A mountain gazelle frolicking around the hills isn’t only one of the most beautiful sights in Israel, it’s a rare sight in general. According to new research, mountain gazelles are now unique to the country.
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As a result, if efforts are not stepped up to protect the species, it will disappear from the wild. There are only about 2,000 mountain gazelles left in Israel, a number that has declined sharply over the past two or three decades.
“Unfortunately gazelles, which have survived 11,000 years of human history in the Land of Israel, have been unable to survive human activity over the last 30 years, and their survival is threatened,” says Dr. Kahila Bar-Gal of Hebrew University. “The genetic characteristics of gazelle species in Israel show their uniqueness and the importance of protecting them.”
A genetic study of Israel’s gazelles has been conducted by a team led by Kahila Bar-Gal from the university’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine. The researchers worked with DNA samples from 111 gazelles, given to them by rangers from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Three kinds of gazelle interested the scientists in the study published last week by the journal Plos One: the mountain gazelle, the Dorcas gazelle and the acacia gazelle. Only a few acacias still survive, living in the southern Arava, a region in the south on the border with Jordan.
One goal was to understand the genetic uniqueness of these populations in Israel. Contrary to what was once thought, the mountain gazelle is not found in other areas such as northern Africa, the researchers discovered. It is also believed to be extinct in neighboring countries such as Jordan and Syria. That makes Israel the last bastion of the species.
The mountain gazelle spread in cooler periods as far south as the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, but when the climate warmed up, its habitat shrank, leaving a fairly genetically homogenous population.
The Dorcas and acacia gazelles also have a unique genetic profile compared to these species in other regions such as the Sahara Desert and Sudan. Researchers believe that the Dorcas gazelle in Israel is the most ancient, and that this species may have begun to develop in the Middle East, not in North Africa.
Meanwhile, relatives of the Israeli acacia gazelle are found today only in the Farasan Islands near the southern Saudi coast near Yemen. They differ from other gazelles of this species living in the region.
The acacia gazelles live in a limited area of the southern Arava, which is also inhabited by Dorcas gazelles, but the two species do not interbreed.
All gazelle species in Israel are protected by law, but they face many threats including illegal hunting, predation by bands of roaming dogs and disruption of their habitat due to the building of roads and other infrastructure.
The research team says efforts to protect the mountain gazelle should be increased immediately. This includes cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to protect the species living on both sides of the Green Line. A key point would be to decrease hunting of the animal.