Secret Weapon: Natural Born Weed Killers

A small herd of eight elands, the largest members of the antelope family, are helping the Israel Defense Forces to maintain security at the Lebanese border. These large wild deer, each weighing around 500 kilograms, are known for their strong, sharp teeth and varied taste in vegetation.

The eland, which originates in East Africa, was introduced to Israel in the 1970s. The first group was brought here to help fill the local zoos, and some even continued north after a short rest period, on their way to zoos throughout Europe. When these animals' impressive chewing abilities were discovered, however, some elands were borrowed from the zoos to clear land of wild vegetation and expose the underlying soil.

The defense establishment soon took an interest in employing elands. Apart from being environmentally friendly, the animals save on the cost of manpower to clear weeds near secret military installations. Over the years the elands became a common sight at military bases, but their service along the fence with Lebanon is being published in these pages for the first time.

Yigal Sela was the first to use elands to halt the spread of weeds. "I saw how vivacious these creatures were and realized they could be used to reduce the vegetation that accelerates the spread of forest fires," he says.

Sela, who worked for the Jewish National Fund in the 1980s, brought some elands to the forests, where they proved they could eat a tremendous variety of plants. Still, fears of the natural increase of an animal not native to Israel blocked a plan to introduce them to all the forests.

"The trial with the elands was wonderful," says Haggai Ilan, in charge of captured wild animals for the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority. "But 10 years passed before there was a surplus of these animals in captivity, and only then did we begin introducing them to IDF bases to eat the weeds."

Once their advantages became clear, elands were brought to many large army bases and fences were built to prevent them from roaming.

"The elands eat tremendous quantities and do a wonderful job clearing the weeds at enormous or secret military installations, and in places were there are ammunition storerooms, where the fear of fires is greater," says Yossi Ben of Arava Antelope Ranch. "In these places the elands save on manpower and obviate the need for spraying chemical herbicides." Sela says there are now between 500 and 700 elands at IDF bases throughout Israel.

"They are never ill, have a very low mortality rate, and are unthreatened by local natural predators. They also don't need supplementary food or water."

Now after years on the home front, eight elands were transported to a stretch along the border with Lebanon, in an enclave between Israel's security fence and a fence on the "blue line" - the international border.

"The elands eat the weeds in problematic places, open paths, clear the view and prevent fires," Ilan says.