Rangers want authority to wiretap phones of illegal hunters, wildlife traders

Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s legal adviser says organization needs authorization to access online media such as the dark net and use tracking software to catch offenders

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

European turtle doves shot dead by 'sport' hunters in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, September 2, 2020. (KKL-JNF Chief Birdwatcher, Yaron Cherka)
European turtle doves shot dead by 'sport' hunters in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, September 2, 2020. (KKL-JNF Chief Birdwatcher, Yaron Cherka)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority must be legally authorized to gather intelligence on illegal hunters and wildlife traders, whose use of technology is becoming ever more sophisticated, the organization’s legal adviser said Wednesday.

The INPA must be able to wiretap phones, access online media such as the dark net and use location software to catch suspected offenders, just as other investigating authorities do, Ophir Bar-Tal told the annual conference of the environmental advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din.

According to INPA figures, 131 probes of illegal hunting were opened last year, compared with 162 in 2019. Twelve investigations related to the illegal wildlife trade were opened, compared with 17 the year before. Furthermore, 116 wild animals were found being held captive illegally, compared with 175 in 2019.

In total, the authority opened 3,015 enforcement cases last year, a slight decrease on the year before, which saw the opening of 3,030 files.

“There is a growing gap in the pace of [development of] the technological capabilities that may harm nature and the ability to deal with them and preserve nature,” Bar-Tal told the online confab.

“Nature conservationists are fighting a kind of war to save what is left.”

“In recent years, there has been an escalation in the situation, mainly because the illegal hunters are equipped with highly sophisticated equipment, including vehicles and weapons and means to evade INPA inspectors and other forms of policing.”

After screening a video clip of an illegal wild gazelle hunt in Israel, Bar-Tal described the increasing use of state-of-the-art 4×4 off-road side-by-side vehicles also known as utility task vehicles (UTVs), or, in Hebrew, as “razors.” These enable drivers to cross fields and chase wild animals and either ram them with the vehicle or send fleet-footed saluki dogs to chase them and bring them down.

Mountain gazelles are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Apart from illegal hunting, they are threatened by urbanization, collisions with cars, predation by feral dogs and natural predators and fragmentation of their habitats by roads, railways and fences.

Bar-Tal said that the INPA is not allowed to wiretap because wiretapping authorization can only be requested from a court for suspected serious criminal offenses.

Ofir Bar-Tal. (Courtesy)

Furthermore, the law on data communication does not authorize nature protection personnel to collect information that can help pinpoint an offender’s location, he said.

A legal amendment is currently advancing that will empower the authority to confiscate vehicles used in illegal hunting, Bar-Tal continued. It is hoped that this will boost deterrence.

Bar-Tal said some harmful technological aids for hunters were still allowed by law, such as an “audio trap,” which makes loud noises to drive birds such as quail out of the bushes and make them much easier to shoot. A draft amendment to the law has been made to halt the use of these machines, he said.

Common quails (Lior Kislev)

Last year, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel responded to pleas from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel by issuing a draft regulation to remove the common quail and European turtle dove from the list of fowl that may be hunted.

The INPA is responsible for distributing some 2,000 hunting licenses annually for the hunting season, which starts on September 1.

Globally, the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest illegal trade behind drugs, people smuggling and counterfeiting, worth an estimated $21 billion annually.

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