In March 1968 the post-Six-Day War euphoria was at its height. The State of Israel, basking in its shining victory, had proved to itself that it was following in the path of Israel’s kings and judges of yore, and their military achievements. And what would be more reasonable than to try to bring back the pereh, the wild donkey mentioned several times in the Bible, to roam about freely in the desolate Negev?
According to travelers in the Land of Israel 500 years ago, herds of these animals, subsequently identified as Syrian wild asses, were common in the region. But unchecked hunting and hundreds of thousands of rifles distributed to the Bedouin by Lawrence of Arabia, intended for killing Ottomans, were not kind to our lovely wild ass. The biblical ass became extinct. The last Syrian ass in captivity died in the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna in 1927, the same year the last one in the wild was hunted down near the Azraq oasis in Jordan.
The late Uri Tzon, who dedicated his life to restoring Israel’s ancient wild animal populations – and to that end, founded the Hai-Bar organization with Gen. (res.) Avraham Yoffe, which runs two nature reserves – was one of the brokers of a deal by which three pairs of Persian wild asses were brought at the time from the shah’s Iran, in exchange for 20 deer from his private collection.
“Six wild asses called ‘pereh’ in the Book of Numbers were returned to Israel, the land of their birth, after thousands of years of exile,” Tzon reported to the daily newspaper Maariv. When the first wild ass was born in the Hai-Bar reserve in Yotvata, in southern Israel, the local press dubbed it tzabar (i.e., native Israeli). However, the press didn’t mention the fact that the animals actually belonged to a subspecies of Persian and not Syrian origin, and also reported that the shipment had arrived from European zoos.
After the wild asses began to flourish in 1982 at the Hai-Bar reserve, which, like its northern counterpart in Haifa administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority – the animals were released into nature in the area of the Ramon Crater, in the south.
There are several estimates concerning the size of the population of wild asses in the country: The INPA has told Haaretz that there are 200 such animals, although two years ago the Hai-Bar Facebook page boasted of 300 of them throughout the Negev desert. Ecologist Ilan Ziv says he’s heard estimates of 250 to 300 wild asses. Farmers who have suffered crop damage due to them are betting on 500. Apparently the real number is somewhere in the middle.
'I'm an animal person'
I was surprised to hear that Ilan Dvir, 57, is not pleased with the wild asses. After all, he himself has brought strange animals from distant places to the alpaca and llama farm he started years ago near Mitzpeh Ramon. We meet at the farm, surrounded by charming llamas, a group of children and some journalists from Ukraine. While we were talking, an alpaca spit at one of the guests. Ilan didn’t even bat an eyelash.
“I’m an animal and horse person,” he says, at the outset. “I get all my cultural ‘oxygen’ from the presence of wild animals and I’m happy that the wild asses are here. It’s a wonderful gift. Every horse lover is happy to gallop on some type of wild horse. We’ve been living with them for 30 years, for as long as we’ve been here.”
So what’s the problem?
“Just because we’ve been living here for 30 years and the essence of our life is here, we see what’s happening to the wild asses and also what’s happening to the area. At first we had encounters with small groups of these animals. Everything was in the right proportion and correct. But over the years, from a few animals the population of wild asses grew to over 300.”
The relatively fast growth of this population has led over the years to the destruction of large swaths of the southern desert, Dvir claims: “The initial location for the [alpaca] farm was the Lotz Cisterns Nature Reserve, the highest region in the Negev mountains and the richest for grazing. A far more fertile place than the area where our alpaca farm is actually located today. We checked out the pasture land, did tests on its nutritional value. Plant lovers knew the Lotz Cisterns is the most beautiful area in the Negev in terms of its flora.
“Everything changed since the INPA built a trough for the wild asses [that have been restored to and have reproduced in nature] in the area. All the animals have gathered there, causing increasing damage to the vegetation. The fertile area became totally arid and trampled. It became a desert. In a few decades the wild asses have destroyed the highest parts of the Negev. It was the area richest in wormwood plants, for example, and now there are none there. Everything was green, now there’s only dust.”
Dvir says his farm is also suffering: “Due to the sheer volume of the population, the wild asses have spread to additional areas and discovered the alpacas’ trough, out in the pasture. They began to drink there. When we tried to turn off the water, their trampling cracked the pipes and water leaked out. There was great damage to the equipment, not to mention the large amounts of water that were lost each time.
"This summer herds of 80 wild asses began to arrive. They walked around all over the grazing area and destroyed the plants. The situation is extremely problematic when we are suffering a drought, and they’re eating the little that’s left. The flora won’t be renewed. These animals are causing the desertification of this area.
“The wild asses also harm animal life by destroying the plants that have been a source of food for the deer and rare rodents we have here. The system is very sensitive. We have to create a place that is protected from wild asses, to fence in an area in the Negev mountains where the various plant species can continue to flourish, and the animals won’t destroy them. Every year the destruction is greater.
“Besides that,” Dvir continues, “we have to stop the growth of the herd. Certainly we shouldn’t encourage it. I’m against killing wild asses. If it’s decided to kill them I’ll oppose it. But males can be castrated; males and females can be separated during mating periods. We can also bring in food. At the moment we don’t give them food and the area can’t support so many wild asses, especially when there’s been no rain in recent years.”
Tzur Shezaf, 58, isn’t exactly the first person you’d expect to protest the damage caused by the wild asses. Shezaf, a tour guide, journalist and travel-book author identified with the subject of desert wildlife, has been involved in many an environmental battle. But as someone who is cultivating a vineyard near the herds’ stomping grounds, Shezaf is suffering from them. We go with him to check out the damage, which is evident mainly in the more distant vines, where young Chardonnay grapes were planted two years ago. The first harvest was supposed to take place next summer.
Shezaf, heartbroken, repairs the trellising wires torn by the asses as they went by, straightening the posts that were pushed aside. Around us are piles of wild ass dung, which attest to the large number of animals entering the vineyard, as well as their impressive metabolism. At this time of year the vineyard is supposed to be in a state of exfoliation, essentially gathering energy during its winter hibernation. But when the asses ate the branches, some of the vines were awakened and began to sprout green leaves, as though it were springtime. Shezaf believes that this will confuse the vines and damage the yield.
“I’ve been here for seven years already. I’ve had damage from camels, goats and deer,” he explains, “but this October we started to see damage on a different level. The fences were simply lying on the ground. Every morning they had to be repaired. The wild asses are very strong.”
You wanted a vineyard in the desert, you got a vineyard in the desert.
“I love animals, I’m in favor of wild animals. The problem is that they aren’t managed properly. We have to remember that these wild asses didn’t originate in Israel; they were brought in by plane. The situation today is that there are several hundred. The INPA doesn’t want to say how many. In my opinion there are 500. I’ve seen herds of 40. In the fall they consumed all the flora in many areas and reached the trough of the alpaca farm. They drink there and come eat in my vineyard. They should be expelled to Rwanda.”
Shezaf says he has appealed to the INPA and Agriculture Ministry, but no solution has been found to the asses’ damage. “It should be said, to the INPA’s credit, that they didn’t ignore the problem. They suggested that I use a rifle that shoots a peppery substance, and then they tried a spray on the fences that is supposed to keep animals away, but it didn’t work. They suggested that I put up an electric fence and brought me 150 meters – and I need a two-kilometer fence.”
They seem to be trying.
“I say, if you’ve brought in a few wild asses that have become hundreds and they have nothing to eat, either kill them or feed them. I’m not supposed to maintain the natural environment of the State of Israel at my expense. You interfered with nature, you re-introduced wild animals – and then you don’t manage them properly. The INPA told me they’re not ignoring the problem, but they also made it clear that they aren’t responsible and that I can’t sue them. In spite of that, they said, we’ll try to help.”
You bring up the possibility of killing them. Ilan Dvir, who shares your assessment of the damage they cause, says he’ll fight if they try to destroy wild asses.
“He’s wrong about that. What would you do instead? Will Ilan pay me 250,000 (about $72,000) shekels [in damages]? The entire story of agriculture in the region is marginal. I’m barely surviving. I contacted the Agriculture Ministry and they waved me away.”
Maybe you’re the problem, and not the wild asses? Maybe the desert belongs to the desert animals and it’s not a place for agriculture?
“They brought the wild asses here. It’s not that I came and I’m getting in their way. The animals are multiplying and there’s agriculture and the problem suddenly blew up. Let them plant 80 dunams [20 acres] of food for the wild asses. The problem is seasonal. In the fall there are two to three months without food. If they want nature, they have to take care of it.
"If a person were to come and damage my vineyard, I would go to the police. The INPA is the nature police and I contact them. What do they say? That there’s not much to be done. Let them bring the wolves here from Ein Gedi to attack the wild asses. At the moment no animal is preventing the increase in their population growth.”
Are there supposed to be wolves here?
“I haven’t seen wolves for three years, and hyenas won’t go after wild asses. There aren’t any leopards here any more. And what will happen when there are 1,000 asses here? Or even 2,000? The only thing that will stop their spread is when they finish off the vineyards.”
The response of the Agriculture Ministry: “The responsible authority in this area is the INPA. The ministry is aware of the present situation and has spoken to the INPA about the problem. In addition, the ministry helped to provide grants for the Sfat Midbar project, which is involved mainly in the planting of vineyards.”
Asaf Tzoer, the ecologist of the INPA’s southern region, sends the ball back to the accusers’ court: “There’s a constant conflict between agriculture and wild animals. In the desert there’s very little greenery. Agriculture brings a lot of water to the area, which becomes very green. It’s natural that this will attract wild animals. The idea is to minimize the damage, and we work with the farmers and try to manage the wildlife.
“The availability of food boosts the number of animals,” Tzoer explains, “and therefore there are more animals that cause more damage. Because of agriculture there are more porcupines and more jackals in the desert, which weren’t there naturally. We have special inspectors for agricultural damage. The farmers have to build fences and to be better prepared to deal with the wild animals, just as they deal with other pests.”
But even if we forget about the farmers, Ilan Dvir claims that the wild asses are simply destroying the desert flora, causing further desertification.
“I disagree. There’s no clear evidence of that. We compared a satellite photo from 2000 and checked whether there was a change for the worse, and we didn’t find one.”
Wasn’t it green?
“Ilan Dvir is talking about the area of the trough. There really was damage there. All the wild asses arrive at this spot and trample it. But it’s a small spot, only a few dunams. It’s easy to say that, if once there was greenery and today there isn’t, it’s because of the asses. But how do you decide that it’s due to them and not to global warming or drought?”
So what’s the problem with feeding the asses, so they won’t gnaw away at the desert flora or be forced to invade vineyards?
“If we feed them that will exacerbate the problem even more, if it even exists. The right way is to build fences, so they won’t enter agricultural areas. Part of the cost is paid by the farmer; we offer advice and assistance. Sometimes the Agriculture Ministry helps.”
Before it gets dark Tzur, Eli the photographer and I go out in Eli’s jeep in the direction of Nahal Nitzana to look for the donkeys. Eli parks next to an army training area, and gets his camera ready. An armed female soldier looks at us suspiciously and begins to approach. We decide to move on. I’m on the lookout for asses on the right; Eli and Tzur, on the left side. The landscape is lovely, with light filtering through the clouds, but there are no wild asses.
I feel cheated. We turn right on a road that once led to an army base – near the Lotz Cisterns – which is now abandoned. The area is full of ancient agricultural terraces, which prove that the region was fertile centuries ago.
And then Eli sees them on the left: five cute wild asses, one of them a foal. They blend in marvelously with the colors of the landscape. I am mainly impressed by their elegance, which for a few moments erases all the slander I’ve heard about them. How can you complain about such an animal?
Eli and I are excited. Tzur takes a picture with his phone, but looks as though he’s arguing with himself over the beauty of these animals and the economic damage they wreak. But afterward he says, “It’s wonderful to see the wild asses. I’m just as excited as you are.”