The Anti-butterfly Effect

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Wild animals need a lobby to promote their cause publicly, and to fight hunting, pollution and construction on their behalf. In recent years, many wild animals in Israel have been supported by such lobbies, but some species were left behind, forgotten and abandoned, including Israel's many butterflies. Now they have a lobby, too. The Israeli Lepidopterists Society, which until recently focused mainly on research and gathering information, has launched a battle to protect the objects of its passion. The immediate goal of its campaign is to protect the habitats of butterflies in danger of extinction. Another effort involves assisting the Environmental Protection Ministry in its identification of 14 butterfly species to be granted protected status, which would forbid collecting or harming them. Currently, not a single local species is entitled to protected status beyond the sanctuary of nature preserves, and anyone may do what he pleases with the butterflies.

At the 23rd annual conference of the Lepidopterists Society, held two months ago at Tel Aviv University, several speakers noted that collectors trap butterflies in nature preserves, causing rare species like the namphit hakatlab - Two-tailed pasha (Charaxes jasius) - to become even more rare. Some of these butterflies are sold abroad.

The society has only 100 members, and was founded by Dubi Benyamini 23 years ago. But it is fully committed and unwilling to remain silent when creatures with a life span of a few weeks are threatened.

150 species

Many of the society's members are not zoologists or professional ecologists, but they devote numerous hours to observing and protecting butterflies. Benyamini is assisted by academics, like butterfly researcher and society member Dr. Guy Pe'er, of Hebrew University, who has led campaigns to pressure planning committees and government bodies.

"We do a great deal of observation and research, but have recently focused our efforts on protecting endangered butterflies," Benyamini says. "If the butterfly is declared a protected species, it will be possible to prevent risks like pesticides and herbicides."

There are about 150 species of butterflies and moths in Israel, including 40 that appear just in the Mt. Hermon region.

"Internationally, the Hermon represents the southernmost point of distribution of a number of species," Benyamini explains. "Climatic conditions make it possible to find some of the same butterflies in the Hermon and in Siberia."

In Israel, butterflies may be seen in the spring and fall. "For them, fall is a second spring, after they sort of hibernate during the summer," Benyamini says. "After the first rain, they wake up and become active."

Widespread construction, agriculture and pollution have caused the extinction of some species. One recent example is the lavnin hamiruah (Colotis chrysonome), which vanished from the Ein Gedi region when its habitat was compromised.

"There are areas in the Golan where the army operates on volcanic mounds inside nature preserves, and butterflies are harmed," Pe'er told the conference. "Other species in the Mt. Hermon area were compromised by herding, which destroyed plants."

Of the 14 species the society has identified as worthy of special status, four are in particular need of protection. The Environmental Protection Ministry supports the proposal but needs Agriculture Ministry support. The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) has proposed that all butterflies be granted protected status, but the Agriculture Ministry objected due to concerns that crop dusting would be strictly limited. Thus, lepidopterists and the Environmental Protection Ministry decided to focus on species at high risk. The ministry is waiting for a new proposal from the Agricultural Ministry.

Meanwhile, the lepidopterists are battling to save species, some of which remain in very limited locations. One of them is the namphit hakutzitz (Melitaea arduinna evanescens), which remains in a rocky area on the outskirts of Safed.

"There was a plan to build a residential neighborhood there, but for now the Housing and Construction Ministry has promised to freeze the plan," Pe'er says. "We hope the area will be declared a preserve because it is very small and even the slightest damage would threaten the butterflies."

Another endangered species is the kakhlil hakoder (Tomares nesimaches), which may be seen in Ramat Menashe and Givot Alonim, near Yokneam and Binyamina. These areas are part of the proposed route of Trans-Israel Highway 6.

"These butterflies were once found in Kiryat Tivon," Benyamini says. "They flew above the statue of Alexander Zeid that looks over the area. But they became extinct there because of agricultural spraying, among other reasons."

The Lepidopterist Society warned the government of the highway's implications for the kakhlil hakoder's habitat, but there was no chance of amending the plan to save only one rare butterfly species.

Victory in Hadera

On the other hand, lepidopterists achieved an impressive victory in the Hadera area, where the kakhlil hagalil (Apharitis cilissa) resides. In the previous decade, plans were made to build a residential neighborhood at the site of this butterfly's habitat. Lepidopterists mounted an intense campaign, which led to an unprecedented decision to survey the butterfly's population before final approval of the building plan.

Last year a team of experts, including lepidopterologists Pe'er and Oz Rettner, and ecologist Ron Frumkin, conducted a comprehensive survey of the kakhlil hagalil population at several points on the coastal plain and at the proposed construction site at Heftziba, near Hadera. The survey, funded by the Shikun Ovdim construction company, which was slated to build the neighborhood, revealed large concentrations of the butterflies at Heftziba. This may lead to an amendment of the building plan when the building committee discusses the permit.

The Lepidopterists Society's current battle focuses on butterfly habitats in the Mt. Hermon region. The area appears pristine to many hikers, but a variety of development projects promoting tourism as well as military operations clearing roads damaged the environment, threatening numerous species of butterflies.

The main damage is to shallow basins formed when rain dissolves rock. These basins, which attract numerous varieties of butterflies, were damaged in recent years by trailblazing and ski industry construction.

The latest project, which drew protests from lepidopterists, was an attempt by the Erez nonprofit organization to establish a ski hut near one of these basins for children with special needs. According to Benyamini, another basin in the Golan was damaged by engineering activities. Recently, the basin at the site of the planned hut was damaged when workers prepared the area for construction and cleared a path.

More than half the area was affected, including a large concentration of milkvetch plants where hundreds of butterflies swarmed. In Israel there are only three of these basins at altitudes above 2,000 meters, and two of them have already been harmed.

This area is not part of a nature preserve, but according to the Lepidopterists Society, that does not justify damage to natural treasures. They sought the assistance of Yohanan Darom, environmental preservation director at the SPNI's northern branch, in this matter. Darom contacted the Northern District Planning and Building Committee to investigate the legality of constructing the ski hut. Three months have passed and Darom has not received a response, despite repeated attempts to contact the committee.