The 800 Urbanites of Israel's Desert Capital You Never Knew Existed

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The brown and white little owl with piercing yellow eyes and beak, pictured in his Negev perch
The little owl pictured in his Negev perchCredit: Avner Rinot
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The hyena, a rare variety of garlic known as allium kollmannianum and the Cleopatra butterfly are all defined as rare species in danger of becoming extinct. But what they also have in common is that all three live within the boundaries of the city of Be'er Sheva which they share with 800 types of flora and fauna – a rather rich variety for a city located at the rim of a desert. In the coming years the city faces a large building boom, one of the challenges the planners will face is to find a way to leave a little space for the plant life, butterflies and large mammals to coexist there as well.

Next month the Society for the Protection of Nature will present a survey covering 2012-2014. The survey has been conducted by the city and the Environmental Protection Ministry with the help of the Bracha Fund, and its findings will be presented at a conference to be attended by Mayor Rubik Danelowitz. The field work was carried out by botanists, ornithologists and other animal specialists, who have roamed across the hills and valleys of the neighborhoods, climbed down ropes to probe the depths of water wells in search of reptiles and have followed butterflies winging across the streets and gardens. In all they have documented 58 sites.

The neighborhoods and commercial centers of Be'er Sheva have spread out at a very rapid pace in the past few years, and a third of the space in which the survey was conducted has changed as a result of the urban development, including landscaping, afforestation and Bedouin farming. But within the city’s jurisdiction, which stretches across 117 square kilometers (double the size of Tel Aviv), there are still great expanses of level land and loess plains, hills and streams filled with a rich variety of flora and fauna.

Allium kollmannianum, a rare species of garlic found in the Be'er Sheva region.Credit: Avner Rinot

In natural areas at the city’s edges and also inside it, the survey found 578 types of plants. One of the explanations for this rich variety is that the Be'er Sheva area is a meeting point between the Mediterranean and desert regions, a factor which spawns a large variety of plant and wildlife.

The list of plants includes some species at risk of extinction. One of the more special varieties is the allium kollmannianum, a rare type of garlic, which grows only in the northern Negev. Scientists discovered it less than a decade ago, and it has survived in several locations in the Be'er Sheva and Dimona regions. In addition another 11 other types of garlic have been found. Not far from the allium kollmannianum there’s another subspecies of a brownish iris, whose population has declined due to construction in the region. Irises and other fauna have been hurt by afforestation including the leveling of land by means of heavy machinery.

A pair of bee-eaters looking smart in their desert habitat.Credit: Avner Rinot

Surveyors have also found another 256 types of animals, among them more than 10 types of butterflies and 19 varieties of reptiles. The survey of reptiles had to be postponed due to Operation Cast Lead and wound up being carried out at a time when they were less active. Therefore the surveyors had to seek them out mainly inside the pits in which they hide.

Particularly impressive is the rich world of bird life in the area. In the survey 182 types of birds were observed, 60 of them nesters. Some were characteristic to the area such as the cream colored courser and the desert lark. An interesting discovery was the spectacled warbler – a type of songbird that lives among brushes that have decreased in recent years. At the edge of the neighborhoods live the black-eared wheatear whose nesting grounds have been hurt by development. Some rare birds of prey including a lesser kestrel have also been spotted. The list of mammals is also quite long relative to the urban landscape, and it includes the hyena, desert fox and deer.

A desert black snake winds his way around the rocks in southern Israel.Credit: Yael Olek

The Be'er Sheva survey is the first ever conducted in an Israeli city located in a desert environment. Similar surveys have been conducted in other large cities among them Jerusalem, Haifa, and Ramat Gan. In Jerusalem a master plan for the management of important nature sites has already been completed.

“Until a few years ago the urban environment was not considered a partner in the need to preserve the environment and its biological diversity,” said Amir Balaban, supervisor of urban nature at the Society for the Protection of Nature. “Accelerated urban development and a rise in public awareness about the environmental crises we face have brought about a situation where local governments around the world have begun to look at ways to limit direct and indirect damage to the biological diversity of the urban environment. The basis of this project is a bank of comprehensive and updated data, such as that presented by the survey. It supplies accurate and accessible pictures of the information about the biological diversity and its location in the urban setting, which permits planning in a way that takes natural surroundings into account.”

A Cleopatra butterfly hovers over some rocksCredit: Avner Rinot

In the words of the acting mayor of Be'er Sheva and chairperson of the local planning committee, Tal El-Al, the survey’s findings surprised even those born and raised in the city, including himself. “We had no idea there was so much natural value and so many rare species,” he said. “We must find a way to preserve them at the same time as conducting accelerated development in the city. A metropolis looking to provide quality of life must budget space to nature preservation as well.”

The challenge facing Be'er Sheva’s planning bodies are quite complicated. More than 20,000 housing units are in the planning stages for the city. El-Al says that the local planning commission will soon discuss the status of natural sites, and he says: “If we must we will amend building plans in order to protect these sites.”

Dark purple irises rise above a field near Be'er Sheva.Credit: Avner Rinot

He says that the city didn’t wait for the survey’s results, and therefore: “the mayor has recently decided to cancel plans for about 3,000 housing units and to preserve the area as an urban woods.”

Urban nature is already paying a heavy price for development. One of the neighborhoods in the north of the city approved recently will be built in an area where allium kollmannianum, a form of garlic, grows. In light of this, the Nature and Parks Protection Society is planning to move the plants to a nearby site in the coming months.

The survey’s conductors are recommending that the city and planning commissions avoid approving land for afforestation in areas near the banks of streams because of their importance. They suggest paving a planned ring road supposed to circumnavigate the city as an underground highway to prevent harm to natural surroundings, and to use local wildlife as a basis for developing public spaces in the city. Another recommendation calls for banning overland vehicles in loess plains type sand dunes.Such vehicles have done a lot of damage to some of the focal points of local natural interest.

Unless necessary steps are taken to protect natural surroundings in Be'er Sheva, many types of animals are liable to go the way of the Be'er Sheva fringe-fingered lizard – the only reptile that is unique to Israel. Experts who participated in the survey said they failed to find a single such lizard. They believe that the broad urban development has already destroyed its natural breeding ground, and effectively excised it from the population directory of Be'er Sheva.  

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