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Israel Where the Wild Things Roam

When the Bible was first translated into English, even King James’ scholars who carried out the task were stumped by some of the names of the animals they read about.

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Arava: Hai Bar wildlife reserve

When the Bible was first translated into English, even King James’ scholars who carried out the task were stumped by some of the names of the animals they read about. For example, they settled on “eagle” for the nesher­ – the raptor on whose wings Moses said God would carry the faithful (Ex. 19:4) and like which people of faith would soar (Isa. 40:31). However, we now know that nesher actually means vulture, one of several kinds of raptors in the country, but then again, “on vulture’s wings” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. The furry little creature zoologists now agree is a Syrian hyrax, which can be found sunning itself on rocks from Dan to Eilat, is called a coney, rock badger or rock hyrax (Lev. 11:5; Proverbs 30:26) – depending on what Bible version you use.


When King James reigned in the 1600s, visiting the Holy Land (and returning to tell the tale) was a miraculous journey that took months, if not years, to make. Natural history was centuries away from becoming a science, and it was not easy to corroborate testimony as to an animal’s appearance. It is said that when the Crusaders got a profile view of the sharp-horned oryx (Deut. 33:17 – usually translated “wild ox”), they believed its two horns to be one, thus giving rise to the legend of the unicorn.


On the verge of extinction


One thing has not changed since the old days: A trip to the Holy Land is still a journey during which you see miracles happen. One of these is viewing beautiful creatures at Israel’s premier wildlife reserves. Due to unrestricted hunting that began during World War I when firearms first reached this region, plus habitat destruction that Israel is working to reverse, so few of these animals were left that some had reached the verge of extinction. Yet here they are, thanks to hard work and faith by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) zoologists, ornithologists, rangers and volunteers. They work together to foster breeding in special enclosures resembling the animals’ natural habitat, providing them with a nourishing diet, plenty of water and closely monitoring their health. They then attempt to acclimatize the animals by allowing them to begin seeking food on their own from vegetation growing within the enclosures. Eventually, they try to reintroduce them to nature, moving the animals to areas where they can roam freely, while keeping close watch on their well-being and progress through radio collars. Ostriches go to the Negev and fallow deer to the Judean Mountains and the Galilee streambeds, while Griffon vultures wing their way from Mount Carmel.

On a visit to Hai Bar Carmel, on the forested slopes west of Haifa, you can enjoy the sight of graceful herd of Persian fallow deer (Deut. 14:5; 1 Kings 4:23) the males with their noble antlers and the dappled young “Bambis” resting in the shade with their moms. Israel has the largest herd of Persian fallow deer in the world, with hundreds of individuals.  In the late 1960s, the INPA decided to embark on its wildlife restoration project by reintroducing the Persian fallow deer. Just before the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Shah had agreed to give Israel a number of these beautiful animals from his own breeding program.


In a dramatic airlift after the fall of the Shah, Israel managed to get four of the deer aboard the last El Al flight out of Tehran. Persian fallow deer are still among the animals protected and nurtured at Hai Bar Carmel, nestled among Carmel’s wooded hills, supported by the Hai Bar Association. (Another partner in the reintroduction of the Persian fallow deer is Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, which also has these magnificent creatures on display among its other biblical animals.)


Your tour of the Hai Bar Carmel reserve begins with a beautiful overview of the pastoral surroundings from the roof of a small visitor center, which showcases the INPA’s animal reintroduction efforts. Then it’s time to explore the reserve: You’ll walk down the mountain along an 800-yard paved trail. From wooden balconies you can easily spy the residents – roe deer, mentioned in Isaiah 35:6, and in  some translations of Psalm 42:2: (“Like a hart, panting after springs of water”),  gazelles (Song of Songs 2:9), and woolly Armenian wild sheep believed to be close to the sheep mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:4. Signs explain about each animal and its habits. At the end of the walk, you’ll find the enclosures for the fallow deer and impressive Griffon vultures, which are also fostered here and live in the wild at Gamla in the Golan Heights.  


There is one more place to see the roe deer in Israel: it is the logo of the Israel postal service!  Its reputation as a fleet-footed animal is first noted in some translations of Genesis 49:21:“Naphtali is a doe set free.” This time, the King James Version rendered well the continuation of the verse in the Hebrew original – “bearing good tidings.” A legend says Jacob invoked the image of a deer when blessing his son Naphtali because when Jacob’s sons discovered Joseph was still alive, Naphtali immediately bounded off like a deer to report this good news to Jacob back in Canaan.


You’ll enjoy a different kind of wildlife experience at Hai Bar Yotvata, 30 minutes north of Eilat in the Arava desert. Here, you drive very slowly through the reserve, seeing animals along the way. The ostriches (Job 39:13) may gather curiously around your car or, if it is mating season, you may catch the red-necked (literally!) males performing their mating dance to show off for the females. Under the acacia trees you’ll see the oryx nuzzle each other companionably. You’ll also see wild asses (Job 39:5), and addaxes (Deut. 14:5 – rendered in most translations as “antelopes”).  The INPA ranger who greets you at the reserve’s entrance can rent you a CD to play in your car, which describes the animals and tells unusual stories about their habits and even the idiosyncrasies of some individuals. Your tour winds up with a visit to the Night Life Room where dimly lit enclosures reveal the desert’s nocturnal denizens. Your last stop is the predator center, home to spotted leopards (one of which, a newcomer, was captured after it wandered into a house in a Negev community), wolves, the giant-eared caracal, snakes and more.  


As with many other aspects of your Israel visit, once you get acquainted with the living wildlife of Jesus’ time, you’ll never again read the Bible in the same way.


The First Holy Land Naturalist


Henry Baker Tristram, clergyman, geologist and naturalist, was born at Eglingham, Northumberland, in northern England in 1822. He was ordained a deacon in 1845 and priest in 1846. Because of a persistent lung condition he went to live in Bermuda, where he was secretary to the governor and naval and military chaplain from 1847 to 1849. His interest in natural history took off there, where he began to study birds and shells. Ten years later, he visited Palestine and Egypt for the first time. He was surprised at how little was known about the plant and animal life of the region, which he believed was a result of the risks of a journey to the region and the tendency to focus on history and other aspects of the Bible in relation to the Holy Land. A year after his return from his second visit to Palestine during 1863 to 1864, he published his first book on the Holy Land. He vividly described the region, including spying two leopards on Mount Carmel, and the strangeness of the Dead Sea area. Among the species named after him is the tristramit – Tristram’s grackle, a small black bird with orange wings, which he was the first to identify for science. You can still see these lovely birds swooping and whistling over Masada and the Spring of Ein Gedi.


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