Jerusalem's Newest Enemy: Little Furry Animals

Increasing numbers of rock hyraxes have been linked to rise in cases of parasitic disease leishmaniasis in northern and eastern parts of city.

Jerusalem and state agencies are launching a program to curb the increasing numbers of rock hyraxes living in northern and eastern neighborhoods in the capital. Recent research has shown the extent of the encroachment of the rabbit-like mammals in residential areas of the city and has linked it to a rise in the incidence of the parasitic disease leishmaniasis in those areas.

The city is considering building a fence around Neveh Yaakov, at a cost of over 3 million shekels (around $770,000) to keep the animals out. The authors of the new study, however, caution that the fence could actually push the animals deeper into the city.

Rock hyraxes, also known as rock badgers, are common around Ein Gedi and throughout the Judean Desert, where, as their name suggests, they live among rocks. While they once avoided areas of human habitation and were not found in Jerusalem, the growth of Neveh Yaakov and the adjacent Pisgat Ze’ev toward the desert have brought the hyraxes into the neighborhoods.

Last year, 14 cases of leishmaniasis in residents of these neighborhoods were reported to the Jerusalem District Health Office. Both the researchers and ministry officials say the real numbers are much higher, because physicians either failed to diagnose the disease or did not report it when they did.

The hyrax serves as a host for the sandflies that spread the disease to humans and other animals by biting.

The recent study, which was commissioned by the Jerusalem municipality and the Environmental Protection Ministry and carried out by Geo-Teva Environmental Consulting, was presented last week at a conference of the Zoological Society of Israel.

The research found that the hyraxes are gradually moving away from their natural habitats and using artificial habitats — rock falls caused by construction, garbage dumps and rock terraces. They also take shelter in the spaces beneath prefabricated housing, which are used extensively as schoolrooms in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

The research also found that the increase in the ultra-Orthodox population in Neveh Yaakov has also contributed to the increase in the hyrax population. Because of issues in Jewish law surrounding the discarding of bread, stale bread is often placed outside, unwrapped, becoming an informal feeding station for wild animals.

The researchers found that the hyraxes, which are in fact related to elephants, initially lived among rocks at construction sites and ventured into residential areas only for foraging expeditions. They eventually lost their fear of humans and moved into the neighborhoods.

The researchers found a correlation between neglected surroundings, including illegal construction sites and dumps for building materials, and the proliferation of hyraxes. Their survey of Neveh Yaakov and Pisgat Ze’ev found over 200 potential habitats for the animals, and it is estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 hyraxes live in these neighborhoods.

The city, together with agencies including the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the health and environmental protection ministries, has drawn up a plan to counter the problem. An educational campaign has been launched in the affected neighborhoods to teach residents how to avoid sandfly bites. Steps will be taken to eradicate the flies, and work has begun on demolishing potential hyrax habitats in the neighborhoods. In addition, the hyrax population will be culled by trapping, poisoning or shooting the animals.