How a Fire-foiling Plan Left Herds of Antelope Roaming Army Bases in Israel

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Antelope at a base in central Israel
Antelope at a base in central IsraelCredit: Meged Gozani
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Somewhere out there in the center of the country, on a large army base, stands a eucalyptus grove. Peer through the trees and you may spot an enormous ammunition crate filled with water sitting there. It’s not a piece of rubbish that was left out in the rain, but a trough meant for an unusual group of residents who share the base with the soldiers – a herd of elands, a type of giant antelope, that were brought here years ago as part of a creative attempt to prevent fires.

After a while, this idyllic scheme ran into certain problems: The antelopes didn’t devour all the types of low vegetation that cause fires to spread, and the army found itself at a loss for how to deal with the animals. Ever since, as is often the way things happen in Israel, the status quo has been maintained: The antelopes continue to roam the base as the soldiers go about their business.

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These antelopes are not the only ones that were part of this initiative: At least four army bases in different parts of the country are currently home to elands, oryx and wild sheep. Though the animals stay away from the soldiers and don’t pose any real hazard, they continue to multiply – and mainly serve as a living reminder of a particularly idealistic episode in the army’s history.

“It seemed romantic, it seemed like a very nice thing,” recalls Shmulik Yedvab, former head of the Mammal Department in the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. But he says the romance evaporated when it became apparent that “the army didn’t know how to manage it.” Yedvab says, “If you bring in exotic animals for a certain purpose you need to take care of them and ensure that the objective is accomplished properly. The process was not accompanied by research or any orderly procedure. It was more like – hey, I’ve got an idea, let’s do it. Do you check that it works? Did anyone try to see if it was a reasonable idea or not? It was done like a whim – not helpful, not harmful.”

Elands at an Israeli army baseCredit: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

Dr. Roni King, a veterinarian with the Nature and Parks Authority, remembers when the idea was first proposed. In the early 1980s, the Safari in Ramat Gan had a surplus of elands. Yigal Sela, from the Jewish National Fund, offered to transfer some of the animals to an army base in the center of the country and to another base in the north (where they did not survive). “Yigal Sela thought it was a great idea for preventing fires, and that’s what tempted the army to go along with it,” King says.

Sela, a pioneer in environmental preservation in Israel, confirms King’s account. “I was looking for an animal that could moderate the low vegetation, for the simple reason that it’s not trees alone that serve as the basis for a fire, it’s the low vegetation that acts as a transmitter of fire,” he says. Sela thought the eland would perfectly fit the bill: “It eats vegetation up to 2.5 meters high and can also consume poisonous plants.”

The plan was met with skepticism at first, says Sela: “People said, ‘You don’t know anything about this animal and you’re making grandiose proposals.’ People weren’t familiar with the work I’d done. But the figures I presented were passed on to an economist who reviewed the plan and said it was worth a lot of money. I did the rest all on my own, and certain people from the IDF and RAFAEL put some sealed-off areas at my disposal.” Once, he says, one of the elands ran away from a military base. “It wandered between Ashkelon and Ashdod for a year and a half until we caught it.”

Dr. Amelia Terkel, curator of the Ramat Gan Safari from the 1980s until 2013, says the elands were chosen because they eat not just from the ground, but from the trees too: “With the kind of flora here this is what’s needed, because it wasn’t possible to trim the plants in the area mechanically. We thought this animal was well-suited for this,” she says.

Dr. Yigal Horowitz, chief veterinarian at the Safari and director of its animal hospital, was involved in the transfer of the antelopes to the IDF at the time. Now he admits he’s not sure if it was such a good plan: “They wanted the antelopes so they wouldn’t have to use pesticides on the bases,” he says. “It was potentially a good idea, but once the idea is formulated and adopted, it has to be properly managed.”

Horowitz says that when the IDF saw that the project was having unintended consequences, they consulted with him, and he proposed separating the males from the females and neutering the animals to keep them from multiplying.

But the problems weren’t solved. “I think the IDF never put in the money that was needed to get control of this thing,” he says. “I can’t say now whether it’s bad for the army that the animals are there, or if it’s bad for the antelopes that they’re in the army. I know there were times when animals died, but that happens. I know that there were a few times that the IDF tried to get a handle on it, but the biggest problem is that there’s quite a big difference between an army’s abilities and the skills needed to manage herds of wild animals.”

Elands at an Israeli army baseCredit: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

The eland project was followed by similar initiatives. Yedvab recalls that in the early 2000s, when he worked at the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, he was asked to donate ibexes and gazelles for the same purpose. He wasn’t keen on the idea, but he agreed, on condition that the animals were first neutered – and that’s what happened. “There were maybe 20 of them,” he says, “and not one is left now.”

Antelope love

Last month, Haaretz visited the army base in central Israel where the elands still roam. Lt. Col. Ami Assayag, coordinator of the project, says the animals were brought from the Safari in 2003 and 2004, in seven installments, for a total of 16 females and 25 males. Today he estimates that there are between 100-150 animals on the base.

Guy Selai, director of SPNI’s Nature Defense Forces project, says that the army’s veterinarians have been unable to firmly establish the number of animals on the base. He thinks the animal population has remained more or less stable. Another group of elands that was sent to an area on the Lebanese border for the purpose of mowing the vegetation there has apparently died out. But it’s hard to know for certain what happened and when. The army has not provided details about the project and all inquiries regarding the number of animals currently residing on army bases led nowhere.

It appears that there is no real interaction between the elands on the base in central Israel and the soldiers there. “The soldiers aren’t sitting there petting them,” says Orna Turkenitz, head of the environmental protection department there. On a tour of the base, it was evident that these huge animals, which can weigh up to 800 kilos, are still quite timid. Turkenitz acknowledges that the animals are not “completely” fulfilling their original purpose, but says, “We still look after them here on the base. Whether they do the job or not, they’re protected.”

Elands at an Israeli army baseCredit: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

These antelopes, which originate in Africa, do appear very much at home in their unusual surroundings. The weather here is quite comfortable for them most of the year, and the soldiers also learn about them as part of their educational activities. People are in charge of ensuring that clean water is set out for the animals at several locations on the base, and during calving season, you can see the “daycare center” started by the females, where they assemble all the calves. Assayag says the elands also turned out to have a keen sense of aesthetics: “The ones that were in real danger were the beautiful flowers that were planted here. We had to learn how to fence them in to protect them.”

Meanwhile, a few hours’ drive to the north, another bunch of very impressive animals roam an army base surrounded by greenery, between barbed wire fences with signs warning: “No photographs” and “Beware of Mines.” These animals, with curved horns, are Barbary sheep, also known as aoudads.

These animals could also recently be spotted outside the base, which is located near popular cycling trails. A number of them were crowded around a mound of garbage next to the base. Unlike at the base in the center of the country, here they seem to be less careful about keeping the lids of the garbage cans closed.

Things seem to have improved for the animals since the project began, though. Selai says that “today there are commanders who understand that they need professional guidance and assistance with this.”

The Nature Defense Forces project was started seven years ago, to help the army protect the environment and heritage sites in the areas under its jurisdiction and where it operates. It is run in cooperation with SPNI, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Elands at a base in central IsraelCredit: The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

Selai describes the process that has taken place in regard to the animals as a “conceptual revolution.” He says, “In the past, people would have just said, ‘Let’s shoot to cull the herd,’ but now it’s ‘Let’s think about how to handle this.’ They consult with professionals. The fact that they appreciate that there are animals living here too, and that solutions must be found for everyone to live together – that’s exciting to me.”

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