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Out of extinction

Natan Slifkin is Israel's answer to Doctor Dolittle. The zoologist and rabbi tells an unlikely story about his country's wildlife

    Natan Slkifin with a cheetah
    Natan Slkifin with a cheetah

    Israel is turning back the clock and bringing animals out of extinction.

    The Biblical Land of Israel was an astonishingly rich zoological landscape. Unfortunately, many of the animals that are most prominent in the Bible became extinct from the region.

    But just a few years after the modern Jewish state was established, intense conservation efforts began.

    Sometimes they took bizarre twists, such as loading animals on to an El Al plane in a deal with the Shah of Iran.

    Israel is home to a spectrum of animal life that is rich and diverse relative to the small size of the country. In part that’s because the ecological habitats are so varied, with snowy mountains and Mediterranean forest, freshwater lakes and arid desert. It is also because, as the rabbis of old used to say, it is the “centre of the world”, geographically located at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa.

    So, the Biblical Land of Israel was home to a curious mix of species. There were creatures from the temperate forests of Europe and Asia, such as bears, wolves, and deer. There were animals from the deserts of Africa and Asia, such as cheetah, oryx, ostriches, and monitor lizards. And there were tropical species such as crocodiles and hippopotami. The Land of Israel is also a main migration route for birds, with over 150 million of them passing through on their way between Europe and Africa every year.

    But time and hunting took their toll. The hippopotamus disappeared from Israel around 3,000 years ago and the lion became extinct from the region some time after the 13th century. Cheetahs, bears and crocodiles survived until the early 20th century.

    In Israel’s early days, General Avraham Yoffe, a towering military figure, headed the newly created nature authority. Hunting and trapping animals were banned. The Hai-Bar nature reserve was set up near Eilat, with a smaller branch near Haifa, to form breeding groups of endangered species and to prepare animals for life back in the wild.

    It would have been too dangerous to reintroduce lions, bears or crocodiles, because of the density of human population. But species that had become extinct from Israel were available from elsewhere. The Arabian oryx was entirely extinct in the wild by the 1970s, but General Yoffe managed to obtain some from zoos in the US. He bred them successfully, and dozens of their descendants were subsequently released into the desert.

    In 1972 he learned of a herd of African wild ass in a remote village in Ethiopia and arranged for the Israeli Air Force to send a Hercules aircraft to collect them. The highly endangered onager, a related equine species, arrived from Iran in 1968, and bred at Hai-Bar so successfully they were released into the Negev. God told Job that the desert was the home of the onager, and now 250 of them live there once again.

    The deer of the Bible, the Mesopotamian fallow deer, was thought to be entirely extinct, but it turned out the Shah of Iran owned a tiny colony of them. In exchange for allowing the Crown Prince to secretly hunt an ibex in Ein Gedi, Israel was able to evacuate some of them in the last El Al flight from Iran during the revolution. Today, their descendants roam the hills around Jerusalem.

    The State of Israel has not only provided an opportunity for the People of the Book to return to its historic homeland. It has brought together the Animals of the Book. 

    Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin, a Manchester-born educator and author, is the founder and director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh.

    www.BiblicalNaturalHistory.org

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