Israeli ecologists have banded together from two respected universities to form a plan to save one of the country’s most precious natural resources — its lovely, and ancient, mountain gazelle.
The endangered mountain gazelle Gazella gazella was once widespread throughout the Fertile Crescent in parts of present-day Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Most of its former distribution range overlaps with areas in the region that are now densely populated by people.
Archaeological remains also indicate that gazelles were the main prey hunted by people throughout the Pleistocene. Nevertheless, until the 19th century, the mountain gazelle survived this hunting pressure, and thrived.
However, the rise in human population in this region from c. 5.7 to c. 66.5 million during 1900–2016, together with the increased use of firearms and off-road vehicles for hunting, led to the extinction of gazelles from most of this area. Israel and the Palestinian Authority are currently the last strongholds of the mountain gazelle and are home to approximately 5,000 individuals.
A new research effort led by Prof. Yoram Yom-Tov of Tel-Aviv University and Dr. Uri Roll of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, together with Amir Balaban, Ezra Hadad, and Gilad Weil, reviews mountain gazelle dynamics in Israel from the beginning of the 20th century CE and provides an outlook for the conservation of the species. Their findings were published in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation on Wednesday.
During the 1900s, Israel’s human population increased steadily by two percent per year. The human population density is currently c. 430 persons per km2 and is forecast to continue to rise. This presents an array of threats to the mountain gazelle. These include habitat change; fragmentation and isolation by roads, railways and fences, predation by an increasing population of natural predators and feral dogs, poaching, and collisions with road traffic. These threats often act in synergy, amplifying their effects.
In their article, the ecologists present an overview of how these factors threatened and continue to threaten the survival of this species. They also review the policy and management actions, both implemented and still required, to ensure the persistence of the mountain gazelle. In addition, they analyze connectivity of gazelle populations in the landscape, highlighting highly fragmented populations, and suggesting potential interventions.
To improve connectivity, they suggest construction of road over/under passes in strategic locations, translocation of individuals when needed, and better monitoring of potential genetic bottlenecks of the at-risk population.
To reduce the effects of predation, they suggest reinstating the control of feral dogs, and improved management of anthropogenic waste. Furthermore, greater efforts should be made to eliminate poaching of gazelles, on the legislative, enforcement and education fronts.
More broadly, Israel’s human population is expected to double in the next thirty years – which will have grave implications on many local species and ecosystems, some of which are of global importance.
Efforts should be made at the national level to limit this growth and stop further land conversions from natural habitats to other uses.
The mountain gazelle exemplifies an ungulate with both great vulnerability to anthropogenic pressures and a large breeding potential. As more and more regions are converted to human-dominated landscapes, pressures on wildlife will continue to increase, and lessons from the mountain gazelle could prove valuable elsewhere.