This is the most beautiful season in the Yarmuk River valley, on the southern slopes of the Golan Heights. The yellow grasses of summer have given way to a thousand shades of green and birds fill the blue-gray skies. The roadsides boast 1980s-style signs telling travelers they’ll soon be at the turnoff for the magical hot springs, famous crocodile pools and lovely animal corner of Hamat Gader, on the border with Jordan.
This time, though, disappointment lies around the corner. You can feel the desolation from the parking lot, which features just two other cars (one belonging to workers). Heading into the site, more signs of abandonment reveal themselves. A huge enclosure with a sign saying “Please don’t feed us” stands empty, as does another one with the name of the former tenants: olive baboons.
On the other side of the trail is a huge glass aquarium with a pool inside it, a large bush and a barrel with the words “Monica’s house.” It too is empty. Monica, a female Burmese python, once lived here, but she departed for a pet shop.
The meerkats, goats and other snakes have gone too. Now, it’s mainly chickens and spotted deer that are left. One young deer comes up to be petted; it’s not every day they get visitors. In fact, it’s been 10 months since Hamat Gader – its hot springs and baths, hotel and animal corner – last saw visitors.
CEO Sharon Ninyo says the Health Ministry won’t let them open. Meanwhile, the animals are getting lonely and, worse, the site’s 150 employees are still on furlough. About a month ago, the decision was made to remove the animals and close the famous crocodile farm. “The animals cost us more than a million and a half shekels [$460,000] a year,” Ninyo says.
Relocating the monkeys and the snakes was easier: the former were sent to the Israel Primate Sanctuary in Ben Shemen, central Israel; the latter sold to pet stores in Beit She’an.
The emus will have no trouble finding a new home in a zoo somewhere else in Israel, but the spotted deer are a problem. The herd at Hamat Gader now numbers about 100, and there’s no demand for them.
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But the biggest problem is the crocodiles. David Golan, who has worked with the crocs for the past 30 years, informs Ninyo that a zoo being built in Be’er Sheva will take a few of them – but only in 18 months’ time.
‘Empty and silent’
Since Hamat Gader reopened in the 1970s, a few years after Israel captured the Golan Heights, the site has known its share of troubles. There were disputes with the Health Ministry over the hot pools, while the courts intervened after the animal rights group Let the Animals Live sued over a live crocodile show. But Ninyo says Hamat Gader has been doing well for the past five or six years, and those years allowed it to survive “by the skin of its teeth” during the coronavirus crisis.
Ninyo’s frustration is understandable, given that Jewish National Fund and Israel Nature and Parks Authority sites have been allowed to reopen. But this private business, which belongs to four kibbutzim in the southern Golan Heights (Afik, Metzar, Kfar Haruv and Mevo Hama) remains shuttered.
“It hurts that a business that was such a source of Israeli pride is now empty and silent,” he says, adding that he doesn’t want to sound like a kvetcher. “This place saw 400,000 visitors a year and employed 150 people in the immediate circle, not including suppliers and consultants in the wider circles.” It’s a big, open-air site, Ninyo points out. “They could have opened already in keeping with the coronavirus restrictions.”
He has recently asked the authorities to recognize Hamat Gader as a “green island” – recognition that has allowed the Dead Sea and Eilat to remain open to visitors, with certain restrictions – which would make it easier to control visitor traffic. But he doesn’t hold out much hope. “The busy time is winter,” he says, and he’s getting hundreds of phone calls asking why they’re not open.
When the coronavirus crisis is over and the place reopens, there won’t be any animals left (assuming they solve their crocodile problem). Meanwhile, there are still two employees who care for the remaining animals.
A walk along the paths shows that no one is caring for the site right now. Large leaves litter one path, while shattered oranges that have fallen from the trees are scattered on another path not far from the emu cage.
The quiet is broken only by the singing of birds and the squawking of the parrots that still live here. In the parrot enclosure, in a small amphitheater where children would watch a parrot show, animal caretaker Kobi Weir explains that the parrots are suddenly stressed. “They’re not used to people around them anymore – they like it, but they’re tense,” he explains.
Weir has been caring for the parrots for 17 years, but they’ve been here even before he arrived – since 1994. “They deserve a proper retirement. They’re like a flock. We’re trying to move them together. They’re not so young anymore: some of them are over 20 years old and they see each other every day.”
How does he feel about the day when there’ll be no more parrots? “It won’t be good,” he says with a sad smile.
And what about his professional future? He’s less worried about that, he says. “It depends what happens here. I used to be a fisherman. I worked for the water authority. We’ve been through things,” he says.
The crocodilians resting near the beautiful pools don’t look like they miss people. “This was the first crocodile farm in Israel, and the goal was tourism,” croc caretaker Golan explains. “After that, they tried to sell skins, but it wasn’t economical and they dropped it.”
According to Golan, during the golden age of Hamat Gader in the ’90s, there were almost 1,000 crocodile hatches a year. But the Israel Nature and Parks Authority demanded that they keep the numbers down, and there were a few species that didn’t acclimate in Israel. As a result, there are now only 60 or 70 crocodilians left: a few gharials, originally from India, which are considered less dangerous and only eat fish; American alligators; and African crocodiles.
The gharials are actually all females, born in the 1990s and still fertile. Golan says he’s been trying unsuccessfully to find them a mate. “Because they’re not aggressive, they’re endangered,” he explains. “In all of Europe and Asia, there are only six or seven zoos that have them.” He hopes they’ll find a mate in their new home and the dynasty will persist.
Uri Laniel, head of animal possessions and trade at the INPA, explains the complexities of the situation regarding crocodiles. At first, farms for crocodile meat and skins were legitimate, he says. “They took an animal that was hunted in the wild and farmed it; that reduced damage to nature, and that was great.” The same was true for ostriches.
About a decade ago, however, then-Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan initiated legislation that didn’t allow these animals to be raised on farms, and they went back to being protected species. There were two other crocodile farms in Israel – one in the Jordan Valley and another in the Arava Desert – neither of which made it as tourist attractions. According to Laniel, over the past few years the courts have rejected the Jordan Valley farm’s request for state compensation, and an attempt to move the crocodiles to Cyprus failed.
Croc in a water channel
Paul Rapaport from Kibbutz Mevo Hama can recall the early days at Hamat Gader in the ’70s. “It started as a commercial venture. Mevo Hama was raising shrimp, eels and ornamental fish, and at some point the idea came from Israel’s economic consul in South Africa to start a commercial farm. The idea never took off, but then came a deal to start a noncommercial farm with the U.S. National Park Service, which was seeking ways to protect alligators.
One hundred and twenty alligators were flown to Israel from a farmer in Florida, and they made their way to Hamat Gader in a semi-trailer. Most of them, anyway. One croc fell off the truck and was killed instantly, while another also fell off but nobody noticed at the time. “He fell off at the Roman bridge in Beit She’an, on the curve,” Rapaport recounts. “There was a whole big to-do that day, with spectators and journalists, and [the Hamat Gader team] didn’t mention it. About a month later, we got a message from a Beit She’an resident that he’d seen a crocodile on the road. We went there, and after a search we found it in a water channel.”
The crocodile farm, Rapaport says, was a success story. A few years later, they even sold 200 crocs to a farmer in the United States – not to make a profit, but to reduce numbers. Very soon, they’ll all be gone.
“I think reality is stronger than our ability to hold the place,” Rapaport reflects. “The damage from the coronavirus was fatal, and apparently the people who make the calculations know it’s impossible.” For him, “it’s definitely the end of a chapter. I think nobody has realized it yet.”