Increase of some endangered species gives some rays of hope

World Biodiversity Day report: Israel’s butterflies, birds, reptiles in serious decline

Israel’s habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, invasive species, overexploitation of natural resources and rising temperatures blamed in 2023 State of Nature review

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

  • A swallowtail butterfly on a Salvia viridis plant. (Avner Rinot, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)
    A swallowtail butterfly on a Salvia viridis plant. (Avner Rinot, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)
  • A coral peony. (Avner Rinot, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)
    A coral peony. (Avner Rinot, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)
  • A Nubian ibex in the Great Crater, southern Israel. (Moshe Cohen)
    A Nubian ibex in the Great Crater, southern Israel. (Moshe Cohen)
  • A blotched diadem snake. (Moshe Cohen)
    A blotched diadem snake. (Moshe Cohen)

A nearly sixfold increase in the number of invasive mynah birds, a 34 percent drop in butterflies, a halving of reptile species in the northern and western Negev, and a finding that a third of the commercial fish in Haifa Bay are contaminated with mercury are among some of the findings of a report issued by a monitoring program of Israel’s flora and flora, published Sunday.

The good news is that thanks to conservation programs, there has been an increase in populations of some endangered species, among them the Nubian ibex, three species of gazelle, the spotted hyena, the chukar partridge, and nests created by green and loggerhead sea turtles.

The State of Nature 2023, the tenth report of the National Ecosystem Assessment Program (“Maarag” in Hebrew), was published in the run-up to Wednesday’s World Biodiversity Day, which has been marked annually since the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, more than 44,000 species — 28% of those assessed — are threatened with extinction.

The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2022 (a biennial document) found that populations of living species had declined by an average of 69% since 1970.

That said, many species are being saved through efforts to restore their habitats.

Lortet’s iris. (Avner Rinot, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Maintaining the incredible diversity of living organisms in Israel shares many challenges with other countries, including habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, invasive species (which compete with and often overpower local ones), overexploitation of natural resources, and climate change.

However, according to the Maarag report, mainly covering the years 2012 to 2021, the intensity and effects of these threats are often greater thanks to spatially small Israel’s rapid population increase and density and galloping urban development. While the country straddles the three continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe — a factor for rich biodiversity — it is tiny, roughly equivalent in size to the state of New Jersey, or Wales in the United Kingdom.  It is also a climate “hotspot” where temperatures are rising faster than the global average.

Biodiversity refers to the biological variety of life on Earth. This variety exists within different communities, or ecosystems, in habitats such as forests, grasslands, deserts, and oceans.

Healthy ecosystems provide “services” such as the pollination of crops (by insects, birds, and mammals), clean air and drinking water, a balanced climate, and protection against flooding and erosion.

A spotted hyena in the Negev Highlands. (Moshe Cohen)

Israel’s State of Nature reports monitor ecosystems and make scientifically based information available to the public and decision-makers.

The reports reflect the results of monitoring some 900 sampling plots in different habitats throughout Israel, with varying species of plants, arthropods, reptiles, birds, and mammals, close to and further away from human settlements and farmland. The following are highlights from six areas of focus in the report.


Israel is home to some 2,700 species of wild plants, of which 405 (15%) are in danger of extinction, including 64 critically endangered ones.

Camphor weed is an invasive plant from Central America.(Ido Livne, Maarag)

While the index of desert plants has remained roughly constant over recent years, 61 invasive species have become established in the country and another 127 foreign plants have been identified in natural areas, of which 12 have a high potential to become invasive.


Israel has 133 species of butterflies, of which 51 (38%) are in danger of extinction, including 11 species in serious danger. During the monitoring (in this case over 13 years), there was a 34% decrease in the abundance of the butterflies.

A pair of Levantine vernal copper butterflies. (Avner Rinot, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

According to the report, this probably reflects a decline in the population of all insects in Israel, similar to the decline that is taking place overseas. Agricultural pesticides are one threat factor in the disappearance of insects, which are critical for pollination. Four species of invasive butterflies have established themselves in Israel.


Israel is home to 88 reptile species. Over the last decade, possibly because of climate warming and increased dryness, there has been a 58% drop in reptile species richness in the western Negev’s sands and 48% fewer found in the dust-like loess soils of the northern Negev.

A Bosc’s fringe-toed lizard. (Moshe Cohen)

The positive news is an increase in nests of loggerhead and green turtles on beaches.


Out of 226 species of birds that nest in Israel, 65 species (29%) are endangered, and 21 are critically endangered. The decade saw a 17% decrease in the total number of common nesting birds, at a rate four times faster than in Europe. It notes reductions in populations of great tits, blackbirds, European turtle doves, laughing doves, Eurasian collared doves, graceful prinias, crested larks, and house sparrows.

The common mynah, a foreign species which has become invasive in Israel. (Richard Taylor, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

In light of studies showing how mynah birds suppress other species, they are partially to blame for the decrease in other birds. The population of invasive mynah birds rose by 585% and, the report says, they are spreading beyond urban settlements into natural areas, where they will pose an increasing threat.

Asked why common nesting birds are declining so fast, Yehoshua Shkedi, head scientist at the Parks Authority, cited invasive species, agricultural chemicals, and habitat loss as among the factors.

Despite massive conservation efforts, the number of Eurasian griffon vulture nests is in decline.

Nine invasive bird species are now established, with another five in the process.

The body of a griffon vulture thought to have been poisoned lies in its cliffside nest in the Judean Desert in southern Israel March 2024. (Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

In addition to habitat loss and invasive species, the bird population is mainly threatened by collision with power lines, electrocution, and poisoning.


There are 98 mammal species,  of which 61 (62%) are in danger of extinction. An focus on 10 medium- and large-sized mammals showed an increase in six, among them hares (countrywide), porcupines (in areas of Mediterranean vegetation), and wolves, jackals, foxes, and gazelles in desert regions.

A pair of foxes in the Western Negev, southern Israel. (Moshe Cohen)

The canine species have increased largely due to the availability of human food waste. There are two invasive mammal species — the Indian palm squirrel and the nutria (coypu). Among the threats facing mammals are being hit by cars on the roads.

The Mediterranean Sea

Scientists have recorded 445 alien species swimming around Israel’s shores, including invasive ones. Monitoring has also revealed that about a third of the commercial fish in Haifa Bay are contaminated with mercury, while most of the coastal streams are polluted with fertilizers. Only about 4% of the territorial water surface in Israel is protected. Thanks to extensive development, less than 4% (5.2 square kilometers, or two square miles) of coastal dunes with little vegetation remain, providing the conditions in which biodiversity can thrive.

A sand dune in Sdot Yam, northern Israel. (Ido Livne, the Maarag)

The Maarag is sponsored by the Environmental Protection Ministry, Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, the KKL -JNF Jewish National Fund, and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

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