At NIS 200 per Kilo on the Black Market, Poachers Can't Resist Endangered Porcupines

David Ratner
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David Ratner

On the first day of the intermediate days of Sukkot, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority won a small victory in a war the organization is losing day by day: Parks Authority official Benno Rosenberg managed to catch a porcupine poacher red-handed.

Rosenberg, who supervises a large park area between Nahal Taninim and Megiddo Junction, caught the poacher in the Hotem Carmel nature reserve, the southernmost cliff of the Carmel.

Two weeks ago, Rosenberg noticed three porcupine traps placed in the reservation. "This is a double crime," said Rosenberg: "to hunt protected species and [to do so] in a nature reserve." After two weeks of keeping watch at night, the hunter - a man from the Carmel region who works as a contractor in the center of the country - arrived to check his bounty.

"He said he was sorry, but he didn't seem really sorry," said Rosenberg.

Both Rosenberg and Ami Tzur, a supervisor of wild animals in the Nature and Parks Authority and a specialist in finding poachers, warn that although the porcupine has not been declared an animal in danger of extinction, it is certainly on its way. There are entire areas of the country where those who traveled there in the past used to find heaps of porcupine quills. They would not be able to find any porcupines, or their quills, there today.

Porcupines have disappeared completely from the Golan, the western Galilee and the Carmel, and they barely maintain a presence in isolated nature reserves. Porcupine meat has always been popular in the Middle East. Porcupines are the biggest rodents in this region. They are herbivores, which makes their meat taste particularly tasty, enthusiasts say.

"There are organized groups of hunters for whom this is their income," said Tzur. "Porcupine meat has sold for NIS 1,000 in the free market for a slaughtered porcupine, or NIS 200 a kilo. At these sums, it's clear why groups of hunters from the Galilee and the Carmel are caught today for hunting porcupines in the Jerusalem area."

Tzur recently managed to catch some porcupine poachers, but it was too late for the animals. On Rosh Hashanah eve, Tzur stopped a jeep leaving a Lower Galilee stream; inside were a group of hunters from Druze villages in the Galilee - and a pile of dead, skinned porcupines.

"The punishment in a case like this is absurd," said Tzur. "The highest fine is NIS 5,000, and the hunters laugh on their way out of the courthouse and say that they'll get that money back on a more successful night of hunting."

In the past, said Prof. Tzvi Sabar, a zoologist considered who is considered an expert on porcupines in Israel, there were Druze youth who specialized in hunting porcupine by crawling in their dens. As the youth picked the sharp quills out of their skin, they would kill the porcupines by hitting them on the head and dragging them outside. Today the methods are more cruel as well as more efficient.

The accepted method of hunting today is a night trek of a group of hunters with sticks and with dogs trained to hunt porcupine. The dogs find the porcupines and surround them, and the hunters beat the porcupines to death. Another quiet method of killing porcupines is the use of traps that hunters place on their own.

"There are no gunshots and no spotlights; it's almost impossible to find the group of hunters," said Rosenberg. "When they hear a jeep approach they disappear, or they run away."

The first serious research into the lives of porcupines was conducted by Prof. Sabar 20 years ago in the Sharon region. Sabar revealed the secret lives of these slow-moving rodents, which are monogamous creatures - among the only mammals that resemble human beings in that couples have sex at a high level of intensity all year, no matter what the season. They also maintain a connection to their children, and this warm emphasis on family contributes to their deaths, as hunters know that in a place they found an adult porcupine they will find other family members nearby.

"I discovered the cruelty of the porcupine poachers 20 years ago," said Sabar. "I searched for the radio signal from a collar I attached to one of the porcupines, and I found that the hunter left me only the decapitated head of the porcupine in the trap, and took the meat for food."