Loss of the Loess

The last loess strongholds are disappearing fast, as human beings encroach on nature - with their plows, herds, traps and construction equipment.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Sand dunes and sandstone ridges along the coastal plain, flat expanses of loess in the Negev, stretching into the horizon and beyond - until recently, these were homey, familiar landscapes. No one took much interest in their fate, even the nature protection societies, whose attention was riveted on the Judean Hills, the Carmel, the Upper Galilee, the Negev craters and the cliffs of the Judean Desert.

All this has changed, however, as development projects speed ahead all over Israel. According to a policy paper on the conservation of sand dunes that was recently drawn up by "green" associations, only one-quarter of the dunes that have graced the coast since the beginning of last century will still be around in the next few years. The sandstone ridges (called kurkar, in Hebrew) are quickly disappearing, and in places like Nes Ziona, a battle is being waged to save the last of them.

In the Negev, the huge stretches of loess - deposits of wind-blown dust, chiefly from the deserts of North Africa - are shrinking. It is not so much the loess that is becoming extinct, but the contiguous land, which is being broken up by construction, agriculture, military installations and Bedouin encampments.

Dror Hawlena, the ecologist of the nature and parks authority in the south, says that over 90 percent of the loess deposits in the Negev are now spotty patches rather than uninterrupted tracts of land.

The environmental organizations, realizing that the country's reserve of loess, dunes and sand has reached the critical mark, are trying to resolve the problem by establishing large parks, for example, where the natural sites can be preserved. A dune park between Ashdod and Ashkelon is now in an advanced planning stage, and the nature and parks authority is trying to establish a loess park in the vicinity of Hatzerim.

To the west of Kibbutz Hatzerim and south of the nearby air force base, is a large, almost untouched tract of loess that is classified as a military training zone. An Israeli paradox has worked in its favor: Many expanses of open terrain are placed in the hands of the army, which uses them for training exercises. Some damage is unavoidable, but on the other hand, these areas are generally closed to the public and developers are kept away.

But even the last loess strongholds are going fast as human beings encroach on nature. At the moment, the problem is not construction or infrastructure, but the growing, unchecked presence of Bedouin shepherds and the insatiable appetite of farmers, whose fields are steadily moving in and destroying the loess.

From winter to spring, the loess regions are overrun by Bedouin flocks. Hawlena says the presence of Bedouin is very important: Grazing herds help to regulate natural plant growth and keep the ecological system in balance. But the Bedouin are not satisfied with controlled grazing. According to the experts, a tract of loess can sustain 5,000 head of sheep without fear of overgrazing, which could keep the natural grasses from regenerating. Hawlena says the herds of the Negev Bedouin have grown substantially over the last few years, and the Bedouin are desperately searching for pastureland. The upshot is that some 20,000 head of sheep have been grazing in this region, trampling or consuming the natural flora.

Surprising discoveries

Expanses of loess have not been protected by being turned into nature reserves, as in the case of many military training zones in the Negev. The Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority has been busy trying to protect wild landscapes that are more attractive to hikers and visitors. But these flatlands are home to a rich world of flora and fauna, whose importance the authority is now beginning to recognize.

Hawlena, who used to be a nature and parks authority ranger in the Judean Desert and is now responsible for the authority's scientific projects in the southern district, does not conceal his special fondness for this sprawling tract of loess. One of his surprising discoveries is a lizard unique to this region and named for it: the Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard (acanthdactylus beershebensis). Hawlena says that some scientists have already declared this lizard an extinct species, but in the loess near Hatzerim, there is still a relatively large lizard population, and it is only here that it can continue to survive.

Hawlena began to study the Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard when he was a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He spread out special traps in the loess to capture them for research and tracking. He believes this reptile has special ecological importance because it is an indicator of the health of the entire ecological system.

"By how these lizards are faring, we can tell how their habitat is doing, and whether it is being seriously threatened," says Hawlena.

The hubara bustard, a large desert bird that nests on the ground, has also found its last refuge in Israel in the loess plains, especially the part that sits inside the air force base. There are only a few hundred birds of this species left, and without a protected breeding ground, they are heading for extinction. Living in this region are several other unique species of birds and different kinds of hedgehogs.

Grazing in the area is depleting it of wildlife. Until recently, there was a population of gazelles, but the Bedouin have hunted these animals down with the help of dogs. The hubara bustards are also chased and hunted, and the nestlings of the great gray shrike, a bird that catches its prey in the loess and builds its nests there, have suffered a particularly bitter fate. Touring the region with Hawlena, he points out the large rocks in the box-thorn bushes. He says they were thrown at the shrike nests, killing all their nestlings.

In spite of the serious damage caused by the Bedouin and their flocks, Hawlena says most of it is reversible, especially in the long term. When the grazing season is over, the terrain recovers for the most part, and some of the wild animals return. The damage caused by the farmers, on the other hand, cannot be repaired. The nature and parks authority says that much of the land that was supposed to become a loess park has been turned into cultivated, plowed fields. These tracts of loess, with their ecological distinctiveness, have been lost to agriculture.

The farming of this land is the work of several agriculture associations, who have used it to plant crops like potatoes. The nature and parks authority says that the farmers first establish facts on the ground: They cultivate the earth, and then apply to the army, which gives them a retroactive permit to continue farming on land which is ultimately within their jurisdiction. In a few cases, the authority has managed to halt the work on the grounds that protected flora and fauna are being harmed. When it comes to loess, however, it has little clout because these areas have never been declared a nature reserve or national park.

After the farmers, come the Thai laborers. The nature and parks authority and a number of scientists specializing in nature conservation claim that in recent years, workers from Thailand have become one of the major threats to Israeli wildlife. Some say these accusations are overblown, but looking at the land slated for a loess park, it seems clear that Thai workers are placing traps in every open space they can find.

On this land are ancient quarries which have become home to many wild animals. On a random tour of the area with Hawlena, who was not on the look-out for traps, a trap was sitting at the entrance to every porcupine burrow we came across. Near some of burrows were heaps of porcupine quills, attesting to the creature's fate.

The only way to halt the destruction of the loess tract in the Hatzerim vicinity is to change the classification of the land, which will give the nature and parks authority greater power of enforcement. According to plans, drawn up jointly by the authority and the Jewish National Fund, the future park there will encompass 40,000 dunams (10,000 acres). Of this, 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) will be defined as a full-fledged nature reserve. Rangers will be authorized to bar the entry of shepherds and prevent farmers from encroaching on this territory. The rest of the park will be turned into a recreation area with trails for hikers, to be developed by the JNF.

The blueprint for the park is scheduled for review in the coming weeks by the local planning and building committee for the western Negev, after which it will be turned over to the higher echelons. Raviv Shapira, director of the southern district office of the nature and parks authority, says that every effort will be made to push the plan through quickly. Until then, the authority will pressure the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Defense to keep this protected loess tract from being farmed, and take action on its own against farmers who have caused environmental damage. One farmer is already under investigation, and Shapira says that if sufficient evidence is found, the authority will press charges.

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