Flora and Fauna
by Wendy Elliman
Israel's plant and animal life is rich and
diversified, in part due to the country's
geographical location at the junction of three
continents. Some 2,600 types of plants have
been identified, ranging from alpine species
on the northern mountain slopes to Saharan
species in the Arava in the south. 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.
Natural woodlands, consisting mostly of calliprinos
oaks, cover parts of Galilee, Mount Carmel
and other hilly areas. In spring, the rockrose
and thorny broom predominate with a color
scheme of pink, white and yellow. Honeysuckle
creeps over the bushes, and large plane trees
provide shade along the freshwater streams
of Galilee.In the Negev highlands, massive
Atlantic pistachios strike a dramatic note
along the dry valleys, and date palms grow
wherever there is sufficient underground water.
Many cultivated flowers such as the iris,
madonna lily, tulip and hyacinth have relatives
among the wild flowers of Israel. Soon after
the first rains in October-November, the country
is covered by a green carpet which lasts until
the return of the summer dry season. Pink
and white cyclamen and red, white and purple
anemones bloom from December to March, with
the blue lupin and yellow corn marigold flowering
a little later. Many native plants such as
the crocus and squill are geophytes, which
store nourishment in bulbs or tubers and bloom
at the end of the summer. Hovering over the
fields are some 135 varieties of butterflies
of brilliant hues and patterns.
Over 500 different species of birds can be
seen in Israel. Some, like the common bulbul,
are resident in the country; others such as
coots and starlings spend the winter feasting
on food provided by Israel's fishponds and
Millions of birds migrate twice
yearly along the length of the country, providing
magnificent opportunities for birdwatching.
Honey buzzards, pelicans and other large and
small migrants fill the skies in March and
October. Several raptor species, among them
eagles, falcons and hawks, and tiny songbirds
such as sylvia warblers and goldcrests nest
Delicate mountain gazelles roam over the hills; foxes,
jungle cats and other mammals live in wooded areas; Nubian ibex with
majestic horns leap over desert crags; and chameleons, snakes and agama
lizards are among the 100 reptile species native to the country.
A Stunning Variety
Packed into Israels small area are
snow-covered mountains, parched deserts, fertile fields, lush
woodlands and long stretches of sand dunes. No less than four
different geographical zones are included in the State of
Israel, and the countrys climate ranges from semi-arid to
temperate to subtropical.
All of this makes Israel home to a stunning
variety of plants and animals. Some 47,000 living species have
been identified in Israel, with another 4,000 assumed to exist.
There are 116 species of mammals native to Israel, 511 kinds of
birds, 97 types of reptiles and seven types of amphibians. Some
2,780 types of plants grow countrywide, from Alpine flowers on
northern mountain slopes to bright red coral peonies and desert
papyrus reeds in the south.
"A land of wheat and barley and vines and
fig-trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey."
Much has since been added to this Biblical
description of what grows in Israel. Bananas, oranges and other
citrus fruits dominate the coastal plain. Deciduous fruit trees grow
all over the country, but particularly well in the cool hills. Dates,
bananas, avocado, guava and mango flourish in the hot Jordan valley.
The basic grains rub shoulders with vegetables and tobacco, cotton,
groundnuts and sugar beets.
Israels landscape of flowers and plants changes
abruptly with its different geographical regions. Natural woodlands
of calliprinos oaks cover the upper Galilee, Mount Carmel and other
hilly regions. In spring, rockrose and thorny broom turn the
hillsides pink, white and yellow. There are hyacinth, crocus and
narcissus in the mountains as early as December, followed by
anemones, tulips, cyclamen, iris and daisies. Honeysuckle creeps over
the bushes, and large plane trees provide shade along the freshwater
streams of Galilee.
The countrys woodlands and forests were ravaged
during centuries of warfare and neglect, but much has been done to
reforest the countryside. Today, there are over 200 million trees in
Israel – forests of pine, tamarisk, carob and eucalyptus.
Wildflowers and medicinal plants grow in profusion. Fruit trees bloom
from January to April. In the south, acacia trees and the prickly
sabra cactus suck moisture from the desert. In the Negev highlands,
massive Atlantic pistachios strike a dramatic note among the dry
riverbeds, and date palms grow wherever there is sufficient
Many of the countrys cultivated flowers –
among them, the iris, madonna lily, tulip and hyacinth – have
relatives among wild flowers. Soon after the first winter rains fall
in October/November, a green carpet grows, covering the country until
the next dry season. Pink and white cyclamen and red, white and
purple anemones bloom from December to March, followed by the blue
lupin and yellow corn marigold. Many native plants, such as the
crocus and squill, are geophytes, storing nourishment in their bulbs
and tubers and blooming at the end of the summer.
Picking wildflowers used to be a popular pastime,
with some even sold commercially. In the mid-1960s, however, the
Nature Reserves Authority, with the help of the Society for the
Protection of Nature, published a list of protected wildflowers and
launched a vigorous education campaign. The public was urged:
"Dont pick! Dont uproot! Dont buy! And dont
sell!" The effort saved Israels wildflowers, and three
decades later it is considered the most successful nature protection
campaign conducted in the country.
Botanists today divide the countrys flora into
seven distinct groups:
- Irano-Turanian, which is also found on the Asian steppes of the
Syrian desert, in Iran, Anatolia and the Gobi Desert
- Saharo-Arabian, which is also found in the Sahara, Sinai and
- Sudano-Zambesian, typical of Africas subtropical savannas
- Plants that grow in more than one of these regions
- Species from the Americas, Australia and South Africa that have
started growing in Israel without human assistance
Four major features have shaped this floral
diversity: the countrys location and topography; its rock and soil
formations; its climate; and the impact of man. The human influence
has been so powerful that it has actually changed some landscapes:
during the countless years that man has roamed this area, he has
collected and cultivated plants for food, cleared land for
agriculture, domesticated grazing animals, selected and deified ‘holy
trees, and brought new plants into the country.
Today Israel has 19 principal plant communities.
1. Maquis (areas containing small trees and
shrubs) and forests: Located in the mountains of Judea, the
Carmel and Galilee, these were the main woodlands. In most of the
area today, the wild trees have been replaced by cultivated plants
and domesticated trees, such as the olive and almond, or have been
reforested with the Aleppo pine. Where cultivated land is abandoned,
low herbaceous Mediterranean semi-shrubs grow.
2. Oak woodlands: On the volcanic rock of
the Golan Heights, maquis dominated by the common oak grows in areas
higher than 500 meters above sea level. Botanists believe that the
woodland ranges here have decreased substantially during the past
3. Winter deciduous (montane) forests: On
Mount Hermon, between 1,300 and 1,800 meters above sea level, winter
deciduous trees and shrubs that can withstand the cold and wind
4. Quercus ithaburensis woodlands: This
Mediterranean tree grows in Israels drier and warmer coastal
areas, although much of these woodlands have been converted into
5. Carob and terebinth woodlands: These
forests cover the limestone hills at the foot of the central mountain
6. Lotus and herbaceous vegetation: These
shrubs are scattered over the hilly south-eastern Galilee, making it
look like a park without trees.
7. Savanna Mediterranean: In areas too warm
and too dry for Mediterranean trees, the quasi-tropical jujube and
spiny trees of Sudanese origin grow.
8. Semi-steppe: Where Israels
Mediterranean region meets the desert, the vegetation changes to
9. Cushion-plants: Mount Hermon plants that
grow beyond 1,900 meters above sea level must survive three to five
months covered by snow each year and another four to five months of
drought. The dominant vegetation here is small, spiny, rounded, dense
shrubs known as cushion-plants.
10. Steppe: Semi-shrubs cover the slopes
and hills of areas of the country that receive 80 to 250 mm. of rain
a year. This vegetation formation is often referred to as steppe.
11. Atlantic terebinth steppe: On rocky
terrain higher than 800 meters, the Atlantic terebinth grows.
12. Desert: Steppe vegetation gradually
gives way to Saharo-Arabian plant species as the climate becomes
13. Sand: Each of Israels three sandy
areas has a different climate and sand of different origin. Each,
therefore, has different kinds of vegetation.
14. Oases: The warmest parts of Israel are
the Arava, the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley. Run-off and
underground water accumulate here, enabling trees of Sudanese origin
to grow in the oases, and salt-resistant date palms to flourish
around desert springs.
15. Desert savanna: In the Rift Valley,
rainfall gradually increases northward from an annual 30 mm. around
Eilat to 150 mm. north of Jericho. Sudanese trees with long roots
take advantage of the high water table in this area of poor rainfall,
making parts of it resemble the East African savannas.
16. Arava woodland: The deep sands of the
Arava valley are covered with a sparse woodland of trees growing up
to 4 meters in height.
17. Swamps and reed thickets: Water-logged
soils on river banks support dense vegetation.
18. Wet saline: Salty water moistens the
soil throughout the year along the Jordan, the Dead Sea, the Arava
valley and on the Mediterranean shore near Akko.
19. In areas of intense human activity: Vegetation in such areas is easily differentiated.
As in many Western countries, a growing population
and increasing industrial development in Israel are destroying
natural habitats, propelling biodiversity into a decline. Israel has
responded by pronouncing a fifth of its land area as nature reserves.
The history of animal life in Israel stretches
back some 60 million years, when the sea covering the area finally
retreated. It was during the Pleistocene era, however, a million
years ago, that an influx of creatures especially decisive for the
development of animal life in this part of the world arrived. Animals
which are now characteristic of the East African savannas moved into
the area: hippopotamus, rhinoceros, warthog, striped hyena and
various species of gazelle. They were later joined by animals
migrating from western and central Asia – wild horses, wild asses,
wolves and badgers.
Changes in climate, destruction of forests and
hunting have resulted in the extermination of many of these species.
The introduction of firearms at the end of the 19th century along
with the tradition of hunting, for example, resulted in the rapid
disappearance of roe deer, fallow deer, Arabian oryx, Syrian onagers,
Syrian bears, cheetahs, ostriches and Nile crocodiles. Hunting is
still permitted in Israel, although the Wildlife Protection Law of
1955 restricts the hunting season and hunting areas, as well as
prohibiting certain methods of hunting (traps, explosives,
poisoning). Hare, wild boar, partridge and some duck species may be
hunted, but in limited numbers and only with a permit.
Today, the largest land animals are mountain
gazelles, wild boar, foxes, jungle cats, Nubian ibex and the rarely
seen leopards, hyenas, jackals and wolves. In all, there are 116
different species of land animals in Israel, compared with 140 in the
whole of Europe, which is 300 times larger. This is an impressive
figure for a small country, but the numbers of animals within each
species is shrinking.
Since the 1960s, the Nature Reserves Authority has
been reintroducing populations of animals which were native to the
area in biblical times, under a program known as Hai-Bar. Breeding
centers for Mediterranean animals (in the Carmel) and desert animals
(at Yotvata in the Arava) have been set up, and five species selected
for the first stage: ostriches, roe deer, Asiatic wild asses, Persian
fallow deer and white oryx. All except the roe deer are globally
endangered. The founder animals for each species came from both zoos
and the wild, around the world. Successful reintroductions into the
wild have already been implemented for the Asiatic wild ass (starting
in 1982), the fallow deer (since 1996) and, most recently, the white
Israels location on the migration route from
Europe and Western Asia to Africa is responsible for the very large
number of bird species in the country. The volume of avian travelers
is so massive, in fact, that their migration routes are carefully
monitored, and aircraft are forbidden to fly in these paths.
Honey buzzards and pelicans are among the larger
migrants that fill the skies in March and October. Coots and
starlings spend winters here feasting on food provided by Israels
fish farms and farmland. The bulbul and songbirds such as sylvia
warblers and goldcrests nest here year round. A number of raptor
species – among them imperial and spotted eagles, falcons, hawks,
sparrowhawks, kestrels and long-legged buzzards – make their home
Raptors of today are, however, only a fraction of
the large population that lived in the country as recently as the
19th century. Hunting, poisoning and drastically fewer animal
carcasses left lying in open fields have all taken their toll, and it
is now planned to bolster endangered raptor species and reintroduce
those that are extinct. Griffon vultures, lappet-faced vultures,
lanner falcons, white-tailed sea eagles, Egyptian vultures and lesser
kestrels are being bred in captivity; feeding stations are provided
in the wild, and their nesting sites are protected.
Amphibians, Reptiles & Invertebrates
Only seven amphibian species exist in the country
today; their small number is mostly the result of the draining of the
wetlands early in the century. All seven species breed in rainpools
and small ponds, and inhabit the Mediterranean coast. Reptiles are
better represented: they comprise 97 different native species.
Israel has an estimated 30,000 species of
Eilats Coral Reef
Eilats coral reef is regarded as a national
treasure, and its corals, sponges and shellfish have been protected
since 1956. The reef ecosystem is one of the most diverse in the
world: 1,270 different species of fish, belonging to 157 families,
make their home there, along with hundreds of species of coral and
1,120 species of mollusk. The regions rich fauna attracts frequent
visits of large vertebrates, such as whale sharks, dugongs and
dolphins, and the beach area is a nesting site for hawksbill sea
turtles. The waters above the coral reef are a popular feeding ground
and a vital resting place for some 280 species of birds that overfly
this area in fall and spring, en route to Africa from Europe in the
fall and vice versa in the spring.
Flora and Fauna
Israel ratified the United Nations Convention on
Biological Diversity in August 1995. Long committed to protecting its
flora and fauna, national parks and nature reserves, Israel has now
formulated specific targets. These include:
- developing a comprehensive plan for preserving biodiversity
- establishing a network of protected areas for preserving
ecosystems and species
- rehabilitating damaged ecosystems
- advancing public awareness and promoting knowledge and
expertise through formal and informal education
- coordinating national action with international and regional
Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs