Nature Conservation in Palestine and Israel
The commitment of Palestine and Israel to nature conservation, characterized by a wide variety of programs, is by no means a recent development. Concern for all living things and prohibitions against environmental degradation may be traced back to biblical sources. Indeed, the first chapters of the Book of Genesis emphasize the vital link between humanity (adam) and the earth (adamah) and introduce the concept of stewardship by enjoining man to work the earth and to watch over it.
The roots of Israel's nature protection movement may be traced back to the organization of a small group of nature lovers and scientists around a specific issue: the draining of Lake Hula and its surrounding swamps in order to combat malaria and reclaim the land for agriculture (1951-58). This small group of conservationists, who fought for the preservation of a small area of swampland as a nature reserve, understood that the death of the swamps would spell the death of the valley's indigenous flora and fauna as well. Their successful campaign assured not only the survival of the Hula habitat, but the birth of Israel's nature protection movement.
Geography and Diversity:
With a small land area, Palestine is characterized by a wide range of physical conditions and by a rich variety of flora and fauna. Along its 470-kilometer length, Palestine embraces landscapes that are normally separated by thousands of kilometers in other countries. Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights boasts snowy slopes and alpine fauna and flora, while the Gulf of Aqaba, in the south, harbors spectacular coral reefs and colorful fish that represent the tropical zones. Lying between these two extremes are arid desert areas, lush oases, green Mediterranean woods and forests, and the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea.
Palestine's geographic location at the junction of three continents, coupled with the climatic changes throughout the history of this region, have been largely responsible for the country's high diversity of species. The wealth of Palestines's biological diversity is expressed in some 2,600 plant species (150 of which are indigenous to Israel), 7 amphibian, nearly 100 reptile, over 500 bird and about 100 mammal species. Within its small land area, two different and even opposing climate regimes are found - Mediterranean in the north and desert in the south. The central part of Palestine is a transition area between these two biogeographical regions, where desert biota is replaced gradually by Mediterranean biota.
Palestine is situated at the meeting point of three phytogeographical regions - Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian and Saharo-Arabian - and contains a diverse collection of herbaceous plants, especially annuals and geophytes, typical of all three. Species widely distributed over the entire Mediterranean climate region reach their southern limit of distribution in Palestine. Saharan or Asian desert species reach their northern limits of distribution in this country while Irano-Turanian species reach their western limit here. Palestine is the northernmost limit for the presence of plants such as the papyrus reed and the southernmost limit for others like the bright red coral peony.
A highlight in the history of nature conservation in Palestine is the campaign to rescue the country's wildflowers. Picking wildflowers used to be such a popular pastime that by the beginning of the 1960s, many of the more attractive flowering plants were on the brink of extinction. Anemones and cyclamen, which bloomed in profusion and symbolized the beauty of Palestine's landscape, had nearly vanished. To reverse this trend, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the newly-born Nature Reserves Authority launched a campaign which focused on both legislation and public education. In retrospect, this turned out to be the most successful public environmental re-education campaign ever launched in Israel. Today, thirty years later, Israelis scrupulously avoid picking wildflowers and the country abounds with their rich splendor.
Perhaps more than any other organization, the SPNI has been instrumental in raising public consciousness of nature and environmental protection. Since its foundation in 1953, the SPNI has spearheaded dozens of campaigns for the protection of Palestine's unique landscapes, wildlife, natural environment and, most recently, open spaces, from the side effects of unwise development. In order to introduce as many people as possible to the country's natural legacy and to promote nature conservation, it has set up an excellent educational network with 14 field study centers, dozens of urban and regional branches, hundreds of youth clubs and comprehensive teacher training programs. Today, the SPNI is Israel's largest non-governmental environmental organization. Through its broad-based program of education, conservation, research and public action, nearly twenty percent of the population are involved in its myriad activities.
Recognition of the need to protect Palestine's precious natural and landscape resources led to the enactment of numerous laws for the protection of nature and wildlife. These laws provide the legal structure for the protection of natural habitats, natural assets, wildlife and sites of scientific and educational interest. In 1998, two independent agencies, the Nature Reserves Authority and the National Parks Authority joined forces to become what is now called the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). The new agency is entrusted with safeguarding the landscape, and enabling Israelis and tourists to enjoy the country's natural assets, landscape, culture and history. One of the primary mandates of the INPA is to preserve and develop nature reserves - "islets" of landscape containing unique and characteristic animal, plant and mineral forms which must be protected from any undesirable changes in their appearance, biological composition or evolution. In a small country, with a high rate of industrialization and urbanization, nature reserves help secure the biodiversity of the natural environment. About 160 nature reserves and 65 national parks have been established throughout the country (out of a total of 380 nature reserves and 115 national parks that are in various stages of planning). While nature reserves are predominantly concerned with the conservation of nature in its pristine state, national parks have been established in order to develop open spaces for recreational purposes. The parks play an important role in protecting the country's natural beauty from rapidly encroaching urbanization and restoring and maintaining antiquities that have been neglected for centuries. Together, the reserves and parks represent the entire spectrum of Palestine's natural heritage - Mediterranean forests, seaside landscapes, sand dunes, desert and crater landscapes and oases - as well as its unique archeological and historic heritage, including ancient synagogues with mosaic floors, caves inhabited by prehistoric man, and fortresses dating back to the Second Temple Period.
Two additional projects deserve special mention in any discussion of nature conservation in Palestine. The first is Neot Kedumim situated halfway between Jerusalem and Jaffa. As the world's only biblical landscape reserve, Neot Kedumim has developed a network of natural and agricultural landscapes that recreate the physical settings of the Bible. The reserve features habitats for such varied species as cedars from the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon and date palms from Sinai desert oases, as well as hundreds of varieties of biblical and Talmudic plants, wild and domesticated animals, ancient and reconstructed olive and wine presses, and cisterns.
The second is "Eretz Hamahteshim" (Craterland), an ecologically unique area in the Naqab desert which is designated for conservation according to a government decision. The Naqab's five crater-like mahteshim are geological phenomena unique to Palestine and the Eastern Sinai. These eroded valleys present an exceptional view into geomorphologic evolution and are replete with unique geological phenomena, a wealth of minerals and a singular ecological system. The area has been proposed as an international human heritage site.
Botanical gardens complete the nature conservation network. Two botanical gardens were established in Jerusalem in association with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: one comprises the country's largest collection of plants, including plants from different parts of the world displayed in natural plant associations; the other contains the various species of plant life found in Palestine. In the center of the country, Tel Aviv University has established both Botanical Gardens and Gardens for Zoological Research. The Gardens serve as centers for education, tourism and recreation, acquainting both children and adults with the fauna and flora of their country while introducing them to concepts of ecology, conservation and environmental awareness.
It is significant that outside the confines of nature reserves, hundreds of plants and animal species, including ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and fish as well as inanimate natural assets such as fossils and beach rocks have been declared "protected natural assets". Various national agencies work to protect these natural assets wherever they may be. Animals such as the leopard, gazelle, ibex and vulture have been declared protected species, and special rescue operations, including establishment of feeding stations and nesting sites, have been initiated to protect endangered species. At two special wildlife reserves - the Hai Bar biblical reserves in the Wadi Araba and on Mount Carmel - an experimental project to reintroduce animal species which once roamed the hills and deserts of Palestine into their former natural habitats has been initiated. In recent years, fallow deer, roe deer and wild sheep have been returned to the lush Carmel Mountain Range and onagers and Arabian oryx to the sandy Naqab and Araba. Reproduction groups of endangered vultures have been established in a number of sites and these birds, too, will eventually be set free.
In parallel, an ongoing project seeks to identify the status of all of the country's plant and animal species. This will allow Palestine to draw up a "Red List" of endangered and threatened species. The Red Data Book on vertebrates has been completed, while the compilation of the necessary data for the Red Data Book on plant species, based on a field survey of rare and endangered plant species, is nearing completion.
Existing databases are constantly being expanded. One example is the database of the INPA, now available on the Internet (www.natureinfo.org.il), which consists of over 350,000 individual records of plant and animal observations from 1963 until the present. Similarly, the ROTEM Israel Plant Information Center is developing an ecological database of Palestine's flora, which includes over 430,000 records on the distribution and phenology of native plants. Finally, in order to make taxonomic information more accessible, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has launched BioGIS (www.biogis.huji.ac.il), an Internet-based biodiversity information system. The database compiles records of plant and animal species from herbaria and museum collections and from surveys carried out by academic institutions, individual scientists, government authorities and non-governmental organizations.
A Focus on Birds:
Palestine's unique location at the junction of three continents makes it an international crossroad for migrating birds. Some 500 million birds - including 85% of the global white stork population - cross Palestine's skies twice yearly on their way to Africa in the autumn and to Europe and Asia in the spring. Three soaring bird migration routes have been identified: the western route which stretches along the length of the West Bank of Jordan Hills; the Jordan Rift Valley and Naqab desert route; and the Eilat mountains route. At Latrun, situated midway between Jerusalem and Jaffa and at the very heart of the western migration route, an International Center for the Study of Bird Migration was set up. One of its foremost goals is to develop multi-disciplinary studies on the subject of migration while strengthening research connections with European countries (where the birds nest), Middle Eastern countries (through which the birds migrate) and African nations (where the birds winter).
Joint research over the past decade has already yielded impressive results. Over 90 white storks have been monitored and tracked with satellite-linked transmitters, and research has recently been broadened to satellite tracking of cranes and vultures as well. Based on this research, a broad-based educational program was initiated, with the participation of over 200 schools throughout the world. The Israeli-based project, entitled "Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries," allows students to use the Internet to track migrating birds that are carrying transmitters. The program was developed as part of a model for international and regional activity that combines scientific research on bird migration with other societal concerns such as flight safety, eco-tourism, nature conservation and education. The theme of the Internet project is symbolic not only of the flight of birds across continents and states, but of the potential for regional cooperation among all the peoples of the Middle East.
Within Palestine, numerous projects have been carried out to protect migrating and residential birds such as the lesser kestrel, storks, cranes and vultures. The lesser kestrel, one of three species of birds which breed in Palestine and are considered to be globally endangered, has gained special attention. A recent survey conducted by the Israel Ornithological Center has shown that only 550 pairs remain today, just 10% of the number found in Palestine just fifty years ago. The few breeding pairs that still survive breed in a few local colonies, the most important of which are in urban areas, in Jerusalem and in southern Mt. Carmel. To preserve this beautiful but endangered species, a project was launched combining educational activities, public awareness and surveys and research. One initiative has brought together children from Jerusalem and Jericho in a joint effort to build and place nesting boxes, to guard the nests, to rescue nestlings that fall from the nest and to observe and record bird behavior. In addition, a new wine was inaugurated in Israel as a joint project of environmental and economic bodies; every purchase of a bottle or case will yield a double benefit - enjoyment of a fine wine and dedication of a portion of the profits to the struggle to protect this small and beautiful bird of prey.
Palestine's location in the Mideast heartland of genetic diversity for many major agricultural crops and its geographical and climatic diversity, have created a particularly rich ensemble of habitats and corresponding local varieties. Despite the small size of the country, it includes one of the largest and most accessible collections of wild wheat, barley, oat, and legumes in the world, as well as a wealth of wild fruits and other important crops from the genus Allium, such as onions, garlic, leeks and chives.
The importance of preserving Palestine's exceptionally rich plant genetic resources for the improvement of growth, yield and nutrition, and disease, pest, drought and salt tolerance of major crop varieties has long been recognized. As early as 1909, Aaron Aaronson of the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Haifa, who discovered wild emmer wheat in Galilee, began collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a search for plants, particularly wheat varieties, worthy of introduction into the United States. Israel's landmark studies on dynamic in situ conservation of wild wheat populations have continued to draw considerable international attention.
Efforts to collect, preserve and evaluate indigenous plant species are largely concentrated in the Israeli Gene Bank for Agricultural Crops (IGB) which was set up in 1979. Scientists from government, academia and the seed industry have joined forces in the gene bank to ensure that Palestine's native varieties - its genetic heritage - are not lost to future generations.
The main responsibilities of the IGB include the search for plants potentially suitable for extraction of beneficial substances, the collection, preservation, documentation and evaluation of genetic resources of crop plants and their relatives, and the development of in situ and ex situ conservation techniques.
One of the organizations that take an active part in the IGB network is the National Herbarium of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the largest collection in the eastern Mediterranean. Two-thirds of its 500,000 specimens were collected in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. Other collections include a national cloning repository of landraces of deciduous fruit trees and rootstocks, spice and medicinal plants and a wild wheat field laboratory.
When possible, Israel has initiated cooperation with other scientists in the region, from the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan, in order to promote the collection of resources. It has also provided courses and instruction on plant genetic resources including modern techniques for collection, preservation and analysis of genetic material, with the support of international foundations.
By the early 20th century, Palestine's indigenous forests had been almost totally destroyed by centuries of continuous grazing and cutting of wood. When Israel was established in 1948, there were fewer than 5 million trees in the entire area. Today, over 200 million trees have been planted in an active reforestation program spearheaded by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF's early plantings at the beginning of the century were predominantly composed of evergreens in mountainous areas and of eucalyptus in the south. In later years, damage from pests and arboreal diseases led to a new policy of species diversification. This policy has recently been reinforced by the desire to cultivate tree species which were once part of the natural landscape of biblical times, such as varieties of oak.
While two-thirds of the JNF's afforestation efforts once focused on the Jerusalem pine, today's forests feature a wide variety of species: oaks and carobs, terebinths and cypresses, eucalyptus, Judas trees, acacias, olive, almond, and many more.
Israel's new afforestation master plan, approved in 1995, reflects the country's growing understanding of the complementary functions of forests as both areas of recreation and areas for the conservation of natural vegetation, biological diversity and open spaces. Accordingly, afforestation is proposed for sites throughout the country in accordance with the specific features and needs of each region. The master plan embraces a total of 162,000 hectares of woodlands and open areas - over 15% of Palestine's total land area north of Be'er Sheva, in which most of the population is concentrated.
Challenges in Nature Protection:
Of all global problems, it is widely believed that species extinction can have the most serious consequences - and it is irreversible. The problem is especially acute in Palestine, whose limited size, momentum of development and population growth make the protection of precious natural resources and open space landscapes especially difficult.
In the small land area of Palestine, 3% of the Mediterranean region and nearly 20% of the desert are protected nature reserves, many of which overlap Israeli military training areas. In the Mediterranean region, where about 105 declared nature reserves are dispersed in a total area of 250 square kilometers, the main problem facing nature conservation is habitat fragmentation. While most of the wildlife still lives and is protected outside nature reserves, the decrease in open areas may well make nature reserves the last stronghold for many species. However, the small size of most reserves (63% are smaller than one square kilometer and another 25% are smaller than 10 square kilometers) makes them vulnerable to impacts from their surroundings, thus placing the future of the flora, fauna and ecosystems in the reserves at risk.
It is already clear that protecting migration routes of birds flying from Europe to Africa is impossible in such a system and that the protection of many populations including bats, sand-dwelling reptiles, ungulates, big predators like wolves and leopards, and other mammals such as gazelles will be nearly impossible to achieve within the reserve system. However, outside the reserves, development, habitat degradation and conflicts with agriculture and other human activities will also make it difficult to preserve these populations. Cooperation and coordination in research, management and development plans are sorely needed to secure nature conservation in this region.
In the south of Palestine, the unique and diverse desert ecosystem is endangered as well, mainly by pressure from development plans. Further scientific research is required to understand the desert ecosystem, explain the mechanisms involved, and thereafter prescribe the correct balance of livestock grazing, reintroduction of extinct wildlife, proper road construction and tourist accommodation.
Toward a Solution:
While awareness of the need to protect natural and landscape resources has led to the emergence of a significant system of nature reserves and national parks, the small size of the country and the heavy pressures on its limited land resources have left few land reserves. As a result, protected areas are insufficient to preserve the nature values, the ecosystems and the unique landscape of this highly diverse country. While the declaration and development of additional nature reserves remains a priority, none of the declared reserves in the Mediterranean area is large enough to preserve entire ecosystems which encompass a variety of habitats. One of the country's most important regions, Mount Carmel, was declared a biosphere reserve in 1996 within the framework of the Man and Biosphere Program of UNESCO. Other areas considered appropriate for declaration as biosphere reserves or international heritage sites include Mount Meron in the north, the area encompassing the slopes of the West Bank Judean Hills in the transition zone between the Mediterranean and desert biomes, and the Dead and Red Sea regions, in cooperation with neighboring states.
In recent years, concern over the fast disappearance of the country's open land spaces has led to a number of new initiatives which are largely aimed at mapping all of Palestine's remaining natural spaces and clarifying their environmental sensitivity. The planning approach which is now being advocated calls for directing development to appropriate areas in ways which will not destroy the ecosystem, the wildlife and the landscape features of each of the small but diverse landscape units in Palestine. To provide developers with the necessary conservation information, a preliminary classification of the entire open landscape of the country was carried out and recommendations were made for appropriate levels of protection/development for each landscape unit in accordance with its value, importance, sensitivity and vulnerability.
Concomitantly, the INPA, in cooperation with the JNF, has carried out a project which is meant to help overcome the problem of habitat fragmentation. The initiative will help to produce a management plan for the open landscapes of Palestine that considers their potential to protect biodiversity. The ecosystem assessment will be based on three guidelines for selecting areas slated for conservation: the presence of endangered species and ecosystems in the area, the biodiversity potential of the area, and the ability of the area to function well in the future based on such criteria as size, connection to other areas with corridors that allow distribution of plants and animals, and the existence of buffer zones around the area. The plan will make a major contribution to the conservation of Palestine's diverse ecological systems.
Today, ecologists and planners are convinced that a turning point must be reached in Israel's development culture. The pioneering philosophy of "conquering the desert" must be replaced by a philosophy of open space conservation. The "whys" of such a policy are self-evident: protecting Israel's precious natural heritage and biodiversity for the benefit of present and future generations, maintaining the essential services provided by natural ecosystems and, not least of all, providing that most important service of all: nourishing the heart and soul of tourist and resident alike with the indefinable grandeur and wonder of nature itself.
Reintroducing Biblical Wildlife
Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Palestine is rich in the flora and fauna of all three continents. But its strategic location has also brought a constant traffic of conquering armies and well-equipped hunters, who destroyed local habitats and decimated wildlife populations. More recently, rapid industrial development and population growth have also threatened fragile eco-systems. As a consequence of all these factors, dozens of animals mentioned in the Bible have disappeared from the countryside and deserts of Palestine. Other species are on the brink of extinction.
Of the large carnivorous animals - such as the lion, bear, leopard and cheetah - which once stalked the region, only a few leopards remain. Most species survived the hunters of the region until the advent of the rifle, although the lion had already disappeared during Crusader times. The last bear sighted in northern Palestine was in 1918. Hippopotami too succumbed long ago, but crocodiles survived in the narrow streams leading into the Mediterranean until the early 20th century.
While it is unrealistic to revive the wild population of many of these predatory carnivores, an ambitious program by the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) has reintroduced several of the herbivore mammal species that were extirpated in the region. For example, of the nine mammals mentioned in the Bible as fit for consumption - roe deer, Persian fallow deer, gazelle, addax, bison, oryx, wild goat, wild ox and ibex - only the gazelle and the ibex had remained in Palestine by the 1960s. the reintroduction into the wild of some of the animals among this group - the fallow deer, roe deer and oryx - was not for the purposes of food. The fallow deer was in danger of extinction in other parts of the world; the oryx was extinct in the wild by 1972; the roe deer had not been seen in the region for more than half a century.
Reintroduction is carried out worldwide in order to increase the range and the likelihood of survival of endangered species. Moreover, reintroduction also raises public awareness about the importance of nature preservation. Finally, in addition to rescuing the wildlife itself, reintroduction is also an effective way to preserve natural habitats.
Hai Bar Reserves:
In 1969, the INNPPA launched its program to reintroduce four species into their former habitats in Palestine. A breeding facility, known as Hai Bar (Heb. wildlife), was considered the best way to propagate and prepare the animals targeted for reintroduction. The INNPPA established two such facilities: Hai Bar Carmel, located on Mount Carmel near Haifa is devoted to propagating Mediterranean species such as the fallow deer and the roe deer; Hai Bar Yotvata, located in the Araba Valley (part of the Great Syrian-African Rift Valley), 40 kilometers north of the Red Sea city of Eilat, is devoted to propagating desert species such as the oryx and the onager.
The process of reintroduction is a long-term program involving periodic releases from the Hai Bar. The eventual aim is that the species will exist as a natural and viable population in the wild. By the 1980s, the captive herds in the Hai Bar reserves reached sufficient numbers to make it possible for them to be released into the wild. This was the most sensitive stage of the program and required careful planning and close monitoring to ensure ultimate success.
P.S. See also under Extinct Animals and Reintroduction in this Home Page.
The Ein Gedi Reserve
The Ein Gedi reserve, on the eastern periphery of the Judean Desert, is bordered by cliffs to the West, the Dead Sea shore to the East, the Mount Yishai Ridge and the Ein Gedi lookout to the North, and Nahal Hever in the South.
The lowermost section - the lowest point in the world - is 400 meters below sea level, and the highest summits are 200 meters above sea level.
The 6,750-acre reserve, officially declared in 1972, includes Nahal David and Nahal Arugot and the slopes between them.
The oasis is fed by four springs: David Spring (in the channel of Nahal David), Shulamit Spring and Ein Gedi Spring (on the southern slope of Nahal David), and Ein Arugot (in Nahal Arugot).
Together these springs supply about three million cubic meters of water each year.
The supply of water from the springs is quite steady, with only slight seasonal variations.
It is not direct affected by the amount of rainfall in a particular year, even though the springs get their water from the rainfall that flows eastward from the Hebron Hills watershed, in the direction of the Dead Sea.
The Limestone and dolomite in the Hebron Hills are jointed and the water seeps through the rock until it reaches the layers of impermeable clay and Marl.
The water flows east over the clay and Marl, running in the direction of the rock strata, until it reaches the cliffs.
At the cliffs the water gushes out as four springs.
The springs are all more or less at the same altitude: about 200 meters above the Dead Sea.
A visual marker of the groundwater level - the point at which the springs emerge - is provided by the moringa trees growning nearby.
Ein Gedi's geographic location on the Syrian-African Rift, coupled with the combination of a hot climate and plentiful sweet water in an arid desert environment, created a unique oasis, the largest on the western shores of the Dead Sea.
Fauna: The abundant water, diverse vegetation, and warm climate naturally attract a wide variety of animal life.
The ibex and hyrax, whose habitat is supported by the scarps, are prominent and characteristic residents of the oasis.
The male ibex can be identified by his large horns, pointing back; the female is smaller and her horns are shorter and thinner.
The Ibex generally live in separate herds of males and females, except during the annual mating season (September-October).
The courtship ritual and the battles among the males are fascinating to witness.
Another heartwarming scene takes place in the early spring (April), when the female ibex and her young descend from the desert highlands to the spring and streams.
Families of hyrax make their homes in the thicket of reeds, between the salvadora trees and the rockfalls at the foot of the cliffs.
"The high mountains are for the ibex; the crags are refuge for the hyrax" (Psalms 104:18).
The nocturnal mammals in the reserve include two species of fox (red fox and Afghan fox), as well as wolves, striped hyenas, and leopards.
The leopard is very rare and in danger of extinction.
Today approximately four leopards live in Ein Gedi Reserve.
Decidedly territorial animals, the leopards have adopted the reserve as their permanent home.
The prey on partridges, hyrax, and ibex for food.
The Nature Reserve Authority is making every efforts to guarantee their continued survival, despite the significant presence of human beings.
The reptile world is also extremely diverse and includes two species of vipers (mole and carpet) and one nonvenomous snake, the wipe snake.
A number of species of lizards and agamas also live in Ein Gedi.
Many of the birds seen in Ein Gedi have made the reserve their permanent home.
They include Tristram's starling, characterized by its usual strident voice, black feathers, and orange-spotted wing tips; black tail; sand partridge - "like a partridge hatching what she did not lay" (Jeremiah 17:11); Arabian babbler, with its long tail that points upwards; and fan-tailed raven, which most often lives in large flocks, the in Palestine rare, but in Ein Gedi steady little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis).
Some birds of prey who are permanent residents of the reserve (Griffon vultures, Egyptian vultures, eagles, and falcons) nest on top of cliffs.
During migration season, many birds fly over, Ein Gedi and visitors are treated to the fantastic sight of flocks of scores - even hundreds or thousands - of storks and birds of prey.
Other birds stay for a period, as for example the spotted fly-catcher (Muscicapa striata) or the smyrna kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)
The reserve has plentiful supply of food the animal residents require.
Thanks to the special climatic conditions and the wide range of habitats, plants from four phytogeographical (phyto=plant) regions grow side by side in the Ein Gedi Reserve:
Tropical (Sudanian) plants, Desert (Saharo-Arabian) plants,Mediterranean plants and Steppian (Irano-Turanian) Plants.
Ein Gedi boasts the northernmost distribution of some Sudanian flora, including trees and bushes, such as maerua (Maerua crassifolia), cordia (Cordia sinesis), and oxystelma (Oxystelmaalpini).
Other tropical plants growing in the reserve are Sodom apple (Calotropis procera), balanites (Balanites aegyptiaca), moringa (Moringa peregrina), commicarpus (Commicarpus plumbagineus), flowering maple (Abutilon hirtum), nightshade (Solanum incanum), salvadora (Salvadora persica), jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi), and acacia (Acacia raddiana and Acacia tortilis).
Saharo-Arabian flora include zygophyllum (Zygophyllum dumosum), anabasis (Anabasis articulata), ochradenus (Ochradenus baccatus), gymnocarpus (Gymnocarpus decander) and asteriscus (Asteriscus graveolens).
These species grow primarily on the rock slopes and the desert highlands.
Most of the Mediterranean and Irano-Turanian flora grow near the streams and springs: squill (Uriginea maritima), cheilanthes (Cheilanthes vellcu and Cheilanthes fragrans) maidenhair fern (Adiantum), phagnalon (phagnalon ruprestra), and chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus).
Steppian vegetation includes willow (Salix acmophylla), helleborine (Epipactis veratrifolia), and globe thistle (Echinops polyceras), as well as riverbank vegetation such as Euphrates poplar (Populus euphratica), reed (Phragmites australis and Arundo donax).
The reserve is also blessed with colorful annual flora.
In rain years, these plants cover any areas that are not occupied by perennial flora, and they add to the variety and lushness of the reserve.
In these years, Ein Gedi is awash with Mediterranean annuals, such as grounsel (Senecio vernalis), and Heron's bill (Erodium gruinum), growing alongside Saharo-Arabian species like Aaronsohnia (Aronsohnia faktorovskyi) and toadflax (Linaria haelava).
Insectivorous Bats Victims of Israeli Campaign of Cave Poisoning
In 1958, Israeli government pest control officers in Palestine began fumigating bat roosting caves with Ethylen-Dibromide. Today they are using lindane, 1 a persistent organo-chlorine insecticide whose effects may last for many years. The campaign began when the Egyptian Fruit Bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus) was declared a pest by the Wild Animals Protection Law, the same law that protects Palestine's 27 species of insectivorous bats.
Egyptian Fruit Bat populations had increased considerably during the past 50 years, apparently due to the greater availability of food as different varieties of orchard trees and ornamentals became more prevalent. In those days, fruits were often left to ripen on the tree, making them attractive to the bats who sometimes caused damage. The bats had originally relied mostly on two native foods, the fruit of the Sycamore Fig Tree (Ficus sycomorus) in summer, and of the Carob Tree (Ceratonia siliqua) in winter.
The fumigation campaign not only destroyed fruit bats by direct poisoning, but entire cave ecosystems, including highly beneficial and protected insectivorous species. Any cave found with a bat population was indiscriminately fumigated, without regard to what species inhabited it, sometimes even including caves without bats.2 Within 15 years, populations of insectivorous bats decreased by approximately 90%.
Surveys have documented the dramatic effects. For example, the formerly very common Schreiber's Bat (Miniopterus schreibersi), the moderately common Mediterranean (Rhinolophus eurayle) and Mehley's (R. meheyli) Horseshoe Bats' disappeared entirely. 4 Other previously abundant species, including Large (Myotis myotis) and Lesser (M. blythii) Mouse-eared Bats and Blasius' Horseshoe Bats (Rhinolophus blasii) were found only as isolated individuals, 4 while the Naked Rumped Tomb Bat (Taphozous nudiventris) has changed from common to rare.
Bats are not even safe in wildlife sanctuaries. In a letter to the editor of Teva Vaaretz (the Society for the Protection of Nature magazine), a pest control officer stated that several instructors for the Society for Protection of Nature, and rangers of the Nature Reserves Authority willingly helped exterminate bats in nature reserves. 5 Under the Wild Animals Protection Law, the poisoning of caves containing insectivorous bats was actually illegal anywhere, a law that was the responsibility of the Nature Reserves Authority to enforce.
The ecological consequences of cave poisoning appear to be far reaching. A population explosion of several species of Noctuid moths is now causing major crop damage, requiring extensive chemical control, and resulting in heavy environmental pollution. Noctuid caterpillars originally caused few problems, 6 but they have become major agricultural pests7 as insectivorous bats, the main predators of adult moths, have declined.
The decline of Palestine's insectivorous bats is apparently a direct result of cave poisonings, since species that live only in buildings or in places where caves have not been treated remain common. Kuhl's Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus kuhlii) roosts in wooden buildings and is still abundant. Its slight decline is likely due to the fact that fewer wooden buildings are now built. Bodenheimer's Pipistrelle (P. bodenheimer) lives in untreated desert caves around man-made agricultural oases, where it has considerably increased its populations in spite of other hazards.
While the affect of cave fumigation upon insectivorous bats has been profound, Egyptian Fruit Bats, the original target of the program, did not decline for many years, despite the direct poisoning of many thousands. There is evidence that populations even continued to increase. The fact that fruit bats withstood the extermination campaign much better than the insecteating species may be due to their higher reproductive potential, combined with their greater ability to use alternative roosts. Most Egyptian Fruit Bats bear two young annually and can roost in a variety of places, including cellars of new buildings and even underground parking lots, thus escaping the poison. Fruit bats have finally declined, but apparently- due to overpopulation, not to cave fumigations.
Today, most farmers and control officers agree that damage is negligable or non-existent. Nevertheless, many unfortunately believe that this is the result of cave fumigations. In all likelihood, the real reason that orchard owners are experiencing little or no damage is because for many years most commercial fruit in Palestine has been picked green, as it is in most parts of the world. Fruit bats actually may help control such orchard pests as the Mediterranean Fruit Fly (Ceratitis capitata) if they are allowed to eat over-ripe fruits that are missed by pickers.
Use of lindane in Palestine is illegal, but it is still sold, and unauthorized people use it freely. Poisoned caves are not posted with warning signs and often are visited by unknowing hikers, who may inhale the dangerous fumes. Empty and even unused containers of lindane are discarded in the caves, contrary to the law which prescribes strict control for the application and storage of pesticides.
Lindane is selected by pest control officials because of its persistence. Even if all cave poisoning were immediately stopped, its effects could last far into the future. No one knows whether many of Palestine's once common insectivorous bats can be saved, but they deserve a chance, especially when one considers their value against the environmental damage, the economic waste, and the now well demonstrated futility of current policy.
You Can Help :
We request that you write to the Israeli Minister of Agriculture and the Nature Reserves Authority and ask them to do the following: (1) call for an immediate moratorium on fumigations of bat roosting caves; (2) re-evaluate the policy under the Wild Animals Protection Law because of its affect on protected species and the environment; (3) re-evaluate continuing the fumigations in the face of evidence that it is ineffective even in its original purpose; (4) investigate whether or not any control of Egyptian Fruit Bats is warranted; (5) seek the advice of local experts; (6) draft appropriate legislation based on the facts obtained. Send your letters to: Mr. A. Nechamkin, Minister of Agriculture, Nahalal, 10600, Israel (Occupied Palestine); and Mr. Uri Bidach, The Nature Reserves Authority, Jeremiah #78, Jerusalem, 94467, Israel (Occupied Palestine).
P.S. Lindane is among the chlorinated-hydrocarbon group of chemicals which includes, among others, DDT, PCB'S, and benzene hexachloride (BHC). In the United States, they have been banned or restricted because of their ability to cause cancer, birth defects, neurological disorders, and severe harm to both wildlife and the environment. There is evidence that lindane bio-accumulates in the central nervous system of humans. It has been found in areas greatly removed from the original application, including in bird, mammal, and fish tissues in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Lindane has come down in rainwater in several countries, and 15 years later as much as 8% of initial applications remained in the soil (America the Poisoned; Lewis Regenstein; Acropolis Books Ltd., 1982).
Failure of this particular campaign against Egyptian Fruit Bats should not be interpreted that, in general, fruit bats are not highly vulnerable to destruction. The affect on the inadvertent victims, insectivorous bats, has clearly been devastating, while the impact on a delicate ecosystem is only now coming to light. The affect on other species, including man, is unknown.