A pack of more than a dozen wolves on Mount Meron hunt down a wild boar and wander off with the remains. A hyena rolls around on the ground just for the fun of it. Two foxes engage in a fierce battle.
Thanks to the video cameras placed throughout the country’s woodlands and forests, nature researchers have spent the past year viewing incidents like these as they track Israeli wildlife for Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment Program, known in Hebrew as Hamaarag.
Researchers have found that even in densely populated Israel there remains an impressive array of wildlife, but that these animals are being pushed into ever more remote areas far from expanding communities and have had make special adjustments to survive. For example, gazelles have been documented living in pine forests, even though their natural habitat is areas with less dense vegetation.
“We operate some 60 monitoring centers with hundreds of monitoring points,” said Naama Berg, who coordinates the biodiversity monitoring for Hamaarag. “This includes the use of surveillance cameras sensitive to the movement of animals and the use of traps to catch animals, examine them and release them back to nature."
The advantage of this method of photography is the absence of humans, which allows the animals to behave naturally. A camera in Martyrs Forest near Beit Shemesh, for instance, caught a female gazelles calmly preparing her resting place for the night. Another camera filmed two gazelles fighting over the same turf.
In the Upper Galilee the cameras caught a hazel dormouse, which has been spotted in Israel only twice in the past 40 years. The small rodent lives in the woods and builds its nests in oak trees.
There have been no sightings yet of the weasel, which has become scarce in recent years.
The animal tracking indicates that predators like badgers and hyenas, which had been considered rare, are actually relatively common in many regions. The predator observed most frequently was the jackal, which fed on man-made waste sites.
Researchers also found that gray cats (which are usually striped) resembling wildcats are more likely to be found at greater distances from settled areas, while multi-colored cats were more common near towns and villages. It’s possible that domesticated cats that resemble wildcats have an advantage in nature because they can better camouflage themselves.
The monitoring of birds has shown the growing influence of invasive species that are pressuring native species. For example, the myna bird, an invasive species, has been spotted in Har Amasa, northeast of Arad. The presence of the myna in this region is indicative of its ability to adapt to different climatic regions and spread to large areas.
The scientists involved with Hamaarag also monitor vegetation, using aerial photos and satellite imagery under the supervision of Roni Drori, who is responsible for remote sensing and databases at Hamaarag. He translates the data into an index that examines the flora over time by looking at aspects such as the health of the trees and the percentage of area covered by vegetation. This index shows the many effects of human activity in different areas.
“What we see by analyzing the years 1991-2011 is a downward trend in the vegetation index in the area south of Beit Shemesh,” says Drori. “This stems from dehydration because of lack of water, but also from fires, especially in the Judean lowlands. When we analyzed the situation in Samaria, we saw a rise in the vegetation index near Jewish settlements, probably because of the restrictions imposed there on grazing, while there is a drop in the flora index near Palestinian communities. An interesting example is at Nahal Qana in Samaria, which was declared a nature reserve and his since developed a tangle of forest.”
By contrast, in the north of the country the vegetation index has risen, in part because of a decrease in grazing there over the years.
Hamaarag’s findings dovetail with the research being conducted by the Jewish National Fund in places like Martyrs Forest. The JNF is examining the response of plants to various conditions, like the thinning and felling of trees.
One important finding is that after extensive thinning of a forest, the remaining trees remained healthy. “There were fewer trees and they therefore had more water," says JNF forester Hanoch Tzoref. This finding refutes the widespread fear that thinning out forests is liable to harm their overall health, and proves that the density of trees in some areas in the south could probably be reduced so as to better maintain the overall health of the forests there.
The tracking project, which began last year, is taking place under the auspices of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, in partnership with the Nature and Parks Authority, the JNF and the Environmental Protection Ministry.