Sinkholes Threatening Existence of Israeli Ibex Near Dead Sea

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Ibex grazing in a date plantation near the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. A proposed fence would block their access to the land.
Ibex grazing in a date plantation near the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. A proposed fence would block their access to the land.Credit: Michael Blecher

A herd of ibex at a nature reserve near the Dead Sea are in danger because of a decision to fence off date plantations that had to be abandoned due to sinkholes.

The animals in Ein Gedi Nature Reserve currently graze in the plantations, which have become an important food source for them. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority is calling for the decision by the Israel Land Authority to be reversed.

The areas set to be fenced off were once cultivated by members of the adjacent Kibbutz Ein Gedi. In recent years, though, the emerge of sinkholes meant the kibbutz could no longer cultivate them and had to return them to the ILA.

The latter has decided to fence the plantations off for safety reasons.

About 200 ibex currently live on the reserve, the largest concentration of them in Israel.

The ibex began coming to the cultivated areas about 20 years ago to graze on grass and shrubs, which increased their food sources. According to Michael Blecher, the reserve’s ecologist, the farmers benefited because the animals’ grazing meant they did not need to use herbicides to keep weeds at bay. Blecher says this is a unique example of coexistence between farmers and herbivores.

It is estimated that some 70 percent of the ibex go to the old date plantations. They do so mainly during the hottest months, when their natural food sources in the reserve are reduced. Because of the importance of the date plantations, some INPA officials say they should be declared part of the reserve. This would grant them permanent protection.

The threat from sinkholes around the Dead Sea has increased in recent decades. Two years ago, a new road had to be built to go around the sinkholes, and it came close to the Ein Gedi reserve. Since then, the ibex have crossed the new road to reach the date plantations. Fencing will make it even harder for them to reach the area.

A sinkhole near the Dead Sea coastline, April 2017.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The ILA suggested special openings in the fence to allow the ibex to pass, says Harel Ben-Shahar, of the INPA’s Arava region, “but we think there is no justification for the fences, and signs could be put up warning people about the sinkholes. You have to remember that these are areas people have no reason to enter.”

According to Ben-Shahar, no other areas along the Dead Sea have been fenced off because of the sinkholes.

“The ibex have their habits, and we noticed that in the case of the new road, no ibex used the underpass created especially for them and they continue to hop over the safety rail. We are afraid they will cross the road and cluster near the fences, where they could be hit by cars. That can mean dangerous accidents, because ibex are heavy creatures.”

Ben-Shahar added that other animals, including wolves and hyenas, also cross in the area and would be affected by the fencing.

If the ibex head the other way, into the Judean Desert, they are at risk of being killed by hunters from the West Bank, experts say. Therefore, it is especially important to keep the ibex in the area in and around the reserve.

The Israel Land Authority said in response, “Sinkholes are common all along the Dead Sea coastline. It is a difficult phenomenon to deal with and requires caution because of the concern for human life. Harm to the ibex is also one of the considerations, so the type of fencing has yet to be finalized. Discussions are ongoing with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority to find a solution that will strike the best balance between needs – including alternatives to fencing.”

Some 6,000 sinkholes have been found along the shores of the Dead Sea. Last week, the Israel Geological Society presented its research into the subject: Its scientists said they can now give warnings when a sinkhole is about to appear, before the ground collapses into it.

They also said they have been able to map the high-risk areas, and that so far no sinkholes have been found outside of these areas.

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