Wild Animals in Israel Will Return to Worse Reality Than Before Pandemic

The unusual animals sighted in parks and streets will have to readapt to its ever-shrinking natural habitat after the lockdown ends

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Wild boars roam next to a residential building after the government ordered residents to stay home to fight the spread of coronavirus, in Haifa, northern Israel April 2020.
Wild boars roam next to a residential building after the government ordered residents to stay home to fight the spread of coronavirus, in Haifa, northern Israel April 2020. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The peace and freedom of movement wildlife has enjoyed near urban areas due to the coronavirus crisis will soon end as worldwide lockdowns gradually ease. Cars are returning to the roads and heavy machinery will resume digging and building. The wild kingdom will have to readapt to the little the human race has left it.

Israel – where there has been an ongoing destruction and slashing of open areas – is a salient example of the wretched reality to which wild animals will return. Many of the places in proximity to cities where such creatures have flourished in general, or have been spotted in recent weeks during the crisis, simply won’t exist in the future, once planning approval and construction resume.

Near the Pi Glilot Junction, in the heart of metropolitan Tel Aviv, a rich variety of flora and fauna still exists today. But most of this area is zoned for construction, so almost all these plants and animals will vanish, never to return. This is not an unavoidable consequence of satisfying humankind’s needs: Netanya and Herzliya have preserved some natural areas within their city limits, even as development has surged elsewhere.

Wild boar wandering in the streets of Haifa during the lockdown, in April. The "winners" in nature will be adaptive species that exploit the resources humanity has left them.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But ecologists and environmental organizations can do little about the situation at Glilot except to document the wildlife remaining there, near Israel’s busiest transportation arteries, and to relocate the animals to other sites.

Last winter, students from Kfar Hayarok school, north of Tel Aviv, visited several of the natural winter ponds that had filled up in their vicinity. Together with staff from Tel Aviv University’s Belmaker Lab for Marine Ecology and Biodiversity, they collected amphibious animals and moved them to two artificial ponds that had been built nearby.

The species in question – among them, the Savigny’s treefrog and the southern banded newt – are endangered. The natural ponds are located in areas zoned for construction, and all efforts to change those plans have failed. So it was that these amphibians had to give up their natural habitat and try to adapt to artificial surroundings that will not necessarily provide suitable conditions for such sensitive species.

A grim future

A jackal in Tel Aviv's Hayarkon park, this week.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

A look at development plans for open areas near other cities in Israel shows that animal life there will not enjoy much freedom of movement in the future. Rishon Letzion and Ashdod are spreading into nearby dunes, while Rehovot is expanding into open areas northeast of the city.

As for Jerusalem, plans to build on the hills west of the city have been revived. Housing Ministry officials, who are pushing for the construction, have gone so far as to argue – in response to an appeal against the project – that it will actually benefit wildlife.

“We’re aware that wild animals like ibexes, gazelle and small predators sometimes choose to live on the outskirts of the city, and there they are protected from hunters, wolf packs and stray dogs,” the officials wrote a few months ago. “So the answer to the question of whether the proposed plan steals land from wild animals isn’t unequivocal, since living near the city is good for them, as noted by experts and ecologists during discussions of the plan.”

A tree frog found in a winter pond not far from the Pi Glilot Junction north of Tel Aviv, last month. Construction is encroaching on such natural habitats.Credit: Sarah Ohayon

Apparently, even wild animals have internalized the slogan “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

In the longer term, the future of the country's flora and fauna also looks grim, especially in light of the government’s strategic “Israel 2040” initiative, spearheaded by the Finance Ministry’s planning administration. This national scheme foresees the addition of 1.5 million homes over the next two decades. Large swaths of land will also be needed for infrastructure, commercial enterprises and public buildings. Even though a sizable proportion of these homes are supposed to be built within the framework of urban renewal projects, there will still be a significant expansion of built-up areas in general.

In addition to the housing schemes there are some initiatives underway that are aimed at ensuring the future of open areas. The treasury's strategic plan includes several over-arching goals that will likely enjoy broad support. These include preserving natural resources, using land more efficiently, increasing urban density and renewing the fabric of urban life – while also protecting the functioning and contiguity of open areas, rural/agricultural expanses and ecological systems.

A winter pond near Netanya. The city has preserved some natural areas within its boundaries, even as development has surged elsewhere.Credit: Alon Rothschild / Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

But efforts to address the latter objective of the plan are still in the early stages. And given the dominant trends in Israeli society, it seems likely that environmental groups will continue waging a Sisyphean holding action against the never-ending intrusion of construction into open areas.

The "winners" in the world of nature will be those adaptive species that have learned to exploit the food resources that humanity makes available. Israel may well be left with no gazelles or rare raptors, but it will have a plethora of jackals and wild boars, like those that turned Haifa and Ramat Gan into their second home during the coronavirus crisis. It will lose some songbirds and rare vegetation, but it will have an abundance of invasive species, including birds such as mynahs and plants like Acacia saligna.

Nature reserves will apparently be the last bastions of what remains of our indigenous flora and fauna. But alas they, too, will be under constant siege by development and all its corollaries.

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