The coronavirus is not needed to preserve social distancing when there are other threats around. This is the conclusion that the Persian fallow deer (Dama dama mesopotamica, or Yachmur in Hebrew) have reached, at least the ones who returned to nature and have made their home in the Galilee in the past few years – but just to be sure, they have decided to keep a safe distance from the roads in the area.
Even though the main traffic arteries of the north are one of the main threats to this success story, alongside predatory wolves, the latest follow-up report from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority estimates that some 200 to 300 of the fallow deer live in nature in the region.
The data show a similar process taking place in the Judean Hills area west of Jerusalem – though on a more limited level – where it is estimated only a few dozen individuals live.
The Persian fallow deer lived in the past in forests and woodlands in Israel. But it seems that the last deer in Israel were hunted about 100 years ago. The reversal came in the 1970s when a core breeding group of the animals was brought to Israel from Iran in a daring rescue mission as the Islamic revolution was about to begin there in 1979. Today core breeding groups exist on Mount Carmel and in the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem.
The process of releasing the deer into nature by the nature authority in the Western Galilee began almost 25 years ago – mostly in the area of the Kziv Stream. In the past few years, they have expanded to the Mount Sasa site too, further to the east. The authority conducts follow-up studies on wild animals using cameras set up in a number of locations and recently issued its most recent report on the matter, for the years 2018 and 2019.
According to the data collected, the fallow deer were documented by the cameras on 81 occasions in eight locations in the Western Galilee, and 59 other times in three other locations in the Sasa area. This is an increase of sightings over previous years. In addition, for the first time the species was seen on the move to more eastern areas than where they had been seen in the past.
Along with the deer, the cameras picked up other wild animals, including caracals, hyenas, wolves, jackals, gazelles and wild boars.
Along with the photos, the Nature and Parks Authority staff kept track of the deer by finding its feces in a number of other sites.
Maya Maor from Ben-Gurion University coordinated the research. Along with the nature authority staff, the staff of the Society for the Protection of Nature’s mammals center took part in the study. The feces survey was conducted only in the Western Galilee, and evidence of the presence of the fallow deer was found at 12 locations.
Ruining the landscape
Not surprisingly, the survey revealed once again the difficulties the roads present for the animals: Three different hit-and-runs were found during the period, and at the same time it was found that a large number of the sites where the animals were caught by the cameras were located between two major roads – proof that these traffic arteries limit their movement.
Maor says that it is possible that the roads represent not only a physical barrier for the deer – but also disturb the landscape that deters them because of its difference from the natural area. “There was a period now where there was no movement on the road because of the coronavirus and they still didn’t cross the road,” she said.
But cars are not the only threat to the return of the deer to nature: In recent years, wolves have spread through the Galilee from the Golan Heights. They have been responsible for preying on a number of female deer in the Sasa area immediately after the deer were released into nature from their acclimatization cages, where they are placed during the first stage of their return to nature.
“The acclimatization cages help the fallow deer become used to the area where they will be returned, but they tend to remain near it after they leave and the wolves are attracted to there,” said Maor. “As a result, we decided to try returning them based on immediate release to nature and for now there was only one case of predation.”
Maor says that in nature the wolves are supposed to prey on animals such as the deer, “but we don’t want for this to happen as a result of the way in which the process of return in managed.”
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In spite of the difficulties, it seems that in the Judean Hills too the fallow deer population is successfully establishing itself in nature. Uzi Shamir, head of nature conservation projects at the Biblical Zoo in the capital – where there is a core breeding group of the fallow deer – reports that the number of cases in which the deer are photographed has been rising from year to year.
The data show dozens of individuals every year – and include the identification of fawns. Shamir also points to the confirmed identification of individual deer who were released six years ago and a female released into nature 11 years ago.
In total, 178 animals were released from the zoo since the project began 15 years ago and today estimates are that between 90 and 100 fallow deer live in nature in the region. On Mount Carmel the number of deer is lower, but the predator problem is also less severe because only a few wolves live in the area.
These figures, which were discovered during the monitoring, match to a great extent the forecasts of animal researcher Shirli Ben David, as she predicted in a model she developed 18 years ago.
The return of the deer to nature was intended to contribute to the functioning of the ecological system in the Mediterranean forest regions of the Galilee and Judean Hills: The fallow deer and the other herbivorous animals have an important role in controlling the vegetation. In addition, they are a source of food for predators.
As of today, no date has been set for the end of the return to nature project, said Maor. The program has continued this year three female deer were released on Mount Carmel this year and another six in Sasa.
The scientists have placed transmitters on the deer to follow their movement and will continue to photograph them using the cameras in the wild to ascertain that their integration into nature continues successfully. The collar they wear with the transmitter falls off automatically after a year. The researchers will then collect the transmitter and reuse it for the next “customer” to be returned to nature – and monitor them too.