In Israel, the Struggle for Nature Preservation May Do More Harm

Efforts to preserve natural habitats often intervene in existing ecological systems

Zafrir Rinat
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Sea turtles being released on a Bat Yam beach, Israel, October 2, 2019.
Sea turtles being released on a Bat Yam beach, Israel, October 2, 2019. Credit: Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Two weeks ago hikers found three dead ibexes in a cistern in a Negev streambed. Several weeks earlier, the ibexes had been rescued from the same cistern. One of their rescuers had at the time suggested to the Nature and Parks Authority to build a step in the cistern so that animals that ventured into it would be able to get out, but this wasn’t done. When the ibexes got into the cistern this time, they couldn’t get out.

The sad fate of these ibexes has been linked to a wider debate about human intervention in so-called nature preservation. One of the central objectives of preservation is to assure the existence of large areas of land in which flora and fauna thrive in an existing ecological system with as little human intervention as possible. This objective is also meant to be upheld in open areas that aren’t specifically designated as nature reserves or national parks.

But in reality, Israeli nature is in a state of “management,” which means a range of actions are taken to manage the land and protect it. These management activities are necessitated by the historic circumstances of the Mediterranean region, which has been subject to human disruption for thousands of years – through hunting and farming, widespread construction, overgrazing and the felling of trees, which changed the natural world beyond recognition. These disruptions led to the disappearance of many species of large mammals, while also making many types of plants more resilient and increasing their variety.

Israel has extensive areas where plant species are regulated and streams and winter ponds are being artificially rehabilitated. Vultures depend on feeding stations to which the corpses of farm animals are brought, sea turtle eggs are collected to protect them and Yarkon bream fish were moved from the Yarkon River to aquariums at Tel Aviv University to assure that they didn’t become extinct during dry years. Special crossings have been built over and under roads to allow the passage of other species, and recently the Nature and Parks Authority has discussed building “fish ladders” to help the movement of fish in Jordan River tributaries.

Recently an article in the journal Animal Microbiome reported on a study in Australia about whether to intervene in the nutrition of the Koala bear. The researchers studied whether they could make changes to the bacteria in the bears’ digestive system so that they could eat different types of plants, should it become necessary to move them, for their own protection, to areas that didn’t contain the types of plants that they can digest. 

A much more common intervention is assisting wild animals that are injured or in distress, like the ibexes. Policy in this realm changed considerably a decade ago, when the Nature and Parks Authority began cooperating with the wildlife hospital at the Ramat Gan Safari. There are a number of nature activists who are expert at locating injured animals, giving first aid and transferring them to the hospital. Assisting animals in the wild requires knowledge and experience, to avoid things like hikers collecting fawns that look abandoned, when in fact they are hiding in wait for their mothers.

Intervention isn’t a replacement for the main objective – preserving nature. It is meant to compensate for some of the damage caused by humans, and to some extent repair and rehabilitate – for example, restoring a nearly extinct species, or providing special protection to species at risk. That’s one of the justifications for assisting the ibexes, part of a species that has nearly disappeared.

To intervene in ways that don’t contradict preservation requires vast knowledge of ecological systems and guidance meant to be supplied by agencies like the Nature and Parks Authority, aided by scientists. The knowledge available is not perfect, and there have been mistakes made along the way. But there have also been achievements, as in the case of the Yarkon breams, which were successfully reintroduced to the river for which they are named.

Intervening in nature creates complex challenges. One of the most complex one is deciding which species constitute a disturbance to the biological variety one wants to preserve, and what to do about it. These decisions are sometimes painful, as they involve the killing of animals. Such is the case with stray dogs, which have multiplied considerably in open areas where they are seen by some as a threat to wildlife. Most of these problems are created by the irresponsibility of dog owners who abandon them.

A major problem is the huge increase in the number of waste dumps, which provide a source of food for dogs and cats, which then multiply in a manner that causes additional ecological problems. The Nature and Parks Authority may have been able to intervene far less often if this food source hadn’t changed the ecological balance of wildlife.