Jerusalem's Prickly Problem: Porcupines, Gazelles, and Bats in Danger of Extinction

New report reveals the wealth of nature in the city but paints a worrisome picture of the future of its urban wildlife.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Residents of Beit Hakerem, Kiryat Yovel and other Jerusalem neighborhoods know that a nighttime stroll near home can turn exciting, and even a little scary, if it brings you face to face with a bristling, nervous, Indian-crested porcupine. That’s the largest wild animal you are likely to come across walking down the street, and despite years of rapid development and changing conditions, it survives. And as a species of urban wildlife − which include both animals and plants − it is not alone, as shown by a new report.

The purpose of the study, the first worked on jointly by the city and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is to make the conservation of nature in Jerusalem part of the capital’s planning policy.

The report, sponsored by the Beracha Foundation, is to be presented Thursday at a conference hosted by the SPNI and the municipality. It reveals the wealth of nature in the city, including not only porcupines but gazelles, hedgehogs, bats, toads, snakes, raptors and rare species of flowers. The report also reveals a worrisome picture of the danger that some of Jerusalem’s open spaces are in.

The study enumerates 141 nature sites within the city limits. These include open spaces like Gazelle Valley, Sacker Park and Mitzpeh Neftoah hill, as well as little islands of greenery like the plant nursery in Katamon or a farm in Armon Hanatziv. The entire Old City is named in the report too − its ancient walls hosting a variety of flora and fauna. Other sites include Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus and the area around the churches on the Mount of Olives and the nearby cemetery.

These areas, amounting to 37,000 dunams (9,250 acres‏), are home to no less than 213 species of animals and 738 species of plants. Of the animals, 53 species are endangered, including three species of mammals and 43 species of birds. Among the plants are seven which, if they become extinct in Jerusalem, put the entire species at risk. One of these is the Sicilian snapdragon, whose most common place of growth anywhere in the country is right out of Jerusalem’s old walls. In areas of the city that have been renewed, for example the Jewish Quarter, almost none of the old wall-growing species have survived.

Mitzpeh Neftoah hill, on which the new neighborhood of Nofei Neftoah is to be built, with the Givat Shaul area in the background.
A gazelle in Gazelle Valley.
Lesser kestrel chicks peeking out of their nest.
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Mitzpeh Neftoah hill, on which the new neighborhood of Nofei Neftoah is to be built, with the Givat Shaul area in the background. Credit: Oudia Tadmor / Jini
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A gazelle in Gazelle Valley.Credit: Amir Balaban / SPNI
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Lesser kestrel chicks peeking out of their nest.Credit: Assaf Merouz
Urban wildlife

Gazelles are among the animals at risk in the capital. Even though hundreds of them still live in and around the city, road-building, fencing and new neighborhoods are taking a bite out of their habitat. Their natural predators, attracted by mounds of urban garbage, are on the rise, such as the golden jackal and the red fox. Gazelles also face two new predators − none other than dogs and cats. Another endangered icon of Jerusalem’s wildlife is the lesser kestrel, a bird of prey that was once very common until it fell prey itself − to reduced open spaces. Now only one small colony is left of this small, beautiful raptor − in the Musrara neighborhood.

Construction threatens wildlife sites

Ten wildlife sites named in the report have disappeared, some because of construction. There are now 13 sites endangered by development, the most important of which is doubtless Mitzpeh Neftoah in the northern part of the city. The hill, which is home to three endangered mammal species ‏(the striped hyena, gazelle and European bee-eater‏), is slated for a housing development.

In addition to calling for the report’s recommendations to become law, the document suggests daily actions to be taken to help protect the city’s natural treasures. Among these are restricting lighting in sensitive areas, using animal-proof garbage bins, properly managing surface runoff so that it does not pollute and flood open spaces, conservation of springs and refraining from planting invasive species. The full chapter on recommendations is to be written and published separately by the SPNI, without the involvement of the city, because it is expected to include criticism of construction plans in the capital.

In the meantime, however, the director of SPNI’s Jerusalem branch, Sigalit Rahman, has good things to say about the municipality’s efforts: “The ability of the municipality in a city that is so complex to contain these ideas and absorb the fact that there are also natural systems here that it is a part of − is commendable.”

Deputy Mayor Naomi Tzur, who is spearheading the initiative for the city, says Jerusalem is a leader in this field not only in Israel, but worldwide. That is because it is the world’s first city to include urban nature as a binding planning directive, she says. “People once thought that nature in the city is something that’s fun to preserve, but not necessary. Now we understand that we need it. We look at nature nowadays as a layer of infrastructure and in the end we have to recognize that it is the most important layer in our lives on this planet.”

A gazelle in Gazelle Valley.Credit: Amir Balaban / SPNI
Mitzpeh Neftoah hill, on which the new neighborhood of Nofei Neftoah is to be built, with the Givat Shaul area in the background. Credit: Oudia Tadmor / Jini

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