Gazelles return to embattled Jerusalem valley
An unprecedented win over residential developers brings long-legged antelopes back to the country’s first urban nature reserve
It wasn’t all that long ago that gazelles were hard to find in the so-called Gazelle Valley.
In fact, there was just one gazelle left from the original herd that populated this 64-acre stretch of land now situated at one of Jerusalem’s busiest intersections.
Yet a 15-year struggle to save the green space from residential developers has resulted in the repopulation and renovation of Gazelle Valley, Israel’s first urban wildlife reserve. It’s a major success for a group of environmental and urban activists who were determined to retain a green lung for the city.
The park, which stretches across 250 dunams (64 acres) and is situated between the city’s bustling Pat intersection and the Begin Highway, officially opens Monday, March 30.
In Jerusalem terms, it’s the size of the Old City.
Divided into three sections — 90 dunams (22 acres) for the gazelles, 130 dunams (32 acres) for visitors and 60 dunams (15 acres) as a buffer zone between humans and animals — the parkland, which is likened to other cities’ urban lungs (such as New York’s Central Park, with its 843 acres), will feature ponds, streams, bird and small creature habitats, and, finally, dozens of gazelles roaming free.
The Israeli mountain gazelle “is the archetype of all gazelles,” said Amir Balaban, a champion of Israeli wildlife who is the urban nature coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and a force behind the valley renovation. “It’s the biblical gazelle, the one mentioned in Psalms and the Song of Songs; it has beauty and strength. Jerusalem and gazelles always went together.”
In the valley, however, where they had been indigenous for so long, the gazelles had all but disappeared. There were just a few left, including one female, Madame X, as she’s known to her fans for the way her horns used to cross when she was young.
The herd is now being replenished by gazelles from private collections and zoos, but only from this species, said Balaban, as it’s a highly protected and very vulnerable population that is the last of its kind in the Middle East.
“It hasn’t had an easy time mainly because of development, poaching and predators,” he said. “That’s the whole idea of the park, to create an educational atmosphere that shows people how to behave when they’re in the wild.”
Once the park officially opens on Monday, visitors will be able to wander the walking trails and bicycle paths, set up picnics in shady spots (and eventually buy picnic baskets at the park), and observe the gazelles from a safe distance (using binoculars provided by the park).
The park plans on offering guided tours, educational activities for schoolchildren about the environment and sustainability, communal Friday evening services for Sabbath, small classical music concerts, and, for now, free entry throughout the construction process.
Managed by SPNI and a volunteer corps that includes local high school students, special education groups and retirees, it’s a “very beautiful and complex” mixture of people monitoring the gazelles and maintaining the habitat, said Balaban.
He hopes the park will become as important and central to Jerusalemites as other sites in the city. But with one major difference: It offers a pure, direct line to nature.
It looks, in many ways, as it did 70 or 80 years ago, when it was filled with apple and cherry trees planted by the nearby kibbutzim of Maale Hahamisha and Kiryat Anavim.
The two farming communities were tasked by the government during the pre-state era to grow fruit within Jerusalem city limits so that the remote city on the hill would have access to fruit, even when it was under siege during the months of fighting in 1948.
“There used to be fruit orchards all over Jerusalem,” said Balaban.
When agriculture became less subsidized, and the valley was crowded by roads and new neighborhoods, the orchards were neglected by the kibbutzim, said Balaban.
“That was the last song of the orchard,” he said.
Nature eventually took over the valley, said Balaban. Swarms of harvester ants began moving seeds around, which enriched the earth and attracted birds. The bird activity transformed the dying orchard, he said, bringing wildflowers and shrubs.
“One of the beautiful things about the valley is that it has a whole collection of habitats,” said Balaban. “You have the typical open grassland in the valley, beautiful, thorny dense bushes, Mediterranean woodlands and traditional orchards.”
By the 1980s, however, local developers were sniffing at the centrally located land, aiming to build at least 1,400 housing units at what was now a major intersection inside the city.
At the time, Naomi Tsur, a former deputy mayor and a longtime environmentalist, was director of Jerusalem’s Society for the Protection of Nature chapter. Along with Balaban and other locals from the community, she began the long battle to save the acreage from residential development.
At the same time, the Holyland residential project was approved during former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert’s term in office. The massive complex, which sits on the hill across from Gazelle Valley, is visible from most locations in Jerusalem, and is emblematic of what Balaban, Tsur and their cohorts were trying to avoid.
“Gazelle Valley is the exact opposite image of the Holyland project,” said Balaban. “Everything that went wrong in Holyland went right in Gazelle Valley. In Holyland, everything was lost and in Gazelle, civil society won. In Holyland, the government regulator failed and in Gazelle Valley, the government was the champion. Gazelle Valley is an urban diamond. It’s all about creating a unique, characteristic site, renewing and redeveloping a whole section of the city.”
He thinks the redevelopment of Gazelle Valley succeeded due to a coalition of people from the community, nongovernmental organizations and a “very long and patient process with the government regulator.” There was also involvement from national and local government, foundations and private donors.
“There was very little power play here,” said Balaban. “There was a lot of work, and a very clear idea.”
The renovations for the derelict valley were funded by the Jerusalem municipality, which invested NIS 22 million ($5.5 million) in the project and will add another NIS 70 million ($17 million) over the next few years, from the city budget and donations raised through the Jerusalem Foundation.
The Beracha Foundation, funded by Caroline and Joseph Gruss, has also supported the effort from its inception, funding the activists and the prolonged court case, along with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jerusalem Development Authority.
For Balaban, who has for years run the Jerusalem Bird Observatory — a birdwatching site situated next to the Knesset — the hope is that Gazelle Valley will be successful, leading to others like it throughout the country. He is also working on a national database to enhance urban wildlife infrastructure in Israel.
“We’ve experienced urban wildlife sites,” he said. “This time, we’re supersizing.”
The festive opening of The Gazelle Valley Urban Wildlife Park is on Monday, March 30, 4-6:30 pm, with birdwatching workshops, music and theater, and art projects. Parking at the Egged lot at the Pat Junction, Beit Hanoar Haivri, Botanical Gardens, and public transportation recommended.
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