Israel’s flora and fauna are quite diverse in relation to the country’s size, but they are rapidly dwindling, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Ministry. The report, prepared for the United Nations, notes that every five years, an area larger than the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa is lost to new construction.
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The report was written by ecologist Dr. Eliezer Frankenberg as part of Israel’s commitment as a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This is the fifth such report on the condition of biodiversity in Israel since the treaty was signed in 1992.
The report shows that 3,000 acres of open areas are annually used up for construction. This means that every five years, an area bigger than that of Tel Aviv-Jaffa is exploited for building purposes. The findings estimate that by the end of the next decade, there will be a need to build on over 90,000 more acres of open areas. Much of this will take place in central and northern parts of the country, were there is a scarcity of such spaces.
“The loss or breakup of open areas remains the gravest threat to ecological systems,” notes the report.
The intensifying pressure of construction is reflected in the large numbers of flora and fauna species that are endangered. Sixty percent of Israel’s 104 mammal species are in danger of becoming extinct, as well as a quarter of its 206 species of nesting birds. A salient example is eagles: The number of new nests has dropped from 80 at the beginning of the decade to less than 15 in recent years. Even species who were faring well in the past, such as gazelles, are at increasingly high risk due to dwindling nature areas and extensive hunting.
Special attention in the report is given to bats, which constitute one quarter of Israel’s mammalian species. The latest survey of caves, done two years ago, located 28 out of 32 known species, indicating that they are still present in abundance. It was also found that many species in the north are in stable condition, although most are listed as endangered.
In addition to construction, the report refers to other threats, although it doesn’t give much attention to illegal hunting, which has become a severe problem. One threat derives from the spread of non-indigenous plants, which are overrunning the local species. There are currently 166 species of invaders in open spaces. Almost half of these have also been detected in national parks and conservation areas. A further threat lies in fires in woodlands and areas containing low grass. Most of the fires are caused by military exercises.
Despite these threats, there have been some successes in preserving biodiversity. Twenty-one percent of the country's land has been designated as protected, surpassing the target set by the international convention. This space includes 300 parks and conservation areas that have completed the certification, while more than 300 are still going through the process.
The national council for planning and construction recently approved designating further areas as ecological corridors. In these spaces, animal movement and plant dissemination will be protected and construction will be prohibited. However, these corridors are not as strongly protected by law as parks and conservation areas.
Coral reefs in Eilat have also recovered in recent years, and a fund at the Israel Land Authority has been earmarked for the conservation of open areas.
Efforts are underway to rehabilitate spaces that were damaged, with attempts being made to restore plants and animals. The report notes the establishment of a gene bank at the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry's Volcani Center, where seeds are collected from wild plants at risk of extinction. The bank has assisted in reviving plants which could be found only in isolated sites across the country.
More evidence has been gathered over the last few years regarding species that are unique to Israel, such as those in the Dead Sea and Arava areas, including 20 animal species and 15 wild bee species.
The government is preparing a national plan for conserving biodiversity. By 2025, this will reduce the amount of open areas slated for development in half. The plan also includes the rehabilitation of ponds and streams.