In May, the Ben David family from Ramat Hasharon went camping near Masada in the Judean Desert. “We were a lot of people, maybe 10 tents,” says Shilhav Ben David. She and her two small children, ages a year and a half and three, were sitting in their tent. “Suddenly an animal that looked like a dog entered, but I knew that didn’t make sense. I screamed and kicked it but it didn’t really move. Because of my screams other people came and drove it away,” she said.
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The animal was a wolf. Two hours later it returned when her daughter was “five steps from the tent.” She heard her screaming and saw her on the ground with the wolf on top of her. “I saw him move his nose over her.”
“I ran and grabbed her and saw blood and holes from fangs in her lower back. It wasn’t that he tried to attack her, he really tried to grab her and take her away. He tried to prey [on her]. He went through all the children and saw she was the smallest,” said Ben David.
Four months have passed since that attack and at least nine other similar wolf attacks have been recorded since, all in campgrounds and communities in the Judean Desert. Almost all the attacks were on small children, sometimes babies. The two latest occurrences came last weekend when two children were attacked by a wolf in the Ein Gedi Field School and another child was attacked at the Ein Gedi Spring. Luckily all the assaults ended with only light injuries. One mother said her daughter was lying on top of her husband by the campfire when the wolf snuck in out of the darkness and bit her. The girl is now receiving shots against rabies.
Dr. Haim Berger, an expert in wolf behavior, has found that the wolves are not attacking in order to bite, threaten or play, but to prey on the children as food. There is no doubt the danger is real, but the authorities, and in particular the Nature and Parks Authority, is ignoring it and is even trying to deny it, says Berger, an ecologist who wrote his doctoral thesis on the behavior of groups of animals, including wolves. Three months ago he went through a traumatic experience with his own family in the Judean Desert when they went hiking.
“The older children didn’t want to sleep in the tent, they slept outside,” Berger told Haaretz. Then his daughter told him there was a wolf. When he came out from the tent he saw a wolf standing nearby, and not running away. “It’s not possible for a predatory animal to stand close to you and not fear you. And if he’s not afraid of you, you need to be afraid of him. A wolf that is not afraid is a wolf that attacks,” he said.
In this case the incident ended without an attack, but Berger, who also owns a tourism company specializing in watching animals in the wild, decided to study the matter in more depth. He began collecting the stories of other incidents. He discovered eight attacks in May and June alone, but this seems to be only a very partial accounting.
Berger thinks the wolves in the Judean Desert have undergone a long process of dangerous acclimatization to human society. They have learned that not only is there no need to be afraid of people, but people can also be a source of food, similar to ibex fawns or hyraxes. A wolf that cannot find food for a few days suddenly sees humans cooking on a fire and the smell fills the whole area. Fifty of 100 years ago wolves would never have approached the Bedouin in the desert but today the situation is different, says Berger.
These are not the first wolf attacks in Israel. In 2008, another incident occurred near Masada in which a wolf attacked a three-year-old girl only a few meters from her parents. The wolf managed to drag the girl a few meters before the parents drove it off by shouting. The girl was injured by bites on her throat and neck.
At the time, the Nature and Parks Authority said it was a lone wolf and promised to fence off the campground to protect campers, but this was never done.
In June, another attack was reported in Kibbutz Ein Gedi by the hotel. A two and a half-year-old girl was playing outside on the grass and a wolf attacked her. Her father drove it off, but she had bite marks on her back and stomach. She was evacuated to the hospital and later went through the painful series of rabies shots. A nature authority ranger told the father the wolf was looking for prey.
Berger says it is possible to take a number of immediate steps to reduce the risk, including putting up warning signs in all campgrounds and entrances to nature reserves. Also, a ranger should always be on duty with nonlethal means to scare off the wolves. Hikers should be taught how to store food and garbage in campgrounds and make it completely clear that feeding wild animals is forbidden. All such incidents should be documented – and the wolves should be captured and fitted with transmitters for tracking, says Berger.
Others want a more radical solution: eliminating the wolves altogether. It is possible that these are not pure-bred wolves either, but a mixed dog-wolf breed, which makes them much less afraid of people.
Gild Gabay, director of the authority’s Southern District, confirms there were 10 attacks, but rejects the claim that the authority is ignoring the danger. He says they are taking the threat seriously, putting up signs prohibiting the feeding of wild animals, equipping rangers in the field with paintball rifles to drive off the wolves. The authority will also trap wolves that attack, but the real source of the problem is hikers who feed the wolves, he says, asserting that humans are the source of the problem and have changed the wolves’ behavior, and the public must cooperate too.
About 20 wolves live in the region, and only a few have taken part in the attacks, estimates Gabay. He says rangers trapped the wolf from the May attacks, and the attacks ended – for a time. Last week a new wave of attacks began.
Gabay says he does not want to minimize the gravity of the matter, maintaining that the authority is worried about it and not trying to hide the attacks. He tells hikers to try to drive off the wolves in any way possible, such as shouting, waving their arms and throwing rocks – and then to call the authority.