Wolves, Badgers and Deer, Oh My! Cameras Catch Rare Animals Crossing Israel's Roads

Several ecological overpasses were originally built under highways to help gazelles pass through tunnels but recent video footage shows other animals making use of the corridors

Wild boars as seen in video footage from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Screenshot / Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Wolves and porcupines; the elusive jungle cats; foxes and badgers; rabbits, hyenas, jackals galore and mongooses – all have been caught on camera making use of “ecological overpasses” erected above key intercity highways in recent years. The motion—activated cameras, installed by the Nature and Parks Authority, have helped ecologists learn more about some of Israel's engadered species. 

On Monday the parks authority released a compilation of images snapped in Israel in recent years at a conference on ecological corridors.

Beneath several of Israel’s major highways, underpasses have long since existed for wild animals to pass. Why were overpasses built too? Specifically for the sake of the endemic and rather jittery Israeli gazelle, ecologist Yariv Malihi of the Israel Nature and Park Authority explains to Haaretz.

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“There are only 5,000 individuals left of this endangered species,” Malihi told Haaretz. “The overpasses were built especially for it. Other animals can pass through tunnels, or creek beds, or along drainage ditches when dry. Not the gazelle.”

Imagine walking through a tunnel beneath a roadway: one hears the cars whizzing above which is hell on the nerves of the timid gazelles, which instinctively wouldn’t go into a dark noisy hole, he explains. They would pass through a tunnel 15 to 20 meters in height, which is impractical. So they just don’t use the underpasses, but picked up on the overpasses happily enough.

The overpass above Route 1, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was built a year or two ago, Malihi says. One was built over Route 38, at Eshtaol, a year ago. The Society for the Protection of Nature urges people to stay away from these corridors and not bother the animals.

As for Route 1, the overpass didn’t replace an underpass. The road itself was built in the bed of the wadi bedrock, he explains. But the overpass has proven to be a success among all the animals in the Jerusalem hills: “They used it from day one,” he says, adding however that actually getting used to it took a month or two.

They? The list is quite surprising for anybody who hangs out in the Jerusalem hills: not only porcupines, boars, rabbits and gazelles, but hyenas. There are dozens there, Malihi says.

There are four species of hyena, only one of which left Africa, he says: the striped hyena, which is found in Israel on occasion. The unfortunate hyena has a terrible reputation, which is totally undeserved. It was brought to the brink of extinction by habitat encroachment and just being poisoned for the hell of it. However, the hyena is now protected and harming one is punishable. So the local hyena has been rebounding: there are now hundreds, Malihi says.

In fact there’s one who lives in the city of Modi'in and reportedly, never leaves the city. She has been named Ruth. “She was originally found by the moshav of Reut,” says Malihi. So they named her Reuti, which became Ruti, which is Ruth.”

The other hyenas are social animals, but the striped hyena is a solitary sort, Malihi shares. But while the hyena may prefer their own company it also needs a minimal territory to thrive in. Hence the crucial aspect of the overpasses.

Another animal in desperate need is the jungle cat, which lives in the plains, mostly where people farm because there’s water. The jungle cats are only rarely seen in the mountains and are gravely endangered. In keeping with the feline quality of caution and shyness, they are almost never seen, at most caught on film with motion-sensor cameras, Malihi says.

Apropos motion-sensor cameras, while the common badger is, well, common, the honey badger is so endangered that it may well be extinct. “It’s the most endangered animal in Israel,” Malihi says. “We haven’t seen any in three years.” Though about two years ago, a motion-activated camera in Israel's southern town of Mitzpe Ramon caught a picture of a fleeing rear end, which has been interpreted as a honey badger on the run.

So, are these underpasses and overpasses going to save the wild fauna of Israel? When asked how much they effect the state of Israeli wildlife, Malihi answered candidly - “A little for the better. At least it enables the animals to reach one another. But why do they have to move in the first place? Because there are so many pressures on their habitats – hikers, roads, trains and expanding settlements.

“In the chaos of construction, let’s at least not trap the poor things in small areas. We have to enable them to pass,” Malihi says. “Does it mean the state of nature in Israel is better? No. But they have the opportunity to try to cope, try to survive.”