Surprisingly, right in the heart of Jerusalem, gazelles are to be found grazing in beautiful wild parkland. Lying between Givat Mordechai on one side, and Holyland on the other side, Gazelle Valley, some 60 acres of land, is the home to a herd of 60 or more gazelles. The specific gazelle found here is the mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), in Hebrew צבי ההרים, tzvi heharim. As European Anglos we’re used to translating tzvi as deer (as does Artscroll and the Chabad website), but actually the tzvi is a gazelle (translated correctly by Sefaria). It seems that early European Torah translators and commentators chose to translate tzvi as deer, because deer are found in Europe and they weren’t aware of gazelles which are not found there.
The gazelles, have been reintroduced to Gazelle Valley having lived there naturally until the 1990’s. The development of major highways cut off their route to the surrounding countryside and mountains and with no escape route, they became prey to jackals, wild dogs and men (probably also wild) to the point where only two or three remained.
Gazelle Valley, Israel’s first and only urban nature park, was established in 2015 as a safe haven for gazelles that had been previously captured illegally, and from very small beginnings the herd has now grown significantly through breeding. Each year some of the gazelles are relocated to other areas of the country including the Golan and Ramat Hanadiv near Zichron Yaakov, to live in the wild.
Gazelles run rather quickly, actually as swiftly as a gazelle, or to be more specific they can reach speeds of 80 km/h (50m/h), and can leap up to 3m (10ft) in the air. They use this high leap to send messages to others in the herd that there is a threat from predators. In the park they’re unlikely to be attacked from ground-based predators as the whole valley is surrounded by a secure fence. More of a threat is that the herd, particularly the females, suffer from genetic disorders, such as bent horns and slightly smaller body weight and size, because of the limited gene-pool. The total world population of this gazelle is less than 5,000, most of which are in Israel, so the species is protected. In Gazelle Valley the herd primarily comprises female animals, which breed once a year and usually carry just one, but sometimes two fawns.
The park also provides a refuge for tortoises that had been illegally captured in the wild and kept as pets. Having lost their freedom, they are now no longer able to survive in the wild. When first arriving at Gazelle Valley, the tortoises are quarantined for two months, as some tortoises carry salmonella or E. coli. Once it’s clear that the tortoises aren’t infected, they are released into the park where they can roam freely.
The major attraction of Gazelle Valley is the gazelles, but birdwatchers will also be delighted to see scores of different birds – bulbuls, woodpeckers, kingfishers, chukars and northern shovelers, to name a few – who find a pleasant haven to visit in the middle of Israel’s capital city – as I’m sure you will too.
[My thanks to Mr Lennie Forman for his help in writing this essay.]