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Israel Environment & Nature:
Flora and Fauna

by Wendy Elliman


Environment: Table of Contents | Environmental Protection | Nature Reserves


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Introduction

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 farmland.

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 in Israel.

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 Israel’s 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 country’s 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.

Flora

"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.

Israel’s 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 country’s 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 underground water.

Many of the country’s 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: "Don’t pick! Don’t uproot! Don’t buy! And don’t sell!" The effort saved Israel’s wildflowers, and three decades later it is considered the most successful nature protection campaign conducted in the country.

Botanists today divide the country’s flora into seven distinct groups:

  • Mediterranean
  • 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 Arabian deserts
  • Sudano-Zambesian, typical of Africa’s subtropical savannas
  • Euro-Siberian
  • 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 country’s 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. They are:

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 century.

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 flourish.

4. Quercus ithaburensis woodlands: This Mediterranean tree grows in Israel’s drier and warmer coastal areas, although much of these woodlands have been converted into olive groves.

5. Carob and terebinth woodlands: These forests cover the limestone hills at the foot of the central mountain range.

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 Israel’s Mediterranean region meets the desert, the vegetation changes to semi-shrubs.

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 drier.

13. Sand: Each of Israel’s 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.

Fauna

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.

Terrestrial Animals

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 oryx (1997).

Birds

Israel’s 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 Israel’s 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 in Israel.

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 invertebrates.

Eilat’s Coral Reef

Eilat’s 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 region’s 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.

Safeguarding Israel’s 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 plans

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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