JNF Tree-planting Endangers Negev Lizards, Study Shows

Be’er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard becomes symbol of bitter dispute between Jewish National Fund and environmental organizations.

Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard
Boaz Shoham

A small creature known as the Be’er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard has lately become the symbol of a bitter dispute between the Jewish National Fund and environmental organizations concerning forestation efforts in the northern Negev. A new study shows that this species exists nowhere else in the world, and is being pushed out of its natural habitat by the planting of trees.

The findings bolster the argument of organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel that tree-planting in the area should be halted due to the ecological damage it causes.

The study was conducted by HaMaarag – Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program, which operates under the auspices of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities. The Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Parks and Nature Authority and the JNF also participate in it.

In 2014, HaMaarag researchers conducted an assessment of thee loess dunes of the northern Negev. They surveyed different types of vegetation, birds and reptiles and compared the findings among several loess areas, including some where the JNF does “runoff harvesting,” which involves digging trenches to regulate the flow of runoff. Trees are then planted alongside them.

New arrivals common hardun.
Revital Solomon

In the natural loess areas, the researchers found numerous desert reptile species. But in the runoff-harvesting areas there was a higher rate of species that are typical of other geographical areas. The Be’er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard was seen in half of the observations in the natural loess areas, but was completely absent from the other areas. Meanwhile, the common hardun and chameleon, which are typical of other areas in Israel, were seen in the runoff-harvesting areas but not in the natural loess areas.

Two endangered bird species, the Cursorius cursor and the Houbara bustard, were observed in the natural loess areas only. In the areas of the tree plantings, there was a notable presence of the collared dove, which is very common in many parts of Israel.

collared dove.
Horia Varlan

The HaMaarag researchers theorize that in the areas where trees are being planted, some local reptile species are being crowded out by new species in the area and have also become more vulnerable to predatory birds that can now observe them from the trees. The disappearance of the bird species is also related to the pressure caused by other species, as well as to the topographical changes made by the JNF, which is harming these birds that customarily build their nests on the ground.

The JNF says it is committed to finding the best solutions for the environmental problems affecting the northern Negev, and that “the study that was cited is part of a whole group of studies that are being conducted in order to successfully apply an afforestation doctrine that will prevent runoff and address the issues of desertification, while always carefully safeguarding ecological values and biological diversity. We have other studies that indicate other trends. We will continue to examine all the environmental aspects of our policy, in the south of the country and throughout Israel.”

Prof. Moshe Shachak of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who studies the northern Negev region, was critical of the HaMaarag study. “Such a study has to include many more criteria that are examined. It has to be conducted on a multi-year basis, because the ecosystem is constantly undergoing changes. Only thus can we scientifically assess whether certain species are disappearing or not.”

On Monday, the High Court of Justice addressed the issue of afforestation of the northern Negev, in response to a petition filed by SPNI against the manner in which the afforestation is being carried out. The court decided that in the future, a special committee comprised of representatives from the various environmental organizations will coordinate the afforestation activity in the northern Negev.