Wildlife preservationists fight expansion, seek to bring back animals of the bible

As the population of Israel grows, so do the requests for building and expansion within the small country.  Unfettered growth and expansion has nature conservationists throwing up their arms.

“The laws that we have today on planning are not strict enough in order to protect open landscape and natural landscape,” said Yehoshua Shkedy, a professor at Hebrew University and scientist with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA). “The government is trying to move now a new law that is trying to make things easier for developers.”

Expansion is just the latest fight Israeli wildlife preservationists have taken up since the state’s creation. In 1962, the government enacted a conservation law to help restore the wildlife population decimated by hunting and wars within the region. Many of the animals of the region were either extinct in the area or on the verge of becoming so. For example, of the nine mammals mentioned in the Bible as fit for consumption (Deuteronomy 14: 4-5) — roe deer, Persian fallow deer, gazelle, addax, bison, oryx, wild goat, wild ox and ibex — only the gazelle and the ibex remained in Israel by the 1960s.

Since then, the INNPPA has reintroduced several of the animals that were driven from the region. Their most successful reintroduction has been of the Persian fallow deer, which now has a population of around 500 throughout several regions of the country.

The largest of the fallow deer, the Persian fallow stands about 3 feet tall at the shoulder, weighs 90 to 220 pounds and has a yellowish-brown coat with white spots, and flattened antlers similar to those of a moose. The Book of Kings tells that the animal was tithed to King Solomon by his subjects. Now they are either closely watched or live in fenced-in areas protected by the INNPPA or other conservation groups.

The conservationists’ worry is that all their work could be undone by the bulldozers in upcoming expansion projects.

Shkedy said that when his parents moved to Israel in 1947 they had a dream of agriculture and development. But, he said, times and circumstances have changed a lot since then.

“I think today, my generation and my kids’ generation have to change this aspiration, this vision. We have to conserve and protect rather than develop and invest. We should keep in mind that we didn’t come to this country just because we wanted to see a sea of houses. We came to this country — I’m not religious — because of biblical things,” he said.

The animals Shkedy is protecting are part of that biblical history. But, for many conservationists, the reintroduction of animals is not a matter of the history of the land but the importance of nature.

“Reintroductions are vitally important to return functions to the ecosystem that were lost,” said David Saltz, a professor with the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University. “The idea is that reintroductions return species to the area [from which] they were lost, and what records do we have of what existed there? The Bible.”

Using biblical animals as a stepping stone is just one way conservationists are able to reach out and draw attention to their cause.

“Using the biblical item in order to convince others it’s important — this is the way to go,”  Shkedy said. “We can use the Bible as a kind of lighthouse.”