t care about anything, he wants a boar.”

What about pigeons? What differences are there among hunters when it comes to hunting pigeons?

“If he is a hunter who has come for numbers, he waits until the pigeons are on the ground and he shoots at them and hits a large number, 10, 15, 20. The ammunition for pigeons is one bullet this big, and inside there are very small bullets, 40 or 50 of them, that scatter. It’s enough for two or three of those small bullets to hit a pigeon to knock it down. There are also hunters, and let’s say I am one of them, who are not out to down a lot of pigeons. For me to look for a pigeon in the air, aim and see it fall is a better challenge. It’s nice and it’s also competition with the hunter who is with me, who shoots at the same pigeon but doesn’t bring it down, and after him I shoot and bring it down.”

I nod and Abu Kaaud sums up, “So it’s nicer, that kind of hunting, and now they want to ban it.”

Abu Kaaud often goes hunting under the aegis of permits he receives from the authority that deals with damage to agriculture, but he too is upset by the impending amendment to the law. “As you can see, it is very crowded in Jaffa and full of people and chaos and shouting at night, and full of troubles. After a week of work, people don’t have anywhere else to let off steam. To sit after the hunt and have a big feast of food with the guys − that’s what gives us energy for the whole week.”

According to Abu Kaaud, one of the problems with restrictions on hunting because of damage to agriculture is the focus on wild boars. The reason is that hypothetically, Muslim hunters do not eat that meat. “Before, when the hunters used to go into the field they hunted partridges, and at the end of the hunt they would clean them and make this stew in a pot and eat and stay until the end of the day and then go home. That became a custom, a kind of tradition, and it’s fun. It’s also satisfying that the hunter brings home a meal for the rest of the week, too. Now that this hunting is banned, there is hunting of wild boars. The hunters go into the field and it’s a bigger and better challenge, but they don’t bring booty home. Because it’s allowed to hunt wild boars only with a permit, the hunters have no choice, they go hunting, and then you get a situation where the hunter starts to be the slave of the farmer and has to be on good terms with the inspector so he will give the permit to him and not to someone else.”

I ask Abu Kaaud his opinion of the interpretation put forward by Haddad and Fisher, namely that the aim of the amendment and of putting a stop to hunting is to cover up the NPA’s failures in protecting wild animals. Abu Kaaud knows what Haddad and Fisher are talking about. “When there were no wolves in the Golan Heights and they found one, they caught it and put a collar on it and were happy. One wolf escaped from Syria. They guarded it, brought a female, then there were too many, there were packs that finished off the gazelles. So what did they say? That the hunters did away with the wolves and the calves. Now, in the last two years they are looking for hunters who will bring back wolves. So whose failure is it?”

But Abu Kaaud has an additional explanation for the crisis between the NPA and the hunters. It has to do with the transition from the formerly “gray” working relations between the two groups, to the currently dominant “black and white” style that characterizes the young inspectors. Abu Kaaud: “It started in the last 10 years. It wasn’t like that in the past. How did it used to be? For example, if someone was caught with a gazelle he was told, ‘We nabbed you with a gazelle, that’s a fine, we will put you on trial.’ Back then he could tell the authorities, ‘Look, I’ll cut a deal with you. I bring you more hunters who are offenders and who have a gazelle in their home. I bring you one, two, three.’ At that time, the inspector could tell him, ‘Fine, it’s a deal.’ But today you don’t have that anymore.”

Abu Kaaud knows that the ability to make an informal deal and reduce the hunter’s punishment in return for information is not perceived as the right way to go by the new generation of inspectors. But to some of the hunters, at least, it looks like an example of how mutual respect has ceased to be a shared value of inspectors and hunters. One result is that cooperation between the two sides has become more problematic.

In the words of Abu Kaaud, if someone is caught and he knows there is another person who has a protected animal at home, he will not consider suggesting that the inspector cut a deal in return for intelligence information. “It doesn’t help,” he says. “There is no benefit. If you ask, he will tell you it’s impossible, he has to get authorization from the district’s chief enforcement official, he has to get authorization from Jerusalem, and above him there is the head of the enforcement unit, and above him is the deputy director, and what will they say? So, when all that bureaucracy starts there is no more trust between the hunter and the NPA.”

At the same time, in a way that never ceases to surprise me, Abu Kaaud is also in favor of stiffer fines. “If there will be one judgment of NIS 30,000 for a gazelle, the gazelle criminals will think a million times about catching a gazelle.” I take my leave amidst a cascade of good wishes, but they will not let me go before showing me the victory album of photographs of wild boars, true monsters, that were hunted successfully, and also a number of videos of successful hunts. One video shows wild boars galloping away from the jeep being driven by Abu Kaaud. The video shakes in the hands of one of Abu Kaaud’s sons. The boy is holding a cellular phone and filming with it. Abu Kaaud apologizes for the shaking and explains to me what we are looking at. “My son is next to me − he is filming. Here we are chasing a boar. Now look at him here. There he is, running, do you see? I bring him over to my side ... Here he is now, next to me, do you see? He gets another bullet, falls. Do you see that he fell? Did you notice? Or should I replay it?” “No, no, no,” I say. “Of course I saw.”  (First of two parts‏)

The hunters

This year, 2,161 people paid to get their hunting license renewed, and this is the official number of authorized hunters in Israel. It’s estimated that more than 80 percent of them are Druze, Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs.

Both the Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Hunters Association estimate that no more than 400 to 500 people engage in hunting as a sport. One reason for this is that since 1996, following a renewable temporary order, no licenses have been issued to new hunters. Consequently, legal hunters are an aging group. The demographic distribution among active hunters is apparently similar to that among the general population of hunters: the great majority are Arab.

The registered hunters live in every part of the country, though according to NPA data some communities have a higher concentration of authorized hunters. In those communities the majority of the hunters are Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Druze. They are: Nazareth ‏(219 hunters‏), Yarka ‏(131‏), Shfaram ‏(125‏), Majar ‏(76‏), Rama ‏(62‏), Haifa ‏(60, including a minority of Jews‏), Kafr Kana ‏(49‏), Tel Aviv-Jaffa ‏(49, including a minority of Jews‏), Ramle ‏(45‏) and Kafr Yasif ‏(40‏).

As of 2011, a hunting license is valid for the hunting season, which starts in the fall, and only for turtledoves, quail, coots and ducks. The methods to be used are stipulated in the law. In addition, general hunting licenses are sometimes issued, allowing those in possession of a valid hunting license to thin out populations of certain protected species in regions where the NPA has decided they are causing excessive environmental damage. In 2011, a general license of this kind was issued, for example, to hunt wild boars.

The hunted

The Wild Animal Protection Act was passed in 1955 to amend a previous British Mandate ordinance. Its original purpose was more to regularize hunting in Israel than to protect wild animals. “Wild animal” is defined in the law as every vertebrate that naturally resides with humans ‏(such as pet cats and dogs‏). Under the law, every wild animal is protected unless it has been explicitly declared to be a pest, a “domesticated wild animal” or game for hunters. The law prohibits hunting wild animals without a license. The ban extends not only to hunting that was successful − that is, in which an animal is hunted down − but to “performing an act out of an intention to harm the life, freedom or well being of a wild animal, upset her peace or endanger the natural development of her eggs or of any of her sequels.” ‏(Translation: anonymous.org.il.‏)

The law contains provisions defining the hunting season and the permitted hunting areas. Night hunting is restricted. In addition, the law stipulates that certain methods of hunting are prohibited, such as blinding animals with lights, pursuing them in motorized vehicles and using snares, nets or glue.

Enforcement of the law devolves on the Nature and Parks Authority, which is part of the Environmental Protection Ministry. The amendment, if passed, will eliminate the institution of hunting for sport altogether. The licenses of authorized hunters will be revoked and those who meet the new criteria will be recognized as “qualified to hunt.” A lottery will be held to enable 200 to 300 new people to be recognized as such. They will be able to hunt within the framework of the aims the new law will set forth: population interface ‏(a balance between populations of different animals‏), thinning out populations of animals whose numbers are out of control, dealing with damage to agriculture, dealing with diseases to human beings, and scientific purposes. The amendment will also be more specific about prohibited means and methods of hunting, thereby improving and enriching the NPA’s tools of enforcement in dealing with illegal hunting.

Concurrently, damage to agriculture will continue to be dealt with through armories in which hunting weapons are stored and used by farmers who are authorized by the NPA to thin out animals that are causing harm to their land or to protect themselves physically against them. These farmers do not need to be “qualified to hunt,” but they must obtain a specific permit from the NPA regional inspector to thin out pests. The permit lists the protected animals that are considered pests in the region and also sets forth the type of weapon that may be used and the exact dates and times when the mission can be executed.

Nathan Bainosovitz, Israel Nature and Park Authority