Hunting the Hunters: The Park Rangers Protecting Israel's Endangered Animals

Yonatan Englender
Yonatan Englender
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An inspector and sniffer dog in action, last week.
An inspector and sniffer dog in action, last week.Credit: Meged Gozani
Yonatan Englender
Yonatan Englender

It was almost midnight. An ATV going 70 kilometers an hour drove down a winding, unlit dirt road through orchards, vineyards, and past Bedouin tents and large tracts of uncultivated land. The vehicle was open, offering no protection against the freezing wind and the searing dust that made my eyes tear.

In the front passenger seat sat Uri Shapira, head of enforcement for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s central district. The driver was Yaniv Zeiger, an inspector responsible for preventing illegal hunting by foreign workers. Along with 30 other authority staffers and some 20 volunteers, they set out last Friday night with one goal – catching hunters.

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Israel’s hunting season opens at the start of September and lasts until the end of January. During this period some 2,000 hunters receive permits to shoot and kill various species of birds. According to the Society for the Protection of Nature tens of thousands of birds are killed during Israeli hunting season every year.

But there are illegal hunters who shoot not only birds, but other animals, including endangered species. Since most aren’t caught, it’s hard to know whether such poachers number in the hundreds or thousands. They use a range of methods, depending on their motives – tradition, profit, food – as well as the terrain and their ethnic community.

The group gathered at Masmiya Junction Friday night was trying to catch some of the stalkers whom Shapira deems worst of all – gazelle hunters. Israel has three different species of gazelle, all of which are endangered.

“Gazelle hunting is a crime par excellence, like dealing in arms, ammunition or drugs,” Shapira said, noting that it also often involves illegal weapons. “This is Sicily.”

The hunters work at night, driving ATVs without lights, aside from a few seconds every so often when they flick them on in search of prey. When they find an animal, they use a spotlight to stun it, then chase it until it’s exhausted. Only during the final few hundred meters do they bring out their Saluki hounds – sprinters bred for hunting – to finish the job.

It’s an unfair battle, Shapira said. And it happens every day.

The inspectors’ job isn’t easy. The territory is enormous, the night is dark and the hunters – in this area, usually Bedouins – are “fantastic drivers,” he said. But more inspectors than usual were present Friday night, and Shapira sounded optimistic when the night began.

The inspectors and volunteers divided into teams and dispersed to some 30 lookout points bounded by Lachish in the north, Lehavim in the south, the Green Line in the east and Route 232 in the west. Their job was to report any suspicious lights or movement. The inspectors would then erect roadblocks to trap the suspect.

It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack, but with no lights and a constantly moving needle that’s actively avoiding capture.

For a while, the radio was almost silent, and the few lookout reports proved to be false alarms. But suddenly, Shapira and Zeiger saw something on the left – a light that went off a second or two later. They agreed that it looked like a hunter scanning for prey and drove to high ground to see better. But once there, they saw no lights and heard nothing out of the ordinary.

“The problem is that it could be a hunter, but it could also be a bicycle lamp or a security officer’s flashlight,” Shapira admitted. “You need a lot of patience, and then in the end, the whole business takes five minutes. And sometimes, nothing at all happens.”

The inspectors at the forward command post had already accepted that nothing would happen that night. They were drinking their third (or fourth) coffees and telling war stories, like the one about the Thai man who hunted porcupines so they wouldn’t eat the greenhouse tubing. Inevitably, the coronavirus also came up.

Everyone at the forward command post was male, and it reminded me of army reserve duty – radios, a lot of acronyms and a surplus of testosterone. But Shapira, who served in an elite army unit and looks it, said it’s more like police work.

“Once, an inspector was a sheriff, going around and doing what he pleased. That became entrenched, a worldview of the few against the many, which is part of what makes it sexy. But that’s bullshit, it doesn’t hold water. In my job today, I’m always trying to professionalize the field – to get the inspectors to think like policemen who came to catch criminals.”

By 2 A.M., it seemed like the night would be a wash. Shapira and Zeiger were already heading back to the meeting point. Then, finally, it happened: A lookout reported three vehicles with seven or eight occupants. Soon afterward, he reported shouts and motor noises typical of hunters. Now, like the hunters, the inspectors had to drive without lights. They drove cautiously to the area where the lights were spotted and began erecting roadblocks. Another lookout report came in: They’ve headed west, toward the stream.

The tension was high; everyone knew that even one mistake would enable the suspects to vanish. Then, a lookout reported that the suspects’ ATVs had split up and the inspectors were chasing them. And then, silence. “Someone tell me what’s happening,” Shapira demanded. But the radio was silent.

Finally, after a very long minute, the report came in. Two ATVs with five hunters were caught; the third got tangled in a tree and the occupants fled. But the work isn’t over once the suspects are caught; in many ways, it has just begun. Aided by sniffer dogs, the inspectors searched the cars for evidence – bloodstains, bits of fur, characteristic scratches on the bumper. Any corpses are generally thrown out the window or hidden the moment the hunters realize they’re likely to be caught.

Near where the hunters were spotted, the inspectors found a run-over hyena. The suspects denied everything.

“We were on an excursion,” one insisted, barefoot despite the cold. Another offered shrugs and inconclusive responses. All five were taken to the Sderot police station.

Friday night, the inspectors won. But there was no guarantee the same would happen on Saturday. They usually have fewer people helping, and it’s hard to catch skilled hunters who know the territory well with only two or three teams. Moreover, laboratory tests of the evidence can take months, so the case probably won’t go to court for 18 months or more. And while the maximum sentence for illegal hunting is a fine of 150,000 shekels ($44,000) or a few years in jail, most sentences are far more lenient – usually a few thousand shekels or at most a few tens of thousands, Shapira said.

About two weeks earlier, east of Rosh Ha’ayin, I was with Shapira when he found a dead hyena, a yearling. “Life is wonderful,” he said sarcastically. “I really feel that someone has to protect nature here,” he said. “It’s also a matter of loving the land, loving our homeland, and a desire for something to remain here afterward.” And then, he added, “This is war. Every day all over again.”

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