Israel’s mountain gazelles under serious threat, urgent action needed — study

Israel’s mountain gazelles under serious threat, urgent action needed — study

Research urges refraining from encouraging human population growth, calls for stopping urban sprawl into natural areas to save endangered species

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A mountain gazelle looks down at a highway in Israel. (Amir Balaban, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.)
A mountain gazelle looks down at a highway in Israel. (Amir Balaban, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.)

Mountain gazelles are under serious threat from urbanization, poaching, collisions with cars, predation by feral dogs as well as natural predators, and division of their habitats by roads, railways and fences, including the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a report says.

The species is already listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and if this species as well as others are to be protected in the long term, radical steps should be taken, including banning new building or agriculture on land still in its natural state and reviewing subsidies that encourage population growth, says the study, published last week in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

The research was carried out by Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov, Dr. Uri Roll of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Amir Balaban of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Gilad Weil of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and Ezra Hadad.

Israel is the last stronghold of the mountain gazelle, which was once widespread throughout Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and possibly also Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

But with just some 5,000 individuals left in Israel, some populations are in decline while others are having problems maintaining their size.

Gazelles cross a field on the Golan Heights on January 14, 2019. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

The study analyzes the fragmentation between herds, and the obstacles to free movement of 41 areas where gazelles are, or have been, present.

It finds that a key threat to gazelles is increasing human population growth and the rapidly expanding urbanization it spurs.

The study covers the 28,000 square kilometer (10,810 mile) area that encompasses the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but refers to the whole as Israel for convenience, without making any political statement.

Today, some 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles) of the 28,000 square kilometers surveyed are still in their natural state, the report says. An additional 4,000 square kilometers (1,545 square miles) are farmed and 2,360 square kilometers (910 square miles) are built up. But at 10.7 percent, the amount of the country that is urbanized is 12 times higher than the global average and rises to 18% in the area of Mediterranean climate, which runs along Israel’s north to south limestone ridge. There, no human settlement is more than 5 kilometers (three miles) from its neighbor.

By 2040, Israel’s population is expected to reach around 13 million, and urbanization to increase from 10.7% to 15.3% at the expense of both agricultural and nature areas. This will mostly affect the Mediterranean part of the country, where mountain gazelles live, and where urbanized areas are projected to encompass 25% of the total area.

In fact, the effects of human habitation go further than the size of actual human settlement, the researchers say, as gazelles will keep at least 700 meters (765 yards) away from the outskirts of villages and towns.

A Gazelle walks in the protected reserve of Tsvaim forest, next to Jerusalem. (photo credit: Haim Shohat/Flash90)
A gazelle in the protected reserve of Gazelle Valley in Jerusalem, which is surrounded by roads and highways. (Haim Shohat/Flash90)

“Natural habitats in the Mediterranean region of Israel are highly fragmented,” the study states. “Along the central coastal plain, where several highways cross the landscape, this is particularly problematic.

“Furthermore, the security fence separating the State of Israel from the Palestinian Authority greatly limits the available habitat in this region for gazelles as it runs generally north–south.”

Such human-induced fragmentation can prevent gazelles from moving seasonally in search of high quality forage. Furthermore, isolating or dividing herds can have severe effects on the health of populations, for example by reducing gene pools for reproduction.

Around 1,000 gazelles live in areas where their contact with other herds is low or nonexistent, the report says. In central Israel, 11 populations are so disconnected that they live in “de facto enclosures,” while a further six populations have some contact.

Road collisions are another factor keeping the gazelle population from substantially increasing. Vehicle density in Israel is the highest among OECD countries. According to Israel Nature and Parks Authority figures, 467 gazelles were found dead or wounded on or next to roads between 2009 and 2017, the researchers say. This translates into yearly numbers that have increased from 14 deaths and injuries annually to 86. It does not take account the many animals that have likely perished by the side of the road without being recorded.

Predation — the hunting of gazelles for food by other animals — also has a human-induced angle. Populations of the main natural predators, the wolf and golden jackal, are mainly sustained by human trash and agricultural products, which they supplement with rodents, hares and partridges as well as gazelle fawns and sometimes adult gazelles as well, the study finds.

Predation by wild animals is compounded by the presence of tens of thousands of feral dogs that roam the country. These were once culled until animal rights groups put a stop to the practice.

Young gazelles are particularly vulnerable to predators. The one pictured is protected in Jerusalem’s Gazelle Valley. (Amir Balaban)

Rising predator numbers endanger fawns particularly during their first month after birth when they lie on the ground for most of the day with their mothers watching from afar.

The researchers note that predators have learned to chase gazelles towards fences and other barriers, causing the frightened animals to often collide with them, and die or fall stunned, making them easy prey.

In all, gazelle populations in the Golan Heights are probably at a standstill because of predation, the study finds.

And, despite the fact that it is against the law, gazelle hunting continues at an estimated rate of 300 to 1,300 animals annually, based on information provided by arrested poachers. The animals are shot with firearms, chased by off-road vehicles or trained dogs, caught in iron foot-traps or noose traps (the latter mainly by migrant agricultural workers) and spotted by poachers using night-vision goggles. Poachers are seldom caught and convicted, and those that are receive small fines
and are seldom jailed, despite harsh laws that allow this punishment, the report says.

Invasive plant species such as the Chinese Ailanthus altissima and the Australian blue-leafed wattle pose another, although as yet less serious, threat to gazelle habitats by preventing the germination or spread of annual plants that they like to eat.

Gazelles of Beerotayim (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Gazelle of Beerotayim in central Israel. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

“Although Israel is the last stronghold of the endangered mountain gazelle, some populations are in decline and others are unable to reach their carrying capacity [maintain herd size], despite the species’ considerable reproductive potential,” the researchers conclude.

Other than calling for more data to strengthen science-based policy, the study recommends four steps to improve gazelle conservation, some of which it says are already being explored or implemented by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

The first involves a total ban on the creation of new human settlements or agricultural fields in areas of nature and greater restrictions on urban sprawl. In principle, this echoes the approach of national planners, who envisage increasing population density in urban areas to leave as much open space as possible. In practice, however, this is by no means always the case.

The Lavan Ridge, slated for residential and commercial building, is home to mountain gazelle. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

In just one example, a plan to build 5,250 residential units, 300 hotel rooms and commercial space on the picturesque Lavan ridge in southwest Jerusalem was approved last year, even after being shelved 12 years ago in the face of massive public protest.  The ridge is home to gazelles and other wildlife and local residents and nature lovers are once again mobilizing to take the decision to appeal. The issue is set to be discussed by the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on June 23.

The second recommendation is to reconsider subsidies that promote a high human
birthrate. This idea is still controversial in Israel, but is gaining momentum among environmentalists.

The study calls for more efficient wildlife crossing points and for the relocation  of some gazelles to larger groups; for the reduction of human trash that feeds predator populations and the resumption of feral dog culling; for wildlife corridors to be built into regional and national plans so that herds can move around and be in contact with one another; for INPA teams to be trained and tasked with locating and stopping poachers; and for a change in the law to include obligatory minimum prison sentences for poaching, along with more educational programs in areas where poaching is particularly prevalent.

A male acacia gazelle with a new fawn. (Eran Hyams, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Some 3,000 gazelles live in the Golan Heights and east of the national drainage divide in the Naftali Mountains, eastern Galilee, Yavniel Mountains, Ramot Yissachar and Gilboa Mountains, all places in northern Israel where human density is relatively low and where contact between herds is generally good.

A further 850 live in the Judean foothills, the Jerusalem corridor, and around the city of Jerusalem, where human density is high and where herds are more cut off from one another. In addition to the Lavan Ridge campaign, residents of the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot have been battling the planners for years to protect Mitzpeh Naftoah, another home to mountain gazelles.

Last week saw publication of the biennial Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. On biodiversity and habitat, Israel came 122nd, just above Bangladesh and Sudan.

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