More Endangered Than Rain Forests?

Throughout the world, most environmental protection efforts focus on places such as tropical forests, seen as exotic and impressive. But one of the world's most prominent experts on Mediterranean basin ecosystems, Prof. Phil Rundel of the University of California at Los Angeles, warns, "The state of these forests in many cases is reasonable. But all the Mediterranean regions face a serious threat." Rundel was speaking during a visit this week to Israel.

Rundel visited nature sites here and came away quite jealous. The variety of plant species he saw far exceeds what there is in California. The rich variety reinforced the message Rundel brought with him: Mediterranean ecosystems are more diverse, but are severely endangered. International awareness must be raised to work on saving them.

Rundel, who visited as a guest of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), researches Mediterranean-climate ecosystems. Apart from California and the Mediterranean basin, there are three other areas classified as Mediterranean: central Chile, western Australia (in the vicinity of Perth and Adelaide) and the area around Cape Town. These areas are classified as such due to the similarity in geographic conditions and share a mild winter and a very hot summer.

Amazing variety

Rundel's amazement over the variety of flora in Israel mostly reflected a visit to the Ramat Hanadiv Park on Mount Carmel, a protected area that is the focus of numerous studies. "You really do have something to be proud of when it comes to the number of species relative to the size of the area," he said. The small area he visited had hundreds of species of wildflowers.

Israel's uniqueness recently also earned a notable ranking in the report on the status of the environment in the Mediterranean basin prepared by Eurostat, which gathers statistical information for the European Union. The report notes that in the Mediterranean basin, there are 25,000 species of flora; half of them have developed a unique ability to adapt to dry conditions and are not found in anywhere else in the world.

According to this report, Israel has the largest number of plant species per square meter of all the countries in the Mediterranean basin. The report also highlights the large number of reptiles found in several Mediterranean countries, including Israel. So far 30,000 varieties of insects have been found in Israel.

Rundel stresses that the tremendous plant diversity is typical of the entire Mediterranean region. "These areas represent just 2 percent of the earth's area, but they contain 16 percent of the plant species," he noted. "One of the reasons for this is the considerable differences in climatic and topographic conditions in the entire Mediterranean region. These differences encourage the development of many different species."

In the Mediterranean region, humans have had a major impact on diversity. Shepherding and working the land caused numerous changes in the conditions in which plants develop and created new habitats with plants that adapted themselves to the scorching conditions.

"In California there was no shepherding of cattle and sheep, and this is one of the reasons that there are fewer varieties of flora," noted Rundel.

In Israel, the plant variety also emerged as a result of the infiltration of influences from nearby continents. For example, it is possible to find sand that came from the deserts of North Africa in the coastal region and tropical plants in the south.

This rich biological diversity is one of the reasons why Mediterranean areas are included among the 34 places around the world classified as "hot spots," i.e., critical areas in need of preservation by international organizations, which believe protection efforts in these areas should be given priority.

Quick population growth

The threat is increasing due to the accelerated pace of population growth and the substantial expansion of built-up areas. According to Eurostat, in Morocco over 2,000 species of flora and fauna face are endangered. In Algeria, Tunisia and Israel there are more than 500 endangered species.

In the area round Santa Monica, California, where Rundel does research, there is constant expansion of built-up areas, primarily because of the spread of Los Angeles. Natural green spaces are gradually decreasing and being cut up and isolated. This also affects the ability of wildflowers to spread and expand, and wild animals have trouble finding sources of food.

Rundel notes that the lack of awareness of the serious state of the Mediterranean basin ecosystems and the decreased interest in them because they are considered less impressive than the rain forests, for example, is making it difficult to spur interest and mobilize resources to help save them.

Recently, scientists, including Rundel, set up an organization whose aim is to increase awareness of the importance of the Mediterranean-climate ecosystems and the need to protect them. The California Grizzly, the state's symbol, is already extinct. Rundel hopes the fate of the flora and fauna in the Mediterranean region's important ecosystems will be different if the scientists from its different regions can cooperate.