After Century’s Absence, Water Buffalo Coming Back to Israeli North

Nothing natural about it; herd is being reintroduced to nature reserve in Haifa area.

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Water buffalo.
Water buffalo.

Almost 100 years after virtually disappearing from the area, a small herd of water buffalo has been reintroduced to a rehabilitated wetland in the Ein Afek nature reserve near Kiryat Ata.

As with other wetlands, Ein Afek isn’t recovering naturally; rather, the swamps that were dried out in the early 20th century are being recreated and the flora and fauna that vanished along with them are being reintroduced. First, a large area was cleared of the sediment that had accumulated over the years as the land around Ein Afek was converted from swampland to farmland.

“We created an area that ought to collect floodwater,” said Ein Afek’s director, Giselle Hazzan. “After the area fills with water, birds and various species of amphibians will come to it.”

To maintain the area as seasonal swampland – land that is dotted with pools in winter– the Israel Nature and Parks Authority dammed a stream that flows through it. The authority also arranged to have the Mekorot Water Company pipe in water from a nearby pumping station.

Once the area was ready, a herd of water buffalo were moved to Ein Afek from the Hula Valley nature reserve over the past few months. A few water buffalo had been moved to a different part of Ein Afek several years ago, but the current herd came to an area that had been prepared specially for it.

“This is an animal with no sweat glands, so it lies in the water,” Hazzan explained.

The animals are also supposed to be able to live off the plants that were introduced into the area, without needing to be fed.

The pools at Ein Afek already have a wide variety of bird life, including cormorants that come during migration season.

Nevertheless, many questions still remain. Hazzan fears that plans to build a desalination plant to desalinate the region’s salty groundwater will further deplete Ein Afek’s water supply. It’s also unclear how the new area will develop, whether it will be flooded in summer as well and how well the water buffalo will acclimate.

“There’s no orderly theory of how to rehabilitate such areas,” Hazzan explained. “There’s a great deal of trial and error.”

Recently, two of the female water buffalo had calves. Now, nature authority inspectors are trying to ensure that the jackals living in the area don’t eat the calves.

Efforts to restore swampland and winter pools also began a few months ago near the Nahal Soreq estuary south of Rishon Letzion. By studying old maps, the nature authority discovered that the area once contained sizable swamps. It then located groundwater sources and dug channels to allow the water to flow and create seasonal swamps. The swamps will also collect floodwater in the winter.

Eventually, this process is expected to bring a large variety of birds, water plants and animals back to the area, including the jungle cat, which will surely be happy to rediscover its former home.

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