For two years, students and experts in nature protection have been searching the ecologically valuable loess plains of the northern Negev at night for one of its rare denizens — the great jerboa. But this member of the rodent family, known for its impressive jumping abilities, is apparently a victim of human impact to the region’s ecosystem — and not the only one.
A recent survey conducted by the Open Landscape Institute at Tel Aviv University found not a single jerboa. The survey, in the framework of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, also showed a decline in the numbers of the Be’er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard, which lives only in this area of the Negev. “It is disappearing in places where we once used to see it,” Dr. Guy Rotem, one of the survey’s leaders, said. Today it can be found only in four places, Rotem said, one-fifth of the number of places it once inhabited.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Environmental Protection Ministry and researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev also took part in the survey.
The disappearance of the great jerboa and the Be’er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard are among the main findings presented last week at a conference at Ben-Gurion University. The open land of the northern Negev’s loess plains that is the habitat of these special creatures are rapidly shrinking. Special efforts are needed to save what is left and ensure the survival of some of the region’s plants and animals.
Loess is created by large quantities of wind-borne dust from desert regions that settles on the ground. Some of this material, which is blown in from the Nile Delta, now covers an area of the Negev exceeding 5,000 square kilometers. The survey examined 2,000 square kilometers, from the Gaza border in the west to Arad in the east, and from the hills near Be’er Sheva in the north to Naot Hovav, Tze’elim and the bed of the Besor Stream in the south.
The surveyors looked at both flora and fauna as well as the survival of natural areas. The Negev plains might not be as impressive-looking as the region’s unique, crater-like makhteshim or winding wadis, but they are a habitat that supports an entire world of plants and animals. The survey identified 442 species of plants and 21 species of reptiles, as well as gazelles, hyenas, wolves and other mammals. Bird nesting sites were also found on the ground.
Only 4 percent of this area is currently protected; all the rest faces threats from the construction of new roads and communities. The planned expansion of Be’er Sheva also plays a part in habitat disappearance, as does Jewish National Fund afforestation with the goal of ensuring the state’s control over the land and preventing the construction of Bedouin communities.
According to Uri Ramon of the Open Landscape Institute, much of this area has long been under cultivation, leaving only small areas of loess, mainly along wadis, or dry riverbeds. “In the eastern part there are still protected areas but there are many loess areas that are small and isolated,” he says.
One of the last surviving loess areas is inside the Israel Air Force base at Hatzerim, near Be’er Sheva. The houbara bustard is a summer visitor to the base. Service members at the base have cleared waste from the area and are following the rare bird, in a joint project of the military and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. In addition, the base command even agreed to move certain fences in the interest of providing a safer environment for the birds. “We still don’t know if this has affected their situation, but this year we did see a certain rise in their numbers,” Alon Rothschild of the SPNI said.
For some years SPNI has been teaching the importance of habitat protection in 70 schools in Bedouin communities. However, the picture is complicated by the uncertain future of the unrecognized villages. “Even villages that are recognized haven’t been able to regulate planning and construction,” Fares Abu Obeid, an area resident and field worker for the nonprofit organization Bimkom, Planners for Planning Rights. “The needs of the Bedouin are not taken into account when planning communities, and they are treated as if they are the enemies of the land and the landscape,” Abu Obeid said.
Based on the findings of the survey, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority is working on a strategy to protect natural areas that are still undamaged, particularly an area known as the Loess Park near Hatzerim and areas north of Be’er Sheva, which should receive protected status, according to Dotan Rotem, the Authority’s open spaces ecologist. Areas east of Be’er Sheva should also be left open as ecological corridors, he says. But the future of these corridors, which are critical to enabling the movement of plants and animals from one region to another, depends on planning and zoning decision in both Bedouin and Jewish communities, he added.
Rotem says the area around Tel Arad, already a national park, can be expanded and the surveyors believe it can be turned into a “Bedouin cultural landscape,” where the land can continue to be traditionally worked.
“The loess plains are important because they preserve the transition between the desert and the Mediterranean areas farther north,” Rotem said.
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