Scouring Israel for the Golden Squirrel

A group of ecologists search for signs of this little critter, once common in northern Israel but not spotted in the area since 1984.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

Only in rare cases are entry permits granted to the slopes of Katef Sion, located on the western side of Mount Hermon. Ever since the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from Lebanon, permits are issued only in special cases such as a prayer held yearly, in the site where by tradition the Lord made his "Covenant of the pieces" with Abraham.

Last month, a group received a permit in order to carry out an even stranger activity: closely examining Katef Sion’s ancient oak trees, including the holes in the trunks, their height and the distance between the treetops.

After a short discussion, the group placed sophisticated, sensitive cameras in the area, before rubbing some brown paste on the branches near the cameras, and leaving the place.

Who were the mysterious strangers? A delegation searching for the golden-colored Caucasian squirrel, hoping to find the remains of a huge population that once flourished in Israel.

The delegation was headed by Amit Dolev, an ecologist for the northern district of the Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel’s Shmulik Yidov, and Ohad Maas, from the Society for the Preseveration of Nature in Israel.

"For many years people have wondered if the golden squirrel still exists in Israel or not", Yidov, head of the SPNI's Mammal Center, told Haaretz. "Now that we have the technological means to follow the squirrels without bothering them, we decided to seek the answer, and find out, once and for all."

The last time Caucasian squirrels, known in Israel as the golden squirrel, were sighted in the area was in 1984. Ephraim Ezov, who investigated the subject at the time, estimated that 50 couples existed. Lea Gavish, who examined the area at the end of the 1990s estimated that three males were still around, but no one has ever since seen proof of their existence.

Yidov said, "Once, when the area was in the travel guides, people passing next to a local Sheikh's grave would say they heard the squirrels in the area," but that now they are probably on the verge of extinction. "In Jordan, in the Gilad area, there are still Caucasian squirrels despite being hunted for pets. There were even efforts to smuggle golden squirrels to Israel as pets."

Bones in archeological sites prove that squirrels lived in the area some 12,500 years ago. Yidov believes that climate changes drove them to the north. Reports from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century mentioned the squirrels as inhabiting most of Lebanon.

Still, hunting, fires, predators and deforestation caused the squirrels to disappear.

Indeed the cameras spread on the hillside – as well as the peanut butter smeared on nearby branches, did not reveal any squirrels, but rather many other animals, including the squirrels' bitter enemies, cats and martens. Yidov said that the "martens are excellent hunters, and we believe that the IDF posts in the area caused an increase in animals that follow humans, such as cats and martens. These live wherever there are garbage cans."

Last week the delegation gathered their cameras and examined the thousands of photographs. On the same day, a permit was also issued for a group who came to pray on site. While one group prayed to the lord almighty, the other prayed, to no avail, to find photos of Caucasian squirrels.

The Caucasian squirrel, seen in Lebanon, has not been spotted in Israel since 1984. Credit: Wikimedia Commons



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