The birds in the water reservoirs of the Beit She’an Valley may have been a bit surprised on Sunday morning to see Shmulik Yadov – the head of the mammal center for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel – walking alongside the water and carefully examining animal droppings. But Yadov’s rather unusual and not very glamorous work is of great importance: This is a reliable way to follow up on reports of otters in the area.
In the Harod Stream, the first stop, no signs of such feces could be found. Yadov said that this stream was probably just a way station because “to live here is nice, but it’s not a flowing stream.” He points out the brown and weak flow of the beginning of summer. The surrounding land has already started to dry out.
Underneath the bridge next to the basalt waterfall, despite the surprising rain at the beginning of the week, it is already possible to see how the ground is cracking into a mosaic of dried mud. Yadov is to guess that maybe a few individual otters wandered through here from the Jordan River in the direction of the fish ponds, and they can be found closer to Beit She’an.
The otter situation in Israel is rather bad. They are a seriously endangered species and experts estimate that only a few dozen otters are left in Israel in the wild. But over the past few months, for the first time in nine years, encouraging signs of otters have been discovered in the Beit She’an Valley, also known as Emek Hama’aynot (Springs Valley) – where it was thought that otters were gone and never to return. Instead, Otter scat was discovered in a few places along the Harod Stream in the same week.
“I can’t even say that it’s a population, but it is an individual who came and we are hoping there will be an individual of the other sex so they can begin to build a population here,” said Dr. Amit Dolev, the northern district ecologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. But the scientists are trying to cool down the excitement a bit: “I still can’t really feel happy that there is a process of building a population, because it’s a complex process that will take years – but time will tell,” said Dolev. “After all, this is a region where they lived for years, where there are a lot of good sites for subsistence for them, and we hope this first sign will provide a new horizon to an area that had no otters for years.”
A tough country to be an otter
The otter is a member of the Mustelidae family, which includes weasels, badger, minks and wolverines. It has thick brown fur adapted for living in water – with webbed feet to swim better – but it can also run on land. It lives mostly on fish and crabs, and keeps away from people. Last year, the species made it into the news, and not in a good way, when one bit tourists in the Hula Valley area and raised concerns that the attacks were made by an otter with rabies. But it was quickly discovered that this was an Asian otter that has escaped from a small zoo in Kibbutz Shamir – and which was used to contact with humans – and not a local Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) native to Israel.
Dry Israel is a tough place for otters, says Dolev: “This is southern limit of its territory in the Middle East. Establishment [in the Beit She’an Valley] could give them a better chance to exist in this region.”
Either way, the systematic monitoring of otters in Israel began in the 2000s. “We knew there was a regular population in the Hula Valley, Lake Kineret and in the Beit She’an Valley and Harod Stream,” says Dolev. “We had tracking and saw other things, but also research and work over the years showed that the business was stable, until one day in the summer of 2011, one of the field people, the [Nature Authority] inspectors, told me: ‘Listen, I don’t see droppings in [the Beit She’an] Valley any more.’ And at that moment we realized that the population went extinct in this area. We began genetic work and saw the connection between these regions was not good,” said Dolev.
The genetic work Dolev is talking about included taking samples from every otter that had been run over in the preceding decade to discover if the different groups of otters in various regions were related genetically. The results showed genetic differences between the otters in the three areas: Sea of Galilee, Hula Valley and Beit She’an Valley.
Those in the Beit She’an Valley were the biggest outliers, said Dolev. “This means the amount of exchange of individuals between Lake Kineret and the Beit She’an Valley was low, while in the Hula Valley we saw the connection was reasonable. We understood that the Beit She’an Valley had a serious problem. Only the narrow Jordan River is there for tens of kilometers and the ability of the animals to move and repopulate might not be simple. We saw there were other signs of otters up until the area of Kibbutz Gesher and after that you don’t see [any signs].”
The nature inspectors’ impressions were also reflected in the findings on the ground: The 2019 otter survey conducted by Roni Shahal, Yadov, Dolev and Noam Lider, which was published in September 2019, reported that the disappearance of the otter population in the region is linked to a process of gradual reduction – but at the same time, a sudden drop occurred: “It is reasonable to assume that the incidents of being run over in the decade from 2001 to 2011 – 17 incidents of being run over and death in the Harod and Beit She’an Valleys alone, were a decisive factor in the disappearance of the population in those years,” states the survey.
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Since the 1980s, being run over was the main documented cause of death for otters in Israel. Roni Shahal, who studies otters, said that since 2012 a few crossings have been built under roads at “hot points where we have seen that a lot of otters are run over during times of heavy rain, and the goals was to allow them a dry passage. At some of the bridges we see a consistent use and the number being run over has decreased, and this is an optimistic point of light, too.”
The otter survey said that a possibility exists of repopulating the area on the condition that there is adequate connectedness with nearby habitats. Yadov said the plans to increase the flow of water in the southern Jordan River, not through pipes but in the Jordan itself, provide hope. “The goal is to rehabilitate the population and allow resettlement in the habitats that were lost. An essential part of it is bringing back the water,” said Yadov.
At the same time, a need exists for what Yadov calls “management of quiet areas. Let them have quiet at night, at least.” Or in other words: Don’t let humans sleep alongside every stream.
Two years ago, cameras caught otters even further south, along the Jordan River, where Tavor and Harod streams meet. Using cameras and droppings to identify otters is more reliable than reports made by people, which are not always reliable because it is very easy to be confused between otters and similar looking animals, especially mongooses or coypus (also known as nutrias).
“We see that when there is rehabilitation of habitats such as the southern Jordan River it encourages otters to spread,” said Shahal.
The more the Jordan is rehabilitated, the more the otters respond to the acts of rehabilitation of the habitats and the cleaning up of the streams. This is always a borderline population because this is its southern limit, but in the past there were otters in more southern streams too – in the Jezreel Valley, in the Na’aman Stream.
Rehabilitating habitats, fish ponds that have been closed that will be turned into aquatic habitats with flowing water – this will allow the population of such places,” said Shahal.
Like her colleagues, Shahal is cautiously optimistic, but also says that “this requires the country and authorities to redirect resources to do it. It won’t happen by itself. We see that places that are invested in – the otters survive there. The Hula Nature Reserve with the climate of Israel is still a place free of human intervention that has food for otters. An otter population can live in Israel and we need to make the appropriate efforts for it,” she said.
Right in the middle of all the garbage
For now, north of the Harod Stream, our tour continues. Underneath the Nahum Bridge over the southern Jordan River – behind Kibbutz Beit Zera – Yadov continues to smell scat. The Jordan River is flowing strongly and he says that even if there were otters here – the flow would be too strong for them. Yadov locates a suspicious find, but is not at all sure it is otter feces. But alongside the water he identifies with certainty porcupine droppings. “Looks like they were going to drink. It seems people slept here, so the otters have no reason to come,” he said.
A bit farther north you can find true wonders of nature behind the kibbutzim Degania Aleph and Degania Bet, in the southern Jordan River nature reserve. Shamefully, hikers without a heart or any respect left the area covered in garbage: Mattresses, sun umbrellas, tin cans, cigarette butts, etc.
Yadov finally finds something exciting – in the form of fresh droppings – definitely from otters. “Right in the heart of the filth there are otters. It’s really a wonder,” he says. At the edge of the site are two large pipes that carry less clean water into the river, and Yadov explains: “The otter, even if the water is polluted to a reasonable extent, manages. What limits it is the fragmentation – roads, artificial ditches. Here it really stands out, people slept in the [dirty] upper part and the otters were pushed out to here.”
Nonetheless, it seems a lot of water will flow through the Jordan River – and the other streams – before we see a real recovery of the otters. Dolev tells how last year something he had never seen before happened: “At the Kfar Tavor intersection, an otter was run over. We were in shock. It seems it happened because of the rains: It came for the Jordan to the Tavor Stream. It seems she didn’t understand enough, she wound up in a place that is a dead end, she didn’t know how to go back, she reached the road and was run over,” said Dolev.
“Such attempts demonstrate that there are individuals in the area who are trying to expand their territory. Otters in Israel belong to the European species and it is not easy for them here in the first place,” says Dolev. “We are a hot land, without rivers, without a lot of water reservoirs, there is on Kineret, fish ponds. It is a difficult neighborhood for these animals. That they have survived cannot be taken for granted, and we want to keep it that way,” he concludes.