Israel Environment Bulletin Autumn 1997-5758, Vol. 20, No. 4



In juxtaposition to its small land area, Israel is characterized by a broad range of physical conditions and by a wide variety of flora and fauna. Its location at the crossroads of climatic and botanic regions endows the country with a rich variety of plant and animal life including some 2,780 plant species, 7 amphibian, 97 reptile, 511 bird and 116 mammal species. Within the small land area of Israel, two opposing climatic regimes are foundMediterranean in the north and desert in the south. The central part of the country is a transition area between these two biogeographical regions where desert biota is gradually replaced by Mediterranean biota. Species widely distributed over the entire Mediterranean climate region reach their southern limit of distribution in Israel while Saharan or Asian desert species reach their northernmost limits in this country.

In Israel, as in the world at large, the decline of biodiversity is largely a result of accelerated development, population increase and the resulting destruction of habitats. While about 20 percent of Israel’s land area is preserved within declared nature reserves, most of them are located in the desert areas of Israel, and a large number overlap military training areas. Only about 3 percent of the Mediterranean region is protected in nature reserves.

The main problem facing nature conservation in the Mediterranean region is habitat fragmentation. Protection of many populations (e.g., bats, sand dwelling reptiles, large predators like wolves, and other mammals such as gazelles) is impossible to achieve within the reserve system, while outside the reserves, development, habitat degradation and conflicts with agriculture and other human activities, make it difficult to preserve the small Israeli populations.

In the south of the country, the unique desert ecosystem is also endangered, mainly by pressure from development plans. Further scientific research is required to understand the desert ecosystems, explain the mechanisms involved, and thereafter prescribe the correct conservation and management regime.

Diversity of Species in Israel

There are about 51,000 living species in Israel. About 47,000 (92 percent) species are known, or thought to be known, and another 4,000 (8 percent) are species which it is assumed will be found or identified in the future. Heywood and Watson (1995) list some 1,750,000 living described species, based on several sources, as the total global biodiversity. By this account, Israel’s biodiversity (including viruses) comprises about 3 percent of the global biodiversity. This rich biodiversity is largely attributed to the two species-rich seas around Israel.

Legal and Policy Background

Israel ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity in August 1995. Since Israel is a developed country, in terms of both its scientific and technological development and its nature conservation and environmental experience (including law enforcement, management and research), it expects to take an active part in the implementation of the Convention.

The Ministry of the Environment is responsible for implementation of the Biodiversity Convention. The Nature Reserves Authority, acting under the Minister of the Environment, is Israel’s scientific advisory body to the Convention. An interministerial committee for conservation of biodiversity was appointed in May of 1996. It includes 12 representatives from the Ministries of Finance, National Infrastructures, Defense, Education, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, Science, Commerce and Industry, Interior, Transport, Tourism and Environment. Several other governmental and non-governmental organizations are also taking part in the preparations toward the formulation and implementation of Israel’s national strategy for biodiversity conservation.

Israel already has the necessary legal and institutional framework to protect its biodiversity and, therefore, a national strategy plan for biological diversity can be implemented through the enforcement of these laws. In addition, Israel has ratified several international conventions related to nature conservation including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

The country’s commitment to protect natural values also finds expression in national masterplans such as the National Masterplan for National Parks, Nature Reserves and Landscape Reserves and the National Masterplan for Forests and Afforestation. Together with environmental impact assessment regulations, these laws and masterplans constitute the basis of a preventive policy whose goal is to anticipate and prevent future land use and development activities that threaten to harm Israel’s biodiversity. Damage to biodiversity is also considered a crime under a long list of Israeli laws, and perpetrators may be prosecuted through the enforcement of these laws.

Objectives of Israel’s Biodiversity Strategy

Israel’s national biodiversity strategy is based on a national vision whereby society appreciates and respects all life forms and sustainably uses natural resources while preserving and conserving the country’s rich biological diversity for the benefit of future generations.

In order to fulfill this national vision, Israel has formulated several targets aimed at protecting, assessing, utilizing and benefiting from biodiversity and its components. These include:

* Developing and implementing a comprehensive plan for preserving biodiversity and for sustainable use of its components;

* Establishing a network of protected areas for the preservation of ecosystems, species and genetic resources which are capable of functioning ecologically and which are related to other open spaces such as agricultural fields;

* Rehabilitating damaged ecosystems in order to promote biodiversity;

* Coordinating the implementation of the plan among all stakeholders including governmental and non-governmental bodies, the private sector, community groups and other target populations;

* Utilizing legislation, rules and procedures, budgetary allocations and other regulatory measures to establish methodologies for conservation of biological diversity and for sustainable use of resources;

* Advancing public awareness concerning the advantages of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development;

* Promoting knowledge and expertise through formal and non-formal education, ongoing research, and increased institutional capabilities;

* Harmonizing national action with international and regional conventions, activities and plans;

* Implementing the precautionary approach through measures intended to forecast, prevent and combat the causes for reduction or loss of biodiversity at source;

* Integrating traditional knowledge on the conservation of biodiversity.

Israel’s strategy relates both to habitats and to key species such as endangered species, endemic species, species of international importance and Red Book species. Indicators for implementation are being designated for both habitats and species. Every effort is being made to identify organizational frameworks capable of implementing the program and to strengthen the role of non-governmental organizations. High priority will be accorded to integrating the principles of biodiversity in educational programs on all levels.

On the technical level, initiatives will be launched to incorporate ecosystems which are not currently represented in the national network of protected areas, marine reserves and population inventories and surveys. Recommendations for conserving and using different biotic resources will be formulated, and plans for research and management of isolated populations for the purpose of their preservation will be drafted.

On the research front, it will be necessary to strengthen taxonomic and systematic research and to monitor global impacts and ozone depletion. An economic assessment of indigenous genetic resources, genetic engineering and use of popular knowledge of these resources is planned as well.

Conservation Strategy for Inland and Aquatic Ecosystems

In a country as small as Israel, with a high rate of industrialization and urbanization, nature reserves are important to help secure the biodiversity of the natural environment. Israeli law defines a nature reserve as an area containing unique and characteristic animal, plant and mineral forms which must be protected from any undesirable changes in their appearance, biological composition or evolution. Israel’s reserves vary in size, character and use. Together, they represent the entire spectrum of Israel’s ecosystems, including Mediterranean forests, marine landscapes, sand dunes, freshwater landscapes, desert and crater landscapes and oases. Outside the confines of nature reserves, hundreds of plants and animal species, including ferns, wildflowers, shrubs, trees and fish, as well as minerals, have been declared "protected natural assets." The Nature Reserves Authority, along with other national agencies, works to protect these natural assets wherever they may be.

To date, 155 nature reserves, spanning an area of some 3.5 thousand hectares, have been declared and 17 more have been approved for declaration. With the declaration of another 202 reserves, now in various stages of planning toward declaration, the total area of the reserves will reach 6.1 thousand hectares.

While none of Israel’s reserves is large enough to preserve entire ecological systems which encompass a variety of habitats, efforts have and are being made to move in this direction through the declaration of biosphere reserves. One of Israel’s most important regionsMt. Carmelwas declared a biosphere reserve in April 1996 within the framework of the Man and Biosphere Program of UNESCO. Other areas considered to be appropriate for declaration as biosphere reserves include Mt. Meron in the north and the area encompassing the slopes of the Judean Hills in the transition zone between the Mediterranean and desert biomes.

Largely in order to overcome the problem of habitat fragmentation in Israel, the Nature Reserves Authority and the Jewish National Fund have cooperated on a so-called "Open Landscapes Plan" for Israel. Geographical and lithological data, collected by the JNF, and botanic data, collected by the NRA, are currently being compiled, evaluated and mapped on the Geographical Information System of the NRA. The result will be an ecosystem assessment of the remaining open natural landscapes in Israel which will include an evaluation of each area based on such criteria as unique or rare elements, biodiversity in terms of species and communities, and potential for sustainability based on size and connectivity to other areas.

When selecting the optimal method for assessing Israel’s open natural spaces for purposes of nature conservation, the NRA decided to base its assessment on the contribution of open spaces to plant protection. Since plants comprise most of the biomass of all terrestrial ecosystems, their central role as primary producers makes them prime candidates on which to focus for nature conservation purposes. On the other hand, the assessment method used for the Negev was based on "umbrella species." For the purpose of this assessment, the Capra ibex nubiana was selected as the "umbrella species" for the rocky and cliff areas while the Gazella dorcas was selected for the valleys and plains

While the open space assessment project currently being implemented by the NRA has a direct impact on the conservation of biodiversity in Israel, all of the country’s green bodies have waged a major campaign on behalf of preserving Israel’s open spaces in the face of development pressures. Various steps have been taken in recent years to help secure the biodiversity and the natural landscapes of Israel: an interdisciplinary "think tank" was organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country’s foremost non-governmental organization, in 1991; a Public Council for the Protection of Land and Landscape Resources was set up in 1994; and a proposal for a national policy which integrates development with landscape preservation was drafted in 1996. A major component of this national policy proposal is classification of open space landscapes into units according to criteria which relate to the characteristics and functions of each landscape unit including: ecological function, cultural and historic importance, rarity, regeneration capacity, landscape and aesthetic function and potential for leisure and recreation activities. On the basis of these criteria, the level of development which each area can sustain, without damaging its unique value and characteristic image, may be determined. Based on the carrying capacity for development of each area, guidelines for planning and land use will be defined for each category of preservation/development.

Recognition of the unique character of many of Israel’s ecosystems has led to a number of initiatives. Thus, special protection and/or management strategies have been formulated for such unique and sensitive ecosystems as Israel’s coastlines, on both the Mediterranean, Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret). The National Masterplan for the Mediterranean Coast, for example, aims to prevent development which has no need for a coastal location, in order to protect large sections of the coastline as nature reserves, national parks and coastal reserves and to allocate coastal areas for tourism and recreation activities. It includes a highly effective clause prohibiting development within 100 meters of the coastline. Four types of nature reserves exist along Israel’s Mediterranean coast: marine reserves, coastal reserves, islet reserves and protected natural asset belts. Further south, Israel’s Red Sea coastline and the coral reef are among the country’s most valuable natural assets. To protect the sensitive coral reef of Eilat, one of the northernmost coral reefs in the world, two marine nature reserves and two coastal reserves have been declared, and several research programs have been initiated by a wide range of institutions.

Israel is also world renowned for its strategies for combating desertification in the arid Negev and for its afforestation efforts. Strategies implemented since the establishment of the State have succeeded in pushing the edge of the desert southward, and actually reversing the process of desertification. Thus, although 90 percent of Israel is dryland, it is barely affected by desertification.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been instrumental in reclaiming, developing and afforesting the land of Israel since the beginning of the century. To date, the JNF has planted over 200 million trees, creating 280 forests over an area spanning 90,000 hectaresin addition to caring for 40,000 additional hectares of natural woodlands. About half of Israel’s woodland is Mediterranean scrub vegetation, with only a small proportion

(40,000 hectares) fully grown natural woodland.

One of the most pressing environmental problems in Israel has been the exploitation of water resources, the reclamation of swamps and the diversion of rivers. Most of Israel’s major wetlands have been drained totally (coastal wetlands) or partially (Hula wetland), whereas others, especially around the Dead Sea, though small in size, are still relatively intact. Israel’s ratification of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in 1996 has accelerated conservation and management efforts in such areas as river rehabilitation, protection of Lake Kinneret, rehabilitation of the Hula wetlands and conservation of coastal wetlands. In line with its obligations under the Convention, Israel has designated two wetland sites for inclusion in the Ramsar List, namely the Hula Reserve and the En Afeq Reserve. The case of the Hula Reserve is especially significant in reviewing the history of Israel’s wetlands.

The Hula wetlands, which once covered more than 6,000 hectares, were drained in the 1950s to reduce the risk of malaria and make the land suitable for agricultural cultivation. Until recently, the only remnant of the former site was a 300-hectare nature reserve, Israel’s first nature reserve, which was set aside in 1964 as a result of conservation efforts by a dedicated group of nature lovers and scientists. In an effort to overcome problems generated by the drainage project-from spontaneous fires caused by the oxidation of the peatlands to the disappearance of indigenous flora and fauna-various schemes were introduced over the years in order to help restore the region’s wildlife into the reserve. In 1994, an even more ambitious plan was implemented: part of the larger Hula area was reflooded in an effort to recreate the original ecosystem for purposes of wetland conservation and tourism. As part of the rehabilitation project, a three-year research program was initiated consisting of five components: soil, eco-tourism, development, agriculture, water and recreational development.

Special attention is now being focused on the rehabilitation of the country’s rivers. A National River Administration was established in November 1993 to coordinate and oversee the restoration of the country’s rivers and the preservation and renovation of natural and historic sites along riversides. The Administration has formulated a model for river rehabilitation and established criteria for setting priorities for river rehabilitation. In addition, ecological and environmental surveys have been initiated or completed for most of the rivers earmarked for priority action. The landscape surveys and evaluations provide planners with the necessary background information to ensure that development will not destroy the ecosystem, wildlife and landscape features of the river. The integration of such considerations as the sensitivity and vulnerability of rivers or sections of rivers to development is expected to help secure biodiversity and to preserve visual resources.

Conservation Strategy for Species of Flora and Fauna

Israel has also accorded priority to the collection of information on the distribution and abundance of species. The Nature Reserves Authority database consists of about 200,000 individual records of plant and animal observations throughout Israel from 1963 until the present. It is continuously being augmented by new reports from rangers and biologists of the NRA. Similarly, the Rotem Israel Plant Information Center, a joint project of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, is developing an ecological database of Israel’s flora. The Israeli Wild Plant Database now comprises over 430,000 records on the distribution and phenology of Israel’s native plants. In 1990, the Nature Reserves Authority commissioned from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with the aid of Rotem, a field survey of Israel’s rare and endangered plant species. A major task was to find objective criteria to define the rare as well as the vulnerable threatened wild plants. Rotem has already started to monitor 791 species (about a third of the flora) which have been classified into various categories of rarity. The first part of Israel’s Red Book, which focuses on the northern part of Israel and includes comprehensive information on biodiversity "hot spots" in this region, will be published in 1998.

Israel’s fauna is extremely varied due to the location of Israel at the meeting point of three climatic and vegetation regions. Although additional surveys and studies are required to fill gaps in knowledge concerning Israel’s fauna, the country’s foremost zoologists believe that nearly a third of Israel’s vertebrates have suffered either extinction or a reduction in their populations in this century alone due to human activitywhether hunting, agricultural practices, urban and industrial development, or poisoning. While some of these changes were inevitable, others were preventable such as the controversial draining of Lake Hula in the 1950s which destroyed a unique wetlands ecosystem.

In the 1960s, the Nature Reserves Authority set out to reintroduce populations of animals present in historical times, as supported by biblical reference, but no longer found within modern Israel. Two breeding cores, Hai-Bar Carmel in the north of Israel and Hai-Bar Yotvata in the south, were established to breed animals suitable for release; the former for Mediterranean species, the latter for desert species. Five species have been chosen: ostrich, roe deer, Asiatic wild ass, Persian fallow deer and white oryx (also known as Arabian oryx). Of these, all except the roe deer are globally endangered.

In addition, Israel is currently developing and implementing action plans for the conservation of various species of fauna, foremost among which are raptors, invertebrates, insectivorous bats and amphibians. The action plan for the country’s raptors, for example, includes four components: management measures such as protection of habitats as nesting sites and establishment of feeding stations; surveys and research; captive breeding for the purpose of bolstering endangered species and vulnerable populations; and captive breeding for the purpose of reintroduction.

Conservation Strategy for Genetic Resources

Israel’s location in the Middle East heartland of genetic diversity of many major agricultural crops, coupled with its remarkable geographical and climatic diversity, have helped create a particularly rich collection of habitats and corresponding local varieties. Israel is one of the world’s richest areas in progenitors and relatives of domesticated species. In light of spreading urbanization, habitat destruction, intensive farming and the almost universal use of elite cultivars by farmers, the preservation of Israel’s wild genetic resources is an imperative.

Israel’s exceptionally rich plant genetic resources and advanced scientific and biotechnological expertise combine to create unique opportunities for genetic preservation, characterization, utilization and commercialization. In fact, Israel was one of the first countries to respond to growing awareness in the 1970s of the need to preserve genetic diversity. The Israel Genebank for Agricultural Crops (IGB) was established in 1979 by the National Council for Research and Development

(now the Ministry of Science) and the Ministry of Agriculture as a central focus for Israel’s highly decentralized plant genetic resource efforts. Today, these two governmental bodies, along with scientists from academic institutes and Israel’s seed industry, are working together on the formulation of a policy on the preservation and sustainable use of Israel’s genetic resources.

The principal responsibilities of the IGB are: to maintain active and passive germplasm collections, herbaria, gene parks and genetic reserves; to facilitate national and international exchange of plant material; to maintain a database and information network; to promote national and international cooperation and coordination; to organize and participate in workshops, conferences and training activities; to disseminate information; and to guide research on gene bank activities such as dynamic in situ conservation methods.

Biodiversity and Israel’s Sustainable Development Policy

Basic to Israel’s environmental management program is a policy founded upon cooperation and integration between environmental protection and economic development. Given the rapid rate of development, the focus of environmental policy has always been on preventive measures, largely through the incorporation of environmental considerations into major development projects.

More recently, efforts have focused on the preparation of a sustainable development strategy for Israel. An opening seminar took place in November 1996 and seven target groups (industry, energy, transport, tourism, agriculture, urban sector, and biodiversity) were organized. Discussions are conducted within a round table framework, with the participation of all stakeholders, and are administered by a facilitator. In January 1998, a seminar in which each of the groups presented its interim findings was convened. At a later date, the report of each group will be distributed for wider public comment, and the policy document finalized by the facilitator. The draft strategy will be presented to the directors general of Israel’s government ministries for adoption and referral to the government for approval.

In conclusion, several of the components of Israel’s national biodiversity strategy are already in placelegal framework, participation in international conventions and initiatives, surveys and research, and concrete programs for the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems, species and genetic resources. The subject has been accorded greater priority in recent years with the growing awareness that land scarcity in Israel, coupled with unprecedented population and economic growth, threaten to deplete Israel’s natural resources and open space landscapes.

Once a national masterplan on open space protection becomes law, all future planning and development would be subject to its provisions. All statutory regional and local planning boards

would be obligated to examine the impact on biodiversity of all plans brought before them, and approval would be contingent on compliance of the plan with the masterplan’s provisions. _____________________________________________________________________ Editor’s Note: This paper presents a short summary of the salient points included in The Report of the State of Israel on the Implementation of Article 6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity.