Israel may be tiny, but there are more than 250 designated Israeli nature reserves and parks in locations ranging from snow-capped peaks to deserts, and the figure is growing every year.
By Avigayil Kadesh
Looking at Israel on a map, it’s hard to imagine how hundreds of nature reserves could fit into this tiny country along with 7.7 million people. In fact, the roster of about 250 designated Israeli nature reserves and national parks – covering more than a million acres of land — is growing every year.
In addition to well-known sites such as Masada, Ein Gedi, the Hula Valley or Caesarea, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) oversees close to 20 sites each in the Golan Heights/Upper Galilee, Negev/Eilat and Sea of Galilee/Mount Carmel regions; a dozen in central Israel; eight in the Judean Desert and Dead Sea area; and a handful in Judea and Samaria. Overnight camping facilities are available in 26 of Israel’s national parks.
These areas represent an unusually wide variety of landscapes and climates for a single country. In the far north is Mount Hermon with its snow-capped peaks in the winter. In the west is the green Mediterranean-fed landscape and wetlands. In the south are arid expanses of desert. Israel also is home to two unique natural wonders: the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth; and Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater), the world’s largest natural crater.
A complicated responsibility
Protecting, policing and promoting these national natural assets as mandated by the Ministry of Environmental Protection is “a complicated responsibility,” says INPA Deputy Chief Scientist Dr. Eliezer Frankenberg. These are not just areas of great beauty and ecological importance, but also of great historic significance.
Israeli law defines a nature reserve as "an area in which flora, fauna, soil, caves, or water that are of interest to science or education are protected from unwanted changes in their appearance, their biological composition and the process of their development."
INPA conducts ongoing surveys and studies to assess the well-being of flora and fauna throughout the country. To minimize damage from development projects that can be especially intensive in such a small country, INPA rangers are involved in the decision-making process of all Israeli regional and national planning boards. The agency oversees all archeological excavation at its sites as well.
Balancing progress and history, development and natural habitats, is a tough act.
“We just finished publishing the second volume of our Red Book of Plants,” says Frankenberg. It lists some 2,400 species growing in Israel, and points out that 414 of these plant species are endangered to different degrees.
“The areas with the most rare species are the Sharon area, the Upper Galilee, the Hula Valley and the Golan Heights, each with about 100 species,” says Frankenberg. “Another interesting figure is that in Israel there are 35 endemic species, meaning they can be found only within Israel.”
Through its 15 education centers, the agency teaches about 200,000 children – as well as teachers and principals, field education coordinators, Israel Defense Forces field educators and cadets in commander courses – why it’s illegal to pick wild flowers or harvest and traffic in wild plants, including spice and medicinal species. INPA’s Green Patrol unit is responsible for preventing illegal takeover of public lands and open spaces.
INPA field personnel regularly examine samples of wild plants, and in the Adullam reserve the agency runs an ecological research station for long-term studies that’s connected to an international network of such stations.
Frankenberg reveals that sometimes it’s necessary to destroy certain plants in order to preserve others. INPA currently is waging a war against invasive species such as Australian acacia trees, which were actively planted in Israel for years, with good intentions and disastrous results.
“The acacia grows everywhere and overtakes all other vegetation,” Frankenberg explains. “We try to convince the KKL [Jewish National Fund] not to plant it, and we try to experiment with all sorts of things to kill these trees.”
Above all, INPA does whatever it can to encourage healthy biodiversity in Israel’s national parks and reserves.
Every year, the INPA conducts a census of Israel’s gazelles, aquatic birds, raptors and other animals.
INPA’s Hai-Bar Carmel breeding center in the north raises species that originated in the Middle East, while at Hai-Bar Yotvata in the south, it fosters animals from Asia and Africa.
INPA has successfully reintroduced to the Israeli wild animals such as onagers, Arabian oryxes, ostriches and fallow deer, and sent Sahara oryx born at Hai-Bar Yotvata to Ghana so they could be reintroduced to their natural African environment. The agency also works to boost the numbers of endangered species such as vultures and spotted leopards.
“We are involved in a project with a European conglomerate of 15 countries on mapping habitats and monitoring them,” says Frankenberg.
The Coral Beach Reserve, comprising 1,200 meters on the shores of the Gulf of Eilat, was one of the first nature reserves to be declared in Israel. This northernmost area of tropical corals is home to many colorful fish and rare aquatic animals, all of them considered protected species.
INPA’s efforts are also directed at the open sea. At its designated marine reserves, rangers patrol by boat to prevent people from causing pollution and harm to aquatic creatures. In a cooperative project with the Zoology Department of Tel Aviv University and the Yarkon River Authority, INPA has returned the once extinct wild fish species Acanthobrama telavivensis to the coastal streams, considered an achievement of global note.
Many challenges face INPA, however, from overuse of the national reserves to climate change. Frankenberg lists agriculture, airplanes, military conflict and water competition as the most common threats to Israel’s parks and reserves.
Competing for water
Though the Israeli government has legislated a priority for water going to its nature and heritage sites, INPA must constantly work with the national Water Authority to assure compliance and make sure water is fairly allocated. Over-utilization of water, plus a years-long drought, has left the parched country with only 2,125 acres of natural waterscapes and wetlands.
“We have all sorts of projects that divide water between humans and nature,” says Frankenberg. “At Ein Gedi, for example, we have an agreement with the Water Authority and Kibbutz Ein Gedi that the kibbutz will take water only at the lower part of the reserve and not at the higher part, which naturally falls to the park. It’s a matter of reducing conflict.”
The water lily pools at the sources of the Yarkon and Ein Afek reserve are examples of wetland habitats that INPA has saved from destruction. In other reserves, the agency has dug pools and expanded bodies of water and moist meadowlands.
Recently, with the risk of disappearance of coastal habitats, INPA has stepped up the sometimes decades-long process of declaring national nature reserves so that it can do its part for Israel’s 118-mile Mediterranean coast. So far, 10 national parks conserve the heritage of the region’s ancient coastal cities, among them Caesarea, Apollonia and Ashkelon.
World Heritage Sites
In 1972, the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) adopted a charter to protect cultural and natural sites of global importance by identifying and conserving these significant places.
Israeli nature reserves and national parks on the official UNESCO World Heritage List include Israel’s southern Incense Route and Masada National Park, as well as the biblically significant sites Tel Megiddo, Tel Hazor and Tel Be’er Sheva, and the Nabatean cities in Avdat, Shivta, Halutza and Mamshit, where the Arabian horse was first bred.
INPA has proposed additional UNESCO World Heritage sites, among them the Canaanite gate at Tel Dan (considering the oldest preserved arch in the world), Beit She’an National Park and the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, a site of global importance for bird migration.
Preserving the ancient past
Israel’s historic and archaeological sites, and the buffer zones surrounding them, are high priorities for INPA’s staff. Every decision regarding changes in these sites, which include Masada, Beit She’an and Megiddo, has significance and impact for the coming generations of Israelis and visitors from abroad coming to learn about the history and culture of the land.
Every one of Israel’s national parks and nature reserves is open to survey and research by licensed archaeologists, who excavate under the supervision of professionals from the INPA Archaeology and Heritage department. The finds in these areas are crucial to understanding the roots of modern Israel.
At Beit She’an in the northern Jordan Valley, for example, archeologists uncovered a fifth millennium settlement at what became a major crossroads. During the Late Bronze Age, Beit She’an was the Egyptian capital of Canaan, and the Bible records that the Israelite tribes who had escaped from Egypt 40 years earlier could not capture it.
It wasn’t until much later that King David conquered Beit She’an along with Megiddo and Ta’anach. It became part of an administrative region until it was destroyed by the Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser III, only to be revived as a Greek polis under the rule of Alexander the Great. Visitors can still see ruins from this period, such as colonnaded streets, temples, theaters, markets, fountains and bathhouses.
During the late Roman period, Jews, pagans and Samaritans lived together in Beit She’an, building grand public buildings and amphitheaters where gladiators fought. Later, Christian churches and Byzantine bathhouses were built and a linen-production industry prospered. Crusaders built a fortress here.
After the founding of the State of Israel, the ruins of Beit She’an have undergone major restoration and reconstruction, and it has become one of the most popular INPA sites for visitors from around the world.