Saturday, March 14, 2009

The fall of a sparrow: Regathering Biblical fauna in the deserts of the Holy Land

Presented to the Club by Erik Bruun

"There's a special providence to the fall of a sparrow"
—Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

1. The Six-Day War

On June 5th, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack on Egyptian armies massed along their border on the Sinai Peninsula. Although they were greatly outnumbered, the Israeli air force had destroyed virtually all of the Egyptian jets in a daring dawn attack, clearing the way for a ground assault.

Three armored divisions invaded northern and central Sinai. While the southernmost division led by Ariel Sharon engaged the Egyptians in battle, the central division raced across the seemingly impassable mountainous desert to two valleys behind the Egyptian army. When the Egyptian soldiers broke into a retreat, they were caught in a trap and soundly defeated. In four days, the Israeli army held the entire Sinai Peninsula and the eastern side of the Suez Canal. Israel lost 338 soldiers in the Sinai, while 12,000 Egyptians were killed, 5,000 captured and 20,000 wounded.

Meanwhile to the north, Israeli soldiers captured Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. In less than a week Israel had transformed itself. On June 4th it was a precarious nation surrounded by bellicose and heavily armed governments boasting they would wipe Israel into the sea. By June 10th, all of the Arab armies had suffered humiliating defeats and Israel held key geographic regions to defend itself from attack and important cultural and religious sites, including Jerusalem and Mount Sinai.

2. Don't shoot! It's a Dorcas Gazelle!

In this heroic time, Avraham Yoffe stood out as slightly different kind of hero. A military man all his life, he had fought with the British Army in World War II and three years later led Israeli soldiers in the war for independence against England and later Arab soldiers. In 1956 he led an armored brigade down the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba to capture Sharm el-Sheik, the southernmost tip of the Sinai. And in 1967 he led the central division that cut off the Egyptian retreat and trapped nearly half of the enemy army.

Charming, abrupt and charismatic, Yoffe also had a soft spot for wildlife. He had famously once ordered a cease-fire in a minor battle when he saw an injured Dorcas gazelle trapped between combatants. In 1964, Yoffe became director of the Israeli Nature Reserve Authority. On the seventh day of the Six-Day War, Yoffe's credibility gave his agency newfound power. He used his prestige to expand the agency's reach.

Yoffe established a network of rangers to monitor wildlife throughout Israel and greatly expanded the number of nature reserves in the Jewish nation. Two of these reserves were called "hai bar," which literally means "wild life". The mission of these parks was to gather and breed animals mentioned in the Bible that were either endangered or extinct in Israel with the goal of reintroducing them into the wild.

Hai Bar Carmel in the north was very small. Situated in the forested hills outside of Haifa, it was closed to the public. But Hai Bar Yotvata in the Jordanian Valley in the south was much larger and open to visitors. The Yotvata Kibbutz gave the land to Yoffe for the reserve. The Authority built a chain-link fence around the 8,000-acre reserve. Yoffe collected animals for the parks from around the world. He hired Bedouin hunters to capture 15 ibex from the nearby Judean hills, paid a Catskills game reserve for three addaxes, had antelope brought in from the Sahara Desert, ostriches from Sudan, and the very rare Arabian oryx from the San Diego Zoo.

Ever the wheeler-dealer, Yoffe traded some of his ibex to the Iranian government for two Mesopetamian deer that were on one of the last flights out of Tehran hours before the government collapsed to the Ayatollah Khomeni. A few days later a Revolutionary Guard firing squad executed the Iranian official responsible for the exchange.

Hai Bar Yotvata got a lot of press as a modern Noah's Ark, but it was an expensive endeavor and so Yoffe turned to Jewish and conservation communities in the United States for financial support. The Holy Land Conservation Fund was started to support the two hai bars, and later other conservation efforts in the Middle East.

3. Clueless in the Holy Land

In 1983, just at the time I was graduating from college, clueless as to what I would do with my life, my father was president of the Holy Land Conservation Fund. I had been rejected by the Peace Corps because of bad lungs, but itched for adventure. "Why don't you work for the Nature Reserve Authority in Israel?" my father suggested. And so I did.

I arrived on the floor of the Jordanian Rift Valley at the end of August, just in time for the peak mid-day temperature to drop to 115 degrees. Stepping out of the bus was like walking into an open oven. My new boss, Roni, brought me to a small apartment in Eilat that was my home for the next 6 months and told me to meet him outside the next morning at 5. He, two other workers and I drove in his pickup truck (with me almost always in the back) 30 miles north to Hai Bar Yotvatah to work.

My job was to feed six small herds of animals every morning and then undertake different tasks in the early afternoon--drive along the fence to check for holes, help at the entrance gate, or some small job that needed to be accomplished. The reserve was definitely a desert. There was an elevated water table underneath our feet that nourished acacia trees and enough plants to sustain a small collection of gazelles trapped inside the reserve when the fence was built, but it was hardly an oasis. To the west lay the Judean hills and to the east a gigantic wall of mountains that was Jordan, which was still officially in a state of war with Israel. You could see military convoys driving north along the foot of the mountains from Aqaba carrying ammunition and weapons from the United States to supply Saddam Hussein's army in his war against Iran.

Although I was alone most of the time, I felt taken in by my co-workers and the wildlife rangers. Within a week of my arrival they included me on a two-hour, four-jeep convoy to one of the most beautiful valleys I've ever been. One of the rangers was getting married. He had just returned from serving in his military unit in Lebanon for the event, to which he carried an M-16 semi-automatic rifle. Six months earlier, he and one of my co-workers, Natan, had been captured near this very spot by an Egyptian border patrol, held hostage for a day, beaten up, and then released. Natan lost a tooth in the deal. Despite the good-natured protests of his colleagues and future wife, the groom insisted on keeping his rifle strapped on for the wedding ceremony. It was the first Jewish wedding I had attended, and the most memorable.

4. Noah's Ark

I tended to seven different types of animals at the Hai Bar. The most familiar to you and the most difficult to take care of were the ostriches. Cartoonists at Looney Tunes couldn't come up with a more preposterously dumb animal. Equipped with the brains of a bird, they have zero sensibility and endless curiosity, mainly in a quest to eat anything they can get down their throats. One time I hammered nails along a pen that held some of the adolescent ostriches. They gathered around me and kept trying to eat the nails and grab the hammer with their beaks, which have tiny teeth. In addition to hurting like heck when they bit my hand, if one had gotten a hold of a nail, it would have punctured the ostrich's intestine, resulting in death.

This did happen once while I was there when tourists on a bus threw food, including tomatoes, at the ostriches that would literally go up to the windows of cars and buses and peck at the glass. I still remember the row of tomatoes lodged in the neck of an ostrich like a stack of billiard balls. Someone threw a piece of metal also, though, and it killed the ostrich that ate it. I did the autopsy with Roni. This consisted of cutting into the underbelly of the gigantic dead bird and putting our hands into the intestines until we found the object. Ick!

Ostriches were one of the two most dangerous animals in the park. They have gigantic and powerful legs with huge claws at the end of their feet. In mating season male ostriches become wildly aggressive and will attack other male ostriches and people who enter their territory. The way they fight is to lift their feet and thrust their claws downward, like a knife plunging from a piston. A couple of years before I got there Natan had been attacked by an ostrich. His abdomen had been ripped open and he was hospitalized for several weeks.

The other particularly dangerous animal to humans was the Arabian oryx, which inspired the mythical unicorns. They are antelopes with horns that stick straight out. When seen from profile, it appears as if they only have one horn, similar to a unicorn. Like all of the antelopes in the park, the male Arabian oryx used their horns when they fought over the female oryxes. But because the horns are straight like a dagger, they can kill whoever is at the other end of their attacks. At that time, Arabian oryx were extremely rare, having been hunted out of existence in the Arabian Peninsula by hunters, so the bachelor herd was kept separate from the females and the one lucky male who ruled the herd in an enlarged pen.

The two other antelopes were the scimitar oryx and addax. The scimitar oryx is very similar to the Arabian oryx except that the horns curve backwards, making them much less dangerous in conflict. Addax have corkscrew-like horns and were very docile, with the exception of one very old addax who was named Moses. He lived on his own, away from the herd, in a seemingly perpetual grumpy mood.

The Persian wild ass, or onager, was the most promising animal for re-introduction. Related to domestic donkeys and zebras, they are very durable animals, capable of running hundreds of miles without stopping. We also had Somalian wild asses, which had more distinctive coloring and were notable because the males would castrate or kill each other during mating season. These males, too, were kept in separate areas.

Finally, there were the ibexes, which are wild mountain goats similar to our big horn sheep. The males have gigantic nautilus-like horns. In mating seasons they fought in what appeared to be a dainty dance, standing on their small rear legs and then bouncing toward each other to slam their horns with a thunderous clang. It was a stunning sight.

The Hai Bar also held other wild animals, including the gazelles I mentioned earlier, rodents, small foxes and poisonous snakes, which lived among the hay bales that I gathered every day to feed the herds.

5. Kafka's grand nephew

Little did I know when I arrived at the Hai Bar that I would become a bit player in the internal politics of the agency. Shortly after I arrived, a fifth employee joined the Hai Bar. She was from Jerusalem and having grown up in British-speaking Ghana spoke fluent English. "Hi my name is Tal," she said with a beaming smile on her 25-year-old face. "It means precipitation!" My stumped look prompted further explanation. "You know like the bits of water on the grass in the morning."

Tal's job was to cover the entrance gate. She was delightfully fun and to my annoyance took up with an Argentine boyfriend named Andres who was doing a doctoral study on the group behavior of a desert breed of starlings.

When I went north to visit Jerusalem Tal had offered her parents to host my stay. Her mother was away and so I only met her father. He was a quiet man and as we sat at dinner the television was on, broadcasting a documentary about the Holocaust. He broke our awkward silence by telling me that he had been in the Holocaust working on a road gang for six years. "I never got sick for a single day," he said and told me about some of the conditions he survived. He ended the discussion by saying the Six-Day War was the worst thing that had ever happened to Israel and would eventually destroy the nation.

When I returned to the Hai Bar, Tal apologized with a roll of her eyes that I had been "stuck" with her father. "No, it was interesting," I said. "He told me about his experiences in the Holocaust." Tal's jaw dropped to her bellybutton. "He's never said a word to me about it," she answered, holding tears back.

Roni was my boss. His great uncle had been Franz Kafka. "A real nut," Roni observed. His mother was from Prague and had spent World War II at Auschwitz. When I met her, I saw a number tatooed on her wrist. His father was a Palestinian Jew and had fought in the 1948 war. Roni had fought in the Golan Heights in 1973. Roni took very good care of me, as did his wife Mali. They had a small daughter Yara, who I occasionally baby-sat. I admired Roni very much.

Iran was another co-worker and a very kind, if timid man. He had the weakest handshake I have ever encountered and seemed in total contrast to the image of a rugged Israeli. It looked like a stiff wind could knock him over. He had a German non-Jewish girlfriend who had about 25 pounds on him, mostly muscle.

Finally, there was Natan, the scariest person I've ever known. Like all Israelis, he was a soldier, but Natan had also been a mercenary in the Rhodesian civil war. You got the feeling that not only had Natan killed people, but that he might have enjoyed it. I remember him talking about "khafers" with a sparkle in his eye that seemed more like a menacing glee than a twinkled nostalgia for the black people of southern Africa.

Natan had worked at the Hai Bar for many years and did not like Roni. He talked a lot about the good old days when an American named Bill Clark ran the Hai Bar before it had been open to the public. Among other things, he said that they used to hunt the wild gazelle that ran inside the park. It turned out that Roni wanted to fire Natan, but he did not have the manpower to replace him until Tal and I arrived.

When Roni did fire Natan there was a bitter divide within the southern section of the Nature Reserve Authority, revealing an agency-wide rift between the soldiers and hunters that Yoffe had brought into the authority and the more traditional conservationists who staff these types of agencies around the world. Despite the role I played in Natan's departure, he treated me extremely well and seemed to like me. Nevertheless, he was very bitter about losing his job, mainly I think because he loved the animals. It was as if he had lost his chance for redemption.

6. The fall of a sparrow

Twenty-five years later, many of the Hai Bar animals have been released into the wild. Persian wild asses live in the Ramon Crater deep inside the Negev, as do ostriches and even Arabian oryxes. Scimitar oryxes were sent to Senegal to re-populate the Sahara Desert with the wild antelopes. When Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, the Nature Reserve Authority sent ostriches as a gesture of good will.

The Hai Bar has added a predator center and a nocturnal exhibit that are open to the public for visitors, making the place seem more like a zoo than the wild game park I experienced. It has become a fixture as a tourist attraction for visitors to Eilat, a seaside resort that is very popular among northern Europeans.

I stayed in the job for six months and when it was over I flew to Kenya by myself for a month. I returned to Israel for a couple of weeks, briefly contemplated staying in the country to become a citizen, but then decided to return to the United States. I went back to visit Israel in 1987 and saw Roni at the Hai Bar. I have hardly given any thought to this experience until writing this paper. What strikes me the most in looking back is the stunning contrast between the people and events that made the Hai Bar possible and the mission of the wildlife park.

This was the toughest collection of people I've ever encountered (with the possible exception of the Monday Evening Club, of course). Roni's immediate boss from Haifa had fought in every Israeli war since 1948. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, age 50-something he was a sniper who covered an infantry platoon that included his oldest son. His boss, in turn, was a man named Dan Perry who lost a leg to a land mine in the Golan Heights. Then there was Shalom, a bird enthusiast whose heart raced at the prospect of a warbler's song. Shalom had lost his hearing in one ear from a bombardment in the 1948 war. Whenever we parted he held my hand with both hands and said "shalom, shalom" in the gentlest way you can imagine. If a teddy bear had a human face, it would look like Shalom. And to go back to Avraham Yoffe, despite his well-known charming charisma, in researching this paper I learned that soldiers under his command in the Sinai had killed Egyptian prisoners of war and that he, like other Israeli generals, turned a blind eye to it.

So here were these hardened soldiers working with the children of concentration camp survivors dedicated to preserving the lives of the most obscure collection of animals you could imagine so that they could live in the wild in places that practically no person ever visits.

It was an expensive, labor-intensive enterprise undertaken by a nation at war with its neighbors and later torn apart by the Entifada rebellions by Palestinians inside of Israel. I am hard-pressed to give a rational reason why with all of the troubles that Israel confronts the government would support year after year a project with so little quantifiable benefit.

But there it is and in a way that I cannot explain with words I completely understand it. The image that comes to mind is of when I was driving across the desert on a red 1968 Ford tractor with a cloud of dust trailing behind me and the jagged Jordanian mountains looming over the scene. I felt so small and yet complete.

It turns out that one of the prized Arabian oryx that was released into the wild died shortly afterwards, apparently bitten by a poisonous snake. I can just picture Roni's response after all the work he and so many people had put into giving the antelope the opportunity to live free in the wild.

"Well, it's the chance you take."

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