Is It Even Worth Trying to Save Israel’s Rarest Gazelles From Extinction?

'We've tried everything,' says Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi. 'It’s possible that the animal’s ecological path on the planet has come to an end.'

Acacia gazelles.
Benny Shalmon

A difficult decision confronts officials and scientists at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority with regard to the Acacia gazelle, one of a rare species of mammals in Israel that inhabit the southern Arava desert. The authorities have to decide whether there is any point in continuing to expend large resources to save the remaining members of the species, or whether the time has come to throw in the towel and divert the efforts to protecting other wild animals.

The Acacia, the rarest of Israel’s gazelles, has survived in only one other country: Saudi Arabia. Fearing for its future, about 10 years ago the INPA fenced off the area near Kibbutz Yotvata that is its natural habitat, north of Eilat. This step, it was hoped, would create conditions that would allow the gazelles to reproduce, after they could be released into the wild.

“Today there are 19 individuals in the fenced-off area,” which is more or less how many there were a decade ago, says Dr. Tal Polak, Arava region ecologist in the INPA. She bases her data on ongoing observations made by Dr. Benny Shalmon, a former INPA scientist. “We maintain the fence, which gets damaged in flooding, and we try to remove Dorcas gazelles, which also show up there, so that they will not compete with the Acacia for territory and food.”

But despite continuing efforts at protection, the small population shows no encouraging signs of successful reproduction. Indeed, even before the fence was erected, this rare species had difficulty reproducing in the wild and at times fell prey to human and animal predators. “It’s not clear to us what the reason for this is,” Polak admits, “whether it’s related to food or some other cause – we just don’t know.”

“We’ve tried everything, at an investment of millions of shekels, but without success,” noted Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi, director of the INPA’s science unit. He was speaking at the annual conference of the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, held in mid-July at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “It’s possible that the animal’s ecological path on the planet has come to an end.”

A year ago, the INPA held a referendum among scientists to determine whether they thought that measures to preserve the mountain gazelle should continue. But that didn’t help the authority to make a clear decision. “The INPA’s director general acknowledged that it’s an emotional decision,” Shkedi related. “He decided to keep going, and said he would not allow the Acacia gazelle to become extinct on his watch.”

Some of those who attended Shkedi’s talk said they believe that there is no point in continuing to utilize the limited nature-conservation resources on a failed project. In contrast, Yoram Yom-Tov, professor emeritus from Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, who published a book about gazelles last year, thinks that the INPA should not halt its Acacia-preservation project.

“But it should be done sparingly,” he says. “The fence needs to be reinforced and maintained continuously. I would also recommend bringing in a few gazelles of this species from Saudi Arabia, although the chance of that happening is small. I would refrain from taking other actions, such as supplying food and water, or additional research, which will not contribute too much to understanding the situation.”

Polak, the ecologist, believes that the Acacia gazelle should be given another chance. “We are formulating a research plan that might help us understand the difficulties of reproduction,” she says. “We’ve been trying to save it for a few years already, and I think it’s worth trying for a few more.”

If the INPA decides to forgo an attempt to return the animals to the wild, it will have to transfer the surviving ones to the Yotvata Hai-Bar Nature Reserve, which is adjacent to the fenced-off area. There they will live permanently, barely reproducing and dying out, and classified as a species that's become extinct in the Israeli wild.