Conservation Saved Israel's Ibex, but Created New Dangers

A newly published book describes the protection of the Nubian ibex, an endangered animal usually found at Ein Gedi nature reserve, as a great success story for preserving nature in Israel

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A battle between two male ibexes in Mitzpe Ramon.
A battle between two male ibexes in Mitzpe Ramon.Credit: Archives

Drivers on the road to Mitzpe Ramon can stop to view the Ramon crater from an impressive vantage point – if there are no four-legged obstructions in the way. Also enjoying the view, mountain dwelling goats officially known as Nubian ibexes strut around the observation area, unfazed by the cars or their occupants.

A newly published book describes the protection of the Nubian ibex as a great success story for preserving nature in Israel. Having ibexes mingle safely with people is a byproduct of this of success.

Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Uzi Paz, a leading nature protection expert, have recently published the book “The high mountains belong to the wild goats." Based on many studies, the book outlines an updated picture of the ibex’s situation and its way of life.

“Once our information about the ibex was limited, but today it’s extensive. In a few decades someone else will update it again as we have,” says Yom-Tov.

The ibex is known to every hiker who visits the Judean desert, especially the Ein Gedi nature reserve. But following systematic hunting in the region in the middle of the previous century the species became extremely rare. The situation was so acute that then O\C Southern Command Avraham Yaffe sent a photographer to document the species. The photographer, Ran Arda, took what were probably the first photos in the world of the mountain goats. With the establishment of the Nature Reserves Authority – today the Nature and Parks Authority – at the beginning of 1964 the artist Eliezer Weishoff was inspired by those photographs when he designed the authority’s emblem.

The Nubian ibex is found in the desert mountain chains of Jordan and Israel, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. Less than 3,000 ibexes are estimated to remain in the wild, about half of them in Israel. The Judean desert and the Negev have become the Nubian ibex’s last bastion.

“After 1948 only a few dozen alarmed, frightened ibexes apparently remained in Israel,” write Yom-Tov and Paz. “All their relatives were hunted down and the declaration of Israel as a state saved them at the last moment.”

After the systematic hunting stopped and following the establishment of the nature reserves, in which they were protected, the ibexes gradually overcame their fear. Their relative proximity enabled explorers to study them and document their movement and nutrition habits in the various areas. The ibex also received help in the form of man-made water troughs built in the desert.

The relations between the ibex and their natural neighbors have undergone quite a few changes. In the past, leopards were among the predators that regulated the ibex population in the Judean Desert, but they became obsolete.

Three ibex populations were discovered in Israel – in the Judean Desert, in the Negev Mountains and in the Eilat region. Each group is divided into sub herds. Scientist Jonathan Tichon of Ben-Gurion University has been studying the Judean Desert ibexes intensively for the past four years. He succeeded in catching 29 ibexes and attaching transmitters to them, to monitor their ways more closely.

A Nubian ibex in Israel's Negev.
A Nubian ibex in Israel's Negev.Credit: Archives

Protecting the species helped to return the ibexes to Jordan. The Israeli herds provided ibexes for zoos in the United States. A few were sent from there to Jordan, where they set up their own herd. Their future is uncertain there, however, due to illegal hunting in the kingdom.

The ibexes in Israel also need constant protection, especially in the Judean Desert, where they are endangered by hunters from the Rashaida tribe, which lives in the Mount Hebron area. They often evade nature authority inspectors with the help of scouts. Between 2014 and 2018 the police opened 15 cases for suspected hunting, but nobody was convicted due to the absence of evidence or the difficulty of bringing people to trial. Last year inspectors succeeded, with the help of Israel Defense Forces soldiers, to nab a group of hunters who were caught with the a dead ibex, ammunition and a rifle.

“Let’s hope the law enforcement agencies will get all these hunters convicted and that they’re given a punishment that serves as a deterrent,” the authors write. This week the Nature and Parks Authority reported that the courts are now inclined to give hunters harsher penalties.

Another danger the ibexes face is the roads infrastructure that is closing in on their habitats. The most problematic is Route 90, which passes along the Dead Sea and blocks the ibexes’ way to their feeding areas. In 2017-2018 20 ibexes were run over on Route 90 in the northern Dead Sea valley. Since the ibex population in this area number fewer than 1,000, this is highly troubling. The situation became more complicated after a section of the road was diverted due to the danger of sink holes and blocked the ibexes route to the date plantations, an important food source. It also increased the risk of them being run over.

A new threat to the ibexes is an outcome of the conservation activity itself. The loss of fear and the attraction to food sources in the communities have turned the ibexes into household members in several places. This exposes them to new threats, such as eating products that endanger their lives and exposure to predators such as stray dog packs.

Nature and Parks Authority inspectors have found that 43 percent of the cars that stop to observe the crater on the way to Mitzpe Ramon feed the ibexes with food that is hazardous to their health. Questionnaires filled in by visitors showed that most of them are aware of the ban on feeding the ibexes, but do so to get a photograph with the impressive creature.

“The wildlife hospital at the Ramat Gan Safari is constantly treating ibexes because of plastic stuck in their digestion system,” says Yom-Tov. He and Paz want to see increased enforcement, more warnings against feeding the ibex and a reduction of the stray dog packs that endanger them.

“It’s necessary to maintain continuous water sources along the ibexes’ habitat. Ecological corridors must be kept open to enable free movement for the males during the mating period and a link between the females’ activity areas,” says Tichon.

Since the ibexes use the closed areas in the nature reserves, where there are no hiking trails, as shelters, visitors must be kept out, as human presence causes the ibex distress. Another problem is that when ibexes feel endangered they flee to cliffs, but low- flying planes create an acute disturbance. “The ibexes are often seen running away when the planes fly over them and in some cases have fallen off the cliff to their death while fleeing,” Tichon says.

The Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana) is a desert-dwelling goat species found in mountainous areas of northern and northeast Africa, and the Middle East. Its range is within Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen. It is historically considered to be a subspecies of the Alpine ibex (C. ibex), but is increasingly considered a specifically distinct species (C. nubiana). The wild population is estimated at 1,200 individuals.

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