Nature Conservation in Israel
by Shoshana Gabbay*
Israel's commitment to nature conservation, characterized by a wide variety of programs, is by no means a recent development. Concern for all living things and prohibitions against environmental degradation may be traced back to biblical sources. Indeed, the first chapters of the Book of Genesis emphasize the vital link between humanity (adam) and the earth (adamah) and introduce the concept of stewardship by enjoining man to work the earth and to watch over it. Israel's rebirth in modern times was sparked by this age-old commitment of the people to their land.
The roots of Israel's nature protection movement may be traced back to the organization of a small group of nature lovers and scientists around a specific issue: the draining of Lake Hula and its surrounding swamps in order to combat malaria and reclaim the land for agriculture (1951-58). This small group of conservationists, who fought for the preservation of a small area of swampland as a nature reserve, understood that the death of the swamps would spell the death of the valley's indigenous flora and fauna as well. Their successful campaign assured not only the survival of the Hula habitat, but the birth of Israel's nature protection movement.
Geography and Diversity
With a small land area, Israel is characterized by a wide range of physical conditions and by a rich variety of flora and fauna. Along its 470-kilometer length, Israel embraces landscapes that are normally separated by thousands of kilometers in other countries. Mount Hermon in the north boasts snowy slopes and alpine fauna and flora, while the Gulf of Eilat, in the south, harbors spectacular coral reefs and colorful fish that represent the tropical zones. Lying between these two extremes are arid desert areas, lush oases, green Mediterranean woods and forests, and the lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea.
Israel's geographic location at the junction of three continents, coupled with the climatic changes throughout the history of this region, have been largely responsible for the country's high diversity of species. The wealth of Israel's biological diversity is expressed in some 2,600 plant species (150 of which are indigenous to Israel), 7 amphibian, nearly 100 reptile, over 500 bird and about 100 mammal species. Within its small land area, two different and even opposing climate regimes are found - Mediterranean in the north and desert in the south. The central part of Israel is a transition area between these two biogeographical regions, where desert biota is replaced gradually by Mediterranean biota.
Israel is situated at the meeting point of three phytogeographical regions - Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian and Saharo-Arabian - and contains a diverse collection of herbaceous plants, especially annuals and geophytes, typical of all three. Species widely distributed over the entire Mediterranean climate region reach their southern limit of distribution in Israel. Saharan or Asian desert species reach their northern limits of distribution in this country while Irano-Turanian species reach their western limit here. Israel is the northernmost limit for the presence of plants such as the papyrus reed and the southernmost limit for others like the bright red coral peony.
A highlight in the history of nature conservation in Israel is the campaign to rescue the country's wildflowers. Picking wildflowers used to be such a popular pastime that by the beginning of the 1960s, many of the more attractive flowering plants were on the brink of extinction. Anemones and cyclamen, which bloomed in profusion and symbolized the beauty of Israel's landscape, had nearly vanished. To reverse this trend, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and the newly-born Nature Reserves Authority launched a campaign which focused on both legislation and public education. In retrospect, this turned out to be the most successful public environmental re-education campaign ever launched in Israel. Today, thirty years later, Israelis scrupulously avoid picking wildflowers and the country abounds with their rich splendor.
Perhaps more than any other organization, the SPNI has been instrumental in raising public consciousness of nature and environmental protection. Since its foundation in 1953, the SPNI has spearheaded dozens of campaigns for the protection of Israel's unique landscapes, wildlife, natural environment and, most recently, open spaces, from the side effects of unwise development. In order to introduce as many people as possible to the country's natural legacy and to promote nature conservation, it has set up an excellent educational network with 14 field study centers, dozens of urban and regional branches, hundreds of youth clubs and comprehensive teacher training programs. Today, the SPNI is Israel's largest non-governmental environmental organization. Through its broad-based program of education, conservation, research and public action, nearly twenty percent of the population are involved in its myriad activities.
Recognition of the need to protect Israel's precious natural and landscape resources led to the enactment of numerous laws for the protection of nature and wildlife. These laws provide the legal structure for the protection of natural habitats, natural assets, wildlife and sites of scientific and educational interest. In 1998, two independent agencies, the Nature Reserves Authority and the National Parks Authority joined forces to become what is now called the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA). The new agency is entrusted with safeguarding the landscape, and enabling Israelis and tourists to enjoy the country's natural assets, landscape, culture and history. One of the primary mandates of the INPA is to preserve and develop nature reserves - "islets" of landscape containing unique and characteristic animal, plant and mineral forms which must be protected from any undesirable changes in their appearance, biological composition or evolution. In a small country, with a high rate of industrialization and urbanization, nature reserves help secure the biodiversity of the natural environment. About 160 nature reserves and 65 national parks have been established throughout the country (out of a total of 380 nature reserves and 115 national parks that are in various stages of planning). While nature reserves are predominantly concerned with the conservation of nature in its pristine state, national parks have been established in order to develop open spaces for recreational purposes. The parks play an important role in protecting the country's natural beauty from rapidly encroaching urbanization and restoring and maintaining antiquities that have been neglected for centuries. Together, the reserves and parks represent the entire spectrum of Israel's natural heritage - Mediterranean forests, seaside landscapes, sand dunes, desert and crater landscapes and oases - as well as its unique archeological and historic heritage, including ancient synagogues with mosaic floors, caves inhabited by prehistoric man, and fortresses dating back to the Second Temple Period.
Two additional projects deserve special mention in any discussion of nature conservation in Israel. The first is Neot Kedumim situated halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As the world's only biblical landscape reserve, Neot Kedumim has developed a network of natural and agricultural landscapes that recreate the physical settings of the Bible. The reserve features habitats for such varied species as cedars from the snow-covered mountains of Lebanon and date palms from Sinai desert oases, as well as hundreds of varieties of biblical and Talmudic plants, wild and domesticated animals, ancient and reconstructed olive and wine presses, and cisterns.
The second is "Eretz Hamahteshim" (Craterland), an ecologically unique area in the Negev desert which is designated for conservation according to a government decision. The Negev's five crater-like mahteshim are geological phenomena unique to Israel and the Eastern Sinai. These eroded valleys present an exceptional view into geomorphologic evolution and are replete with unique geological phenomena, a wealth of minerals and a singular ecological system. The area has been proposed as an international human heritage site.
Botanical gardens complete the nature conservation network. Two botanical gardens were established in Jerusalem in association with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: one comprises the country's largest collection of plants, including plants from different parts of the world displayed in natural plant associations; the other contains the various species of plant life found in the land of Israel. In the center of the country, Tel Aviv University has established both Botanical Gardens and Gardens for Zoological Research. The Gardens serve as centers for education, tourism and recreation, acquainting both children and adults with the fauna and flora of their country while introducing them to concepts of ecology, conservation and environmental awareness.
It is significant that outside the confines of nature reserves, hundreds of plants and animal species, including ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and fish as well as inanimate natural assets such as fossils and beach rocks have been declared "protected natural assets." Various national agencies work to protect these natural assets wherever they may be. Animals such as the leopard, gazelle, ibex and vulture have been declared protected species, and special rescue operations, including establishment of feeding stations and nesting sites, have been initiated to protect endangered species. At two special wildlife reserves - the Hai Bar biblical reserves in the Aravah and on Mount Carmel - an experimental project to reintroduce animal species which once roamed the hills and deserts of the Land of Israel into their former natural habitats has been initiated. In recent years, fallow deer, roe deer and wild sheep have been returned to the lush Carmel Mountain Range and onagers and Arabian oryx to the sandy Negev and Arava. Reproduction groups of endangered vultures have been established in a number of sites and these birds, too, will eventually be set free.
In parallel, an ongoing project seeks to identify the status of all of the country's plant and animal species. This will allow Israel to draw up a "Red List" of endangered and threatened species. The Red Data Book on vertebrates has been completed, while the compilation of the necessary data for the Red Data Book on plant species, based on a field survey of rare and endangered plant species, is nearing completion.
Existing databases are constantly being expanded. One example is the database of the INPA, now available on the Internet (www.natureinfo.org.il), which consists of over 350,000 individual records of plant and animal observations from 1963 until the present. Similarly, the ROTEM Israel Plant Information Center is developing an ecological database of Israel's flora, which includes over 430,000 records on the distribution and phenology of native plants. Finally, in order to make taxonomic information more accessible, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has launched BioGIS (www.biogis.huji.ac.il), an Internet-based biodiversity information system. The database compiles records of plant and animal species from herbaria and museum collections and from surveys carried out by academic institutions, individual scientists, government authorities and non-governmental organizations.
A Focus on Birds
Israel's unique location at the junction of three continents makes it an international crossroad for migrating birds. Some 500 million birds - including 85% of the global white stork population - cross Israel's skies twice yearly on their way to Africa in the autumn and to Europe and Asia in the spring. Three soaring bird migration routes have been identified: the western route which stretches along the length of the Judean and Samarian Hills; the Jordan Rift Valley and Negev desert route; and the Eilat mountains route. At Latrun, situated midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and at the very heart of the western migration route, an International Center for the Study of Bird Migration was set up. One of its foremost goals is to develop multi-disciplinary studies on the subject of migration while strengthening research connections with European countries (where the birds nest), Middle Eastern countries (through which the birds migrate) and African nations (where the birds winter).
Joint research over the past decade has already yielded impressive results. Over 90 white storks have been monitored and tracked with satellite-linked transmitters, and research has recently been broadened to satellite tracking of cranes and vultures as well. Based on this research, a broad-based educational program was initiated, with the participation of over 200 schools throughout the world. The Israeli-based project, entitled "Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries," allows students to use the Internet to track migrating birds that are carrying transmitters. The program was developed as part of a model for international and regional activity that combines scientific research on bird migration with other societal concerns such as flight safety, eco-tourism, nature conservation and education. The theme of the Internet project is symbolic not only of the flight of birds across continents and states, but of the potential for regional cooperation among all the peoples of the Middle East.
Within Israel, numerous projects have been carried out to protect migrating and residential birds such as the lesser kestrel, storks, cranes and vultures. The lesser kestrel, one of three species of birds which breed in Israel and are considered to be globally endangered, has gained special attention. A recent survey conducted by the Israel Ornithological Center has shown that only 550 pairs remain today, just 10% of the number found in Israel just fifty years ago. The few breeding pairs that still survive breed in a few local colonies, the most important of which are in urban areas, in Jerusalem and in southern Mt. Carmel. To preserve this beautiful but endangered species, a project was launched combining educational activities, public awareness and surveys and research. One initiative has brought together children from Jerusalem and Jericho in a joint effort to build and place nesting boxes, to guard the nests, to rescue nestlings that fall from the nest and to observe and record bird behavior. In addition, a new wine was inaugurated in Israel as a joint project of environmental and economic bodies; every purchase of a bottle or case will yield a double benefit - enjoyment of a fine wine and dedication of a portion of the profits to the struggle to protect this small and beautiful bird of prey.
Israel's location in the Mideast heartland of genetic diversity for many major agricultural crops and its geographical and climatic diversity, have created a particularly rich ensemble of habitats and corresponding local varieties. Despite the small size of the country, it includes one of the largest and most accessible collections of wild wheat, barley, oat, and legumes in the world, as well as a wealth of wild fruits and other important crops from the genus Allium, such as onions, garlic, leeks and chives.
The importance of preserving Israel's exceptionally rich plant genetic resources for the improvement of growth, yield and nutrition, and disease, pest, drought and salt tolerance of major crop varieties has long been recognized. As early as 1909, Aaron Aaronson of the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station in Haifa, who discovered wild emmer wheat in Galilee, began collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a search for plants, particularly wheat varieties, worthy of introduction into the United States. Israel's landmark studies on dynamic in situ conservation of wild wheat populations have continued to draw considerable international attention.
Efforts to collect, preserve and evaluate indigenous plant species are largely concentrated in the Israeli Gene Bank for Agricultural Crops (IGB) which was set up in 1979. Scientists from government, academia and the seed industry have joined forces in the gene bank to ensure that Israel's native varieties - its genetic heritage - are not lost to future generations.
The main responsibilities of the IGB include the search for plants potentially suitable for extraction of beneficial substances, the collection, preservation, documentation and evaluation of genetic resources of crop plants and their relatives, and the development of in situ and ex situ conservation techniques.
One of the organizations that take an active part in the IGB network is the National Herbarium of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the largest collection in the eastern Mediterranean. Two-thirds of its 500,000 specimens were collected in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. Other collections include a national cloning repository of landraces of deciduous fruit trees and rootstocks, spice and medicinal plants and a wild wheat field laboratory.
When possible, Israel has initiated cooperation with other scientists in the region, from Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, in order to promote the collection of resources. It has also provided courses and instruction on plant genetic resources including modern techniques for collection, preservation and analysis of genetic material, with the support of international foundations.
By the early 20th century, Israel's indigenous forests had been almost totally destroyed by centuries of continuous grazing and cutting of wood. When Israel was established in 1948, there were fewer than 5 million trees in the entire area. Today, over 200 million trees have been planted in an active reforestation program spearheaded by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The JNF's early plantings at the beginning of the century were predominantly composed of evergreens in mountainous areas and of eucalyptus in the south. In later years, damage from pests and arboreal diseases led to a new policy of species diversification. This policy has recently been reinforced by the desire to cultivate tree species which were once part of the natural landscape of biblical times, such as varieties of oak.
While two-thirds of the JNF's afforestation efforts once focused on the Jerusalem pine, today's forests feature a wide variety of species: oaks and carobs, terebinths and cypresses, eucalyptus, Judas trees, acacias, olive, almond, and many more.
Israel's new afforestation master plan, approved in 1995, reflects the country's growing understanding of the complementary functions of forests as both areas of recreation and areas for the conservation of natural vegetation, biological diversity and open spaces. Accordingly, afforestation is proposed for sites throughout the country in accordance with the specific features and needs of each region. The master plan embraces a total of 162,000 hectares of woodlands and open areas - over 15% of Israel's total land area north of Be'er Sheva, in which most of the population is concentrated.
Challenges in Nature Protection
Of all global problems, it is widely believed that species extinction can have the most serious consequences - and it is irreversible. The problem is especially acute in Israel, whose limited size, momentum of development and population growth make the protection of precious natural resources and open space landscapes especially difficult.
In the small land area of Israel, 3% of the Mediterranean region and nearly 20% of the desert are protected nature reserves, many of which overlap military training areas. In the Mediterranean region, where about 105 declared nature reserves are dispersed in a total area of 250 square kilometers, the main problem facing nature conservation is habitat fragmentation. While most of the wildlife still lives and is protected outside nature reserves, the decrease in open areas may well make nature reserves the last stronghold for many species. However, the small size of most reserves (63% are smaller than one square kilometer and another 25% are smaller than 10 square kilometers) makes them vulnerable to impacts from their surroundings, thus placing the future of the flora, fauna and ecosystems in the reserves at risk.
It is already clear that protecting migration routes of birds flying from Europe to Africa is impossible in such a system and that the protection of many populations including bats, sand-dwelling reptiles, ungulates, big predators like wolves and leopards, and other mammals such as gazelles will be nearly impossible to achieve within the reserve system. However, outside the reserves, development, habitat degradation and conflicts with agriculture and other human activities will also make it difficult to preserve these populations. Cooperation and coordination in research, management and development plans are sorely needed to secure nature conservation in this region.
In the south of the country, the unique and diverse desert ecosystem is endangered as well, mainly by pressure from development plans. Further scientific research is required to understand the desert ecosystem, explain the mechanisms involved, and thereafter prescribe the correct balance of livestock grazing, reintroduction of extinct wildlife, proper road construction and tourist accommodation.
Toward a Solution
While awareness of the need to protect natural and landscape resources has led to the emergence of a significant system of nature reserves and national parks, the small size of the country and the heavy pressures on its limited land resources have left few land reserves. As a result, protected areas are insufficient to preserve the nature values, the ecosystems and the unique landscape of this highly diverse country. While the declaration and development of additional nature reserves remains a priority, none of the declared reserves in the Mediterranean area is large enough to preserve entire ecosystems which encompass a variety of habitats. One of the country's most important regions, Mount Carmel, was declared a biosphere reserve in 1996 within the framework of the Man and Biosphere Program of UNESCO. Other areas considered appropriate for declaration as biosphere reserves or international heritage sites include Mount Meron in the north, the area encompassing the slopes of the Judean Hills in the transition zone between the Mediterranean and desert biomes, and the Dead and Red Sea regions, in cooperation with neighboring states.
In recent years, concern over the fast disappearance of the country's open land spaces has led to a number of new initiatives which are largely aimed at mapping all of Israel's remaining natural spaces and clarifying their environmental sensitivity. The planning approach which is now being advocated calls for directing development to appropriate areas in ways which will not destroy the ecosystem, the wildlife and the landscape features of each of the small but diverse landscape units in Israel. To provide developers with the necessary conservation information, a preliminary classification of the entire open landscape of the country was carried out and recommendations were made for appropriate levels of protection/development for each landscape unit in accordance with its value, importance, sensitivity and vulnerability.
Concomitantly, the INPA, in cooperation with the JNF, has carried out a project which is meant to help overcome the problem of habitat fragmentation. The initiative will help to produce a management plan for the open landscapes of Israel that considers their potential to protect biodiversity. The ecosystem assessment will be based on three guidelines for selecting areas slated for conservation: the presence of endangered species and ecosystems in the area, the biodiversity potential of the area, and the ability of the area to function well in the future based on such criteria as size, connection to other areas with corridors that allow distribution of plants and animals, and the existence of buffer zones around the area. The plan will make a major contribution to the conservation of Israel's diverse ecological systems.
Today, ecologists and planners are convinced that a turning point must be reached in Israel's development culture. The pioneering philosophy of "conquering the desert" must be replaced by a philosophy of open space conservation. The "whys" of such a policy are self-evident: protecting Israel's precious natural heritage and biodiversity for the benefit of present and future generations, maintaining the essential services provided by natural ecosystems and, not least of all, providing that most important service of all: nourishing the heart and soul of tourist and resident alike with the indefinable grandeur and wonder of nature itself.
For further information:
Israel Nature and Parks on Authority
American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel
Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel
International Center for the Study of Bird Migration
Source: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs