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The remarkable return of the ibex

The ancient wild goats that dominated the Negev were nowhere to be seen for decades; their resurgence is a lesson in what a little planning can accomplish
Ibex. (Courtesy, Alon Tal)
Ibex. (Courtesy, Alon Tal)

Israel’s iconic mountain goats constitute a noteworthy conservation success story

These are trying times for those who care about the natural world. The relentless loss of habitat around the planet means that some of our most beloved creatures will soon exit the planet’s biological stage. Perhaps a handful of charismatic specimens will find a pitiful asylum, locked up safely in zoos around the world. Most of the species that will disappear, forever, were never even formally identified by taxonomists.

There are a lot of them. Recently, a commission of top, international scientists commissioned by the United Nations warned that, due to human pressures, some one million species are at imminent risk of extinction.

I thought about these grave circumstances and what we might do to stop the hemorrhaging this week, while hiking, solo, for several days in some of Israel’s loveliest, nature reserves. I hardly encountered a soul on — or off — the trail. But there were no shortage of our local Nubian ibex (Capra nubiana), going about their business to observe and admire. Bolting across the steep, rocky slopes; insouciantly hopping through jagged, foreboding crags — these stocky, wild goats seemed exuberant in their austere environments, completely unaffected by the scorching, desert sun.

Wildlife management is not thrilled about the growing intimacy, but early risers at the Ein Gedi field school are delighted to play host to a friendly, female herd who amble onto the grounds for an “all-you-can-eat” breakfast buffet” They munch on the patchy vegetation, unabashedly availing themselves of the choice shrubs and irrigated lawns. This exceptional wildlife-human interface almost did not happen. It is a story worth sharing.

* * *

Scientists are not entirely sure where wild goats were first domesticated 11,000 years ago. Some scholars argue that it was near the Euphrates river; others believe closer to modern-day Iran. In either case, the patience of these early shepherds was rewarded. They expedited an agronomical revolution and physiological evolution, housebreaking some of the meeker, individual ibex, they encountered.

But the wild goat herds remained ubiquitous throughout ancient Israel. They appear as the dominant zoomorphic motif in the ancient rock art found in the Negev desert.

The psalmist singled out two habitat-specific species of the Negev: “The high mountains are for the wild goats; The cliffs are a refuge for the rabbits (hyrax)” (Psalm 104:18). The Book of Samuel describes a hysterical King Saul pursuing David in front of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. (Presumably, that is why Ein Gedi’s most popular stream is called Nahal David.)

Yet, when Israel’s first zoologists began trying to make sense of the dizzying biodiversity they encountered in early 20th-century Palestine, one iconic species was conspicuously missing. While countless baby girls were given the Hebrew name “Yael,” actual ibex were nowhere to be found.

Professor Heinrich Mendelssohn, the father of Israeli ecology, reminisced with me many years ago about a trek he had taken in 1938, when he first managed to reach the fairly inaccessible Ein Gedi oasis. As a young, natural historian, Mendelssohn was deeply disappointed. Notwithstanding the rich safari-like descriptions of the region that travelers throughout the centuries had left behind, all he could see was an old Yemenite Jew growing tomatoes; no signs whatsoever of any wildlife.

Taxidermical specimens that were saved by 19th century German nature enthusiasts suggested that the wild goats, with their impressive, spiraled horns, had until recently been quite common. But in the aftermath of World War I, guns became widely disseminated among the Bedouin population. The ibex population came on hard times.

Gazelles, the other prevalent ungulate found in Israel’s southlands, are particularly well-suited to subsisting in dryland environments. Able to extract water from the plants on which they browse, some gazelles actually spend their entire lives without ever drinking a drop of water. When firearms started to change the balance of power between humans and the other creatures in Israel’s southlands, gazelles could adapt and become more elusive.

Ibex were not so lucky. They need to live near drinking water. These water sources were well known by the locals and the goats became easy prey. The conventional wisdom I heard among the older generation of Israel’s nature lovers was that during the British Mandate, ibex provided the stock for a popular Bedouin soup. It didn’t take long until there was simply none left to shoot.

Against all odds, however, a few ibexes apparently were sufficiently crafty (or remote) to hold on.

Ever since Jacob usurped his father’s blessing from his twin brother Esau “the archer,” Jews were never keen hunters. Once the new state of Israel was established, Professor Mendelsohn and his colleagues convinced the government to enact stringent regulations that enabled nature to rebound. Hunting was outlawed; guns were banned. The few surviving ibex enjoyed some respite. Slowly but surely, their numbers grew.

Although wildlife censuses are notoriously imprecise, official government sources estimate that the population over the years rallied significantly. As many as a thousand ibex at times roam the southlands and the Golan Heights, divided among four major populations. If ecological restoration were baseball — we would call it a home run.

But, of course, environmentalists are paid to worry. And there is plenty to worry about. The ibex’s future in Israel is anything but certain. Among the newest challenge arid ecosystems face is climate change. From 2000 to 2009, there was continuous drought in Israel’s southlands. The ibex population dropped to roughly 25 percent of its steady state numbers. Then conditions took a turn for the better. This past winter was particularly rainy in the Negev. With luxurious vegetation flourishing in the wadis, once again, the wild goats appear to be bouncing back.

* * *

There are a few key takeaways from Israel’s ibex success story. Conservation biology is a complex discipline, but a few truisms are constant: setting aside large habitats, where ecosystems can continue to evolve and where humans cannot perform their mischief, is critical; Enforcing hunting prohibitions is vital.

If tourists want to enjoy nature, then management and intervention are essential. In the most popular reserves, like Ein Gedi, the gates don’t open until 8:00 a.m., and all the visitors are thrown out by 4 p.m. — giving the native critters a few peaceful hours, free from the adoring sightseers.

When the right combination of humility and professionalism are combined, people can actually be helpful. Israeli news periodically report the country’s conscientious “search and rescue” teams (who typically extricate stranded hikers) assisting errant ibex who lose their footing or fall into a water hole.

Ultimately, conservation efforts need to focus on setting aside habitat. In Israel, where most lands are government-owned, there are still numerous sites that should simply be declared nature reserves. Around the world, many of the most species-rich habitats are privately owned. These need to be bought and conserved as sanctuaries.

This Is My Earth – an NGO founded by Haifa University and ecological advocate extraordinaire, Professor Uri Shanas — does just that. Through crowdsourcing, people of all ages, on every continent, can join and make on-line modest individual donations. When the contributions are aggregated, the organization purchases biodiversity “hotspots,” prioritized by the organization’s members, and then passes the lands over to local partners to oversee preservation.

The public has always had an important role in conservation. There is no better way to stay motivated, in the face of all the bad news, than reconnecting with Israel’s robust, ibex population. Male “bachelor” herds, usually keep their distance from the females. But this time of year, they are starting to get a bit frisky, as hormones start to rise. Summer is past. Time to celebrate together.

Ibex symbolize many things. Israel’s Parks and Nature Authority chose the species and its crazy horns as the backdrop for its logo. It reminds us all that we do not have the luxury of complacency. Nor can we afford to be despondent. Israel’s ibex constitute a validation: when the public cares and good policies are adopted, we can still restore a modicum of harmony with creation.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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