Israeli Construction Boom Puts Rare Butterfly at Risk of Local Extinction

Development of the new ‘Butterfly Quarter’ in city of Hadera hasn’t even begun and the Cigaritis cilissa is already disappearing

Zafrir Rinat
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The rare Cigaritis cilissa near Hadera, in 2019.
The rare Cigaritis cilissa near Hadera, in 2019. Credit: Moshe Leodon
Zafrir Rinat

In the past two decades there’s been a 99 percent drop in population of the Cigaritis cilissa butterfly, native to the coastal region in northern Israel, according to a survey by an association of butterfly enthusiasts in cooperation with scientists of the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority.

The surveyors found that one of the reasons for the sharp drop is the recent construction south of Hadera, at the expense of the butterfly’s native breeding grounds. Scientists warn that continued construction and the new neighborhood that is planned for the area will endanger the fragile butterfly.

Due to the butterflies’ sensitivity to pollution and changes in their breeding grounds, their presence is an important index of environmental health.

The Cigaritis cilissa, a protected species, is also native to the upper Galilee and some areas of central Israel, as well as other parts of the Middle East. The species survives in cooperation with ants that live inside of tree trunks and roots of plants. The ants adopt the caterpillars, protect and feed them. In exchange, they are nourished by a liquid secreted by the insects.

The rare Cigaritis cilissa near Hadera, May 2020.
The rare Cigaritis cilissa near Hadera, May 2020. Credit: Moshe Leonon

The species was found in central Israel for the first time about 30 years ago. They were first surveyed in 2006 amid fears they could be hurt by construction plans.

Butterfly hobbyists, in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, have done additional surveys with the help of many volunteers as part of a greater national butterfly monitoring project. The survey was done by searching for butterflies via looking at their regular routes of movement. The most worrisome finding is a drop off 99 percent in the size of the species’ population at its main habitat. But the survey found that the species population has remained relatively stable in parts of Caesarea and the Galilee.

Another reasons could be that there is no animal herding in the area, says one of the surveyors, Dr. Or Komay, of Tel Aviv University’s zoological museum. “It could lead to higher growing shrubs at the expense of plants that supply pollen to the maturing butterflies.”

Volunteers surveying the butterfly population near Hadera, May 2020.
Volunteers surveying the butterfly population near Hadera, May 2020. Credit: Naomi Pe'er

The Shikun and Binuy Company constructing the new neighborhood has considered the butterflies in drawing up their new plan and left a significant swath of open areas so that they can continue to survive. As a result of public activism on the issue the new neighborhood has even been named “Butterfly Quarter”. But the surveyors say this step isn’t enough.

A list of recommendations published by the surveyors call for changing development plans for the city of Hadera. They propose moving a planned access road to south of the planned neighborhood and expanding an ecological corridor, via moving some of the construction further northeast, where less wildlife has been sighted. They also believe that the butterfly population can be helped by such activities as planting pollen bearing flowers in a park in the new neighborhood and recommended preserving some of the sand dunes of Caesarea as a nature reserve.

In the area of the sand dunes there are a few construction and development threats, says Yael Efrat-Lavi, a supervisor for the Parks and Nature Authority for the northern district.

The butterflies' habitat near Hadera, May 2020.
The butterflies' habitat near Hadera, May 2020. Credit: Yisrael Pe'er

Lavi said a cemetery had already been approved for the area and a new road and a Caesarea development plan for a new neighborhood. “It’s an important area of sand dunes stabilized by plants that are used by the butterflies, and which has many other important natural attributes,” Lavi said.

Shikun and Binuy said in response that it has “conducted an unprecedented survey of the butterfly population by ecologist Dr. Ron Fromkin who heads a broad professional team. On the basis of this survey more than 60% of land for the plan has been budgeted for open areas to preserve the butterflies’ environment.”

The company also said that a “proposal to expand the neighborhood to the northeast would reduce a north-south ecological corridor of the butterfly substantially and create a bottleneck for the butterfly in this area, so it would be undesirable.”

The Caesarea development company said in response: “The company has a clear policy of preserving environmental values as part of sustainable development. This is our rule of thumb in all development projects for the areas for which we are responsible. We are sure that this issue can be addressed via creative solutions.”

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