Beasts of the Israeli Wild

For a nature-lover seeking a serious thrill, Israel offers plenty of rugged sites to scope out gazelles, ibex and oryx. From Nahal Kziv to the Ramon Crater, here are the best spots to find where the wild things are.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Two desert ibex stood under the shade of an acacia tree, 20 meters from a gravel road, not far from the doum palm in the Arava desert. Our eyes met and time froze.

One mustn’t move, breathe or speak. One just hopes they’ll keep standing there for a moment without suddenly bounding off. They stood erect, examining the gleaming car on the gravel road, ready to run for their lives. The steamy noon-time air whirled, but we kept eye contact. I believe all this lasted some 20 seconds, maybe less, but even now, a year later, the memory is profound.

A few seconds later, the pair disappeared. They took giant, light leaps, hardly touching the ground, finding refuge in the greenery far off the dirt road.
It was seemingly a simple meeting, but a sudden glimpse of gazelles, ibex, fallow deer or oryx in the wild is an emotional occasion.

Hunting is a despicable custom, of course, but one can easily understand the hunter’s excitement. The adrenalin rises the moment such a meeting occurs and any attempt to photograph or simply watch large animals roaming freely makes the heart rate soar.

Fallow deer in Bar Giora

A few weeks ago, as part of an ongoing program, officials of the Nature and Parks Authority, together with a team from the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, released six female Persian fallow deer near the old train station in Bar Giora in the Jerusalem hills. They were taken to the acclimation enclosure, a large fenced-in section of land with tangled bushes, in large wooden crates. The crates were taken from the trucks and opened. From each emerged a young Persian fallow deer, about 1 year old, stumbling, staring and confused. Around the neck of each was a white collar with a transmitter that would help in keeping track of her acclimatization process.

They stood there for a moment, trying to focus their gaze, a bit worried, looking at the humans, who stood back so as not to interfere. Then they began eating grass. You couldn’t help but feel compassion for them. People wanted to hug them or at least stroke them, but nobody approached them.

I read that the name of the Persian fallow deer in Hebrew, yahmur, refers to the color of their fur, which resembles the word hemar (the ancient Hebrew word for clay or wine). I’m not sure the word does these gorgeous creatures justice, since the name is reminiscent of the word for donkey, hamor, while these deer are quite a bit more delicate than donkeys. About 60 years ago, it was believed that the species had become extinct, but then several of them were discovered in southwestern Iran.

The repopulation group on the Carmel mountain ridge is based on two males who were brought from a zoo in Germany and four females who were brought here, in an adventure that took on mythical proportions, on the last El Al flight from Tehran on the eve of the Islamic revolution.

Those six bewildered female deer are part of an ongoing process that has succeeded and failed by turns. Dr. Nili Avni-Magen, a veterinarian at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, told me that morning that the idea was simple — to release into the wild Persian fallow deer that had been born in the zoo and raised there for about a year. The release team’s plan was to keep the six females in the acclimation enclosure in Bar Giora for about a month and then remove the fences, allowing them to roam freely.

But reality had a plan of its own. In a conversation this week, Dr. Avni-Magen told me that the day after our meeting in Bar Giora, the six deer had left the enclosure on their own. They might have seemed confused to me, but evidently the grass on the other side of the fence had seemed much greener to them, or fear of being crated once again had spurred them to leap to freedom.

“We’ve never had anything like that happen before,” says Dr. Avni-Magen. “Even now, we don’t know how the six young deer managed to escape. We found no breach in the fence. They might have leaped it.”

One of the females was found dead soon afterward. Two others died this month — one was evidently hit by a train while the other was found near Beit Shemesh, its cause of death unknown. The three others, who had gone free without an acclimation process, have survived and their collars transmit regularly to the team members who keep track of them. They can be seen during hikes in the area of Nahal Katlav, Bar Giora and the large expanse between Beit Shemesh and Har Hatayasim (the Pilots’ Mountain). About 20 male and female Persian fallow deer who survived from previous releases roam in the Jerusalem region.

The release model for Persian fallow deer that is considered the most successful is the one conducted in the Nahal Kziv region. In the distant past, Persian fallow deer lived here, but massive hunting and shrinking habitat almost led them to extinction.

Thanks to the process of releasing Persian fallow deer born and raised in the Hai Bar Nature Reserve, good acclimation and natural increase, about 200 fallow deer now roam in the area of Nahal Kziv. While sightings are not particularly rare, they do require certain preparations. During the daylight hours, especially the hotter times of day, they stay in the bushes of the forest. Anyone who wants to see them should visit Nahal Kziv in early morning or in the evening before sunset.

The places where one has the best chance of meeting them in Nahal Kziv are alongside the paths that cross Goren Park — through the entrance to the park from the Goren area; the path near the lookout point at the Montfort Crusader castle, where many of the deer come in the afternoon; the parking area near the olive trees and the eastern part of the park. They can also be seen along the path that crosses the forest to Gornot HaGalil or where the acclimation enclosure was located near Ein Tamir.

Ibexes in Ein Gedi

In Ein Gedi, there’s the opposite problem — one cannot avoid encountering the Nubian ibex. They roam inside the kibbutz, at the entrance to the Nahal David Nature Reserve, all over Nahal Arugot and on the grounds of the Ein Gedi Field School. While we’ve certainly gotten spoiled when it comes to observing ibexes, the largest free-roaming mammal in Israel besides the wild boar, we should remember that back in 1966, the Nubian ibex was on the list of animals in danger of extinction known at the time as the Red Book of Endangered Species (now the IUCN Red List).

According to a cautious estimate, about 250 ibexes live in the Ein Gedi region (a total of about 500 live in the Judean desert). During the day, they roam along the streambeds and at the Ein Gedi spring. Toward evening, they start moving toward the cliffs and climb up the mountain to where they sleep, on shelves in the rock. In the morning, about two hours after first light, they go down to lower places.

One of the best places to see them is the lovely lookout terrace at the Ein Gedi Field School, which looks out over Nahal David and the Dead Sea.
Merav Ayalon, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, told me over the telephone this week: “Three ibexes always roam throughout the kibbutz. They really like the hotel area and one of them, an old curmudgeon of an ibex, acts like he owns it. We don’t try to chase them away because they’re an inseparable part of life here. This is as much their place as it is mine.”

Ibexes at Nahal Hatira

The steep footpath that descends from Ma’aleh Yamin and goes through Nahal Hatira toward Ma’aleh Palmah and Ein Yerakam is one of the most beautiful trails in Israel. It has everything: gorgeous views, several large trees one can find shelter under and, to the best of my knowledge, a family of five adult ibexes. I’ve seen them on every visit to Nahal Hatira. They usually stay about a kilometer before Ma’aleh Palmah (to those coming from the west) and roam among several acacia trees, graze on grass and taste the leaves of the trees. Unlike the ibexes in Ein Gedi, who are not at all spooked by human activity, the ibexes at Nahal Hatira are skittish.

They run off at any noise they aren’t used to or in response to quick movements. The open space allows people to look at them from not too far off, and if you sit quietly, they calm down after a few minutes and go back to their regular behavior — eating.

An onager at Machtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater)

At Mitzpeh Ramon in Har Hanegev lives a large group of overly friendly ibexes who roam around the promenade above the crater and the visitors’ center. Sometimes, mostly in the morning, they go out onto the city streets and pick through the trash bins. Recently, about 300 ibexes were counted in Har Hanegev and 150 around the mountains of Eilat.

The better meetings can take place on the crater itself. Fairly close to Route 40, where the quarries were reconstructed and the Colors of Ramon National Park is to be established, I saw a large, light-colored wild onager – a type of wild Asian ass – who came in the late afternoon to drink water from the ponds left by the kilns that were once in operation there. Several of these ponds, which are filled with water at winter’s end, attract thirsty, hunkering creatures.

Although the wild asses used to be extinct in Israel (the last one was shot in 1927), they were returned to Machtesh Ramon successfully in 1983. Their population there is small — only a few dozen. During the winter, it’s hard to see wild asses because after the rains, water sources multiply and there are many for them to choose from.

During the summer, when the natural water sources dry up, the wild asses have to limit their activity to a few places. Good places to observe wild asses include the entire area of Machtesh Ramon and the road between Ruhot Junction and Mount Harif.

Acacia gazellesCredit: Benny Shalmon
A family outing at Nahal Kziv. If you bring the dog, you won't see the wildlife.
Ibexes in Israel.
Ibexes at Ein Gedi.
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A family outing at Nahal Kziv. If you bring the dog, you won't see the wildlife.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
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Ibexes in Israel.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Ibexes at Ein Gedi.Credit: Alex Levac
Ibexes wildlife

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