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ISRAELI WILDLIFE

Biblical reserve echoes Noah’s ‘two by two’

by Midori Paxton and Hugh Paxton

A visit to Israel is probably not high on your list of tourism priorities at the moment, but should the situation calm down and the killings and fighting stop, here’s one to consider: The Biblical Wildlife Reserve of Hai-Bar Yotvata.

The reserve’s founding father was Avraham Yoffe — ex-British army; ex-Hagana (the underground defense organization of the Jewish settlement in Palestine, from 1920-48) vigilante; ex-paratrooper with the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade; former commanding officer of its 9th Brigade, which captured Sharm el Sheik and opened the Straits of Tiran; and ex-armored-division commander during the Six-Day War.

Definitely a man of war. But Yoffe also had a gentler streak.

A keen conservationist, he was determined to protect Israel’s wildlife, its wildflowers and natural landscape.

Part of this determination was, admittedly, nationalistic. He wanted the Jews to love their newly acquired land and, as an offshoot, love their country. Fight for it; preserve it.

After all, it was rather unfamiliar territory for your average Jewish settler used to the bleak winds of more northern climes.

While still in active service, Yoffe came up with the idea of combing the Bible for references to the wildlife of the region. They came thick and fast.

“A wild ass used to the wilderness” (Jeremiah 2:24). “The high mountains are for the wild goats” (Psalms 104:18). “. . . as the ostrich in the wilderness” (Lamentations 4:3).

And so on. The Bible acted as a sort of ecological road map to the country’s past inhabitants. Yoffe then decided to restore the vanished creatures of biblical times to their former territory. The result was Hai-Bar and 200 other reserves, all established after he had quit the military and been appointed director of the Nature Reserves Authority.

Israel, both ancient and modern, is blessed with a wide range of often unexpected species.

There are wolves, though at first glance, they don’t look like wolves. They weigh just one-third as much as those in Alaska or Siberia. There are leopards, just the same sort you might meet in Kenya, India or Mozambique. There are striped hyenas, oryx, ibex and ostrich. Birds galore.

Indeed Israel has all the animal ingredients for a rather respectable safari.

And unquestionably the easiest and most convenient place to see a lot of them is the Hai-Bar Biblical Reserve.

Hai-Bar lies south of the Dead Sea and north of the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Its location in a valley beside the Yotvata Oasis, overlooked by the barren but glorious peaks of the Negev Desert, was selected because of its comparatively abundant grazing and its dense concentrations of acacia trees. The acacias lend the reserve a feel of sub-Saharan Africa. They also provide shade and food for the ostriches.

After the 12-sq.-km Hai-Bar area had been fenced, the first animals began to arrive, Noah’s Ark-style, two by two. First came three pairs of wild asses, also known as onagers. Onagers look like donkeys that have been trained for sprint races. These were soon joined by two pairs of addaxes, large, curly horned antelope that up until the turn of the last century had roamed North Africa in herds of thousands, but which are now all but extinct.

In all, 12 species present during biblical times had vanished from Israel when Yoffe started his Hai-Bar work. Two of them, the Syrian ostrich and the Syrian ass, had vanished everywhere else as well. The last Syrian ostrich was killed by a flash flood in Jordan in 1966. You can see stuffed ones in collections, but seeing stuffed extinct birds depresses the hell out of this column, and we avoid it wherever possible. They look so forlorn; so moth-eaten, inert and . . . yes, reproachful.

“You lot did it!” they seem to be saying.

Although reintroducing lions proved to be unfeasible (they’ve lost the Genesis knack of lying down with lambs, which makes them unpopular with farmers), all the rest of the vanished species are back. For some, the rescue came only just in time. The exquisite Negev gazelle numbered only a couple of hundred head when Israel was established in 1948, and it has since been virtually extirpated in bordering countries. Here, though, its numbers are bouncing back; well over 1,000 of these supremely graceful, doe-eyed creatures roam the Negev Desert’s slopes, plateaux, craters and gorges.

Incidentally, the word “gazelle” means “bright-eyed,” and they’ve been associated with beauty and love since antiquity — hence passionate exclamations such as, “My beloved is like a gazelle” (Song of Songs 2:9).

The cream of the Hai-Bar crop, though, its boasted “crowning achievement,” was the arrival of the White oryx — “. . . he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn” (Numbers 23:22).

Seen from the side, most oryx species appear to have a single horn. This doesn’t hold true for Hai-Bar’s scimitar-horned oryx, whose horns definitely resemble scimitars but are rather wonkily aligned.

Although oryx continue to thrive in southern Africa, these powerful, desert-adapted giants nearly came a cropper in the Middle East.

Oil-rich Saudi princelings in Land Rovers sporting mounted machineguns slaughtered them in droves for sport, and hey — trust us on this one — it was touch and go.

This being an Israeli initiative, and Israel being at war with the Arab states, it proved a bit tricky when it came to getting white oryx for Hai-Bar.

Negotiations, as is usual with any Arab-Israeli conflict, lasted for what seemed like forever. But with the help of U.S. lobbying, Yoffe prevailed.

Hai-Bar also acts as a captive-breeding sanctuary for threatened birds, particularly raptors and vultures whose populations have plummeted to the degree that only a handful of wild breeding pairs of Lappet-faced vultures remain.

Unquestionably, the most dangerous inhabitants of Hai-Bar are the bellicose ostrich flocks. Our guide admitted that she lived in fear of them. As if to prove her point, several large males attacked our car, which sustained minor injuries.

In these current, troubled times, despite ongoing ostrich-related violence, there is an air of very welcome peace and optimism to Hai-Bar. So if you are in this part of the world, give it a go.