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Reserves often cannot provide sufficient habitat and refuge for the crea-tures that inhabit them. Predators in particular need an enormous range to find their meals. The spillover of wildlife causes problems for rural com-munities around the world—from East African elephants to the coyotes of the American west. In Israel gazelles happily munch on lettuce, and foxes raid chicken coops (and have acquired a taste for watermelon). Plastic irri-gation pipes are favorite targets of confused woodpeckers and provide teething rings for young hyenas.

This tension between human settlement and wildlife habitat captured na-tional attention with the NRA's efforts to study and save the leopards in the Judean desert. Although a larger, northern subspecies (Panthera pardus tul-liana) has apparently disappeared, Israel's southern subspecies of leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) remains the natural “high carnivore” of Israel's desert.[144] It is a very large cat with black spots on light brown or white fur, a large solid head, round ears, round eyes, long whiskers, four nipples, and a tail that is more than three-quarters the length of its body.[145] Leopards can be ferocious, and any animal in the desert is a potential item on its menu. The cats live amidst the desert's rocky cliffs, from among which they pounce on their prey, typically hyraxes, ibex, and porcupines.

In 1863 and 1864 the British priest and zoology enthusiast H. B. Tristam traveled across Palestine on the most extensive of his four local sa-faris.[146] He reported that “the range of the leopard is broader than the cheetah in Israel, but their number is smaller. It is found around the Dead Sea, in the Gilead, in the Bashan, and occasionally in forested areas of the West. A wonderful pair was hunted in the Carmel while we were there.”[147]

The many places he found in the region with traditional Arab names that included the word nimr (leopard) testified to its versatility. In 1930 the Yishuv's leading zoologist, Israel Aharoni, reported that leopards could be considered extinct in Palestine, yet time and again they would resurface. When a female was shot in Safed in 1942, three of her cubs survived. They

were rescued, and one of them, “Teddy,” was briefly adopted and had a book written about him. (Unlike Elsa of Born Free fame, Teddy lived out his days in a zoo.) Nocturnal sightings of the cat were common. There was even a 1970 case where three workers happened upon a leopard at Kibbutz Ma'ayan Zvi's fishponds near the Tel Aviv–Haifa highway.[148]

The little that is known about Israel's leopard species is the result of re-search by Giora Ilani, yet some people blame this fascinating man for lead-ing these animals down the road to ruin. Ilani's biography runs parallel to those of his generation of nature professionals. He grew up on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. Before he enlisted in the army, in 1958 he began working as a volunteer for the SPNI. It was Ilani who actually invented the annual “gazelle count” ritual, long before it was officially adopted by the NRA. During an inventory in 1964 he discovered a new subspecies of indigenous Israeli gazelle (Gazella gazella acaciae).[149]

Ilani was even more dedicated to wildlife than his colleagues. Avraham Yoffe once told him, “If you were in charge of this country, then animals would be free and people would be in cages.”[150] And in fact Ilani made few friends in the Arava Valley when he shared his belief that people should be banned from living inside the Syro-African rift, leaving it, as it had been historically, for the animals.

Of the twenty streams that drain across the Judean desert to the Dead Sea, only two have water year-round: Nahal Arugot and Nahal David. They define the boundaries of the Ein Gedi oasis. With no direct road to the area until after the 1967 War, Ein Gedi held a special mystique for travelers.

After the creation of the State, Kibbutz Ein Gedi was established south of the oasis. It tapped the streams for its fields, orchards, and highly prof-itable guest house. Yet it remained a lovely site in the middle of the stark, steep, jejune landscape. Bedouin, with their weakness for hunting, no longer passed through the area. The wildlife population in the area, espe-cially the ibex, rebounded. In the anticipated positive-feedback loop of food chains, the leopards soon discovered the oasis.

In the Ein Gedi region, there had never been a confirmed leopard sight-ing until Yossi Feldman, who ran the Ein Gedi Field School, reported one in 1969.[151] At the time, Giora Ilani was working as chief zoologist for the NRA. After Feldman's experience, Ilani started to seek them out. It would take him almost five years of following tracks to meet one face to face. The memory of the triumphant moment still moves him: “On October 19, 1974, I managed to photograph one. It was the first time in history that a leopard was photographed in the Middle East. (I remember the date, be-cause the next day my son was born.) After the photograph I cried nonstop,

I was so moved and so excited. Avraham Yoffe sent the photograph off to be published in the New York Times.”[152]

Many would argue that Ilani remembers his son's birthday because of the leopard. Before Ilani's interest in leopards becamse so keen, most of his focus had been on the hyenas that roam Israel's deserts. The experience with the leopard completely changed his life. Not everyone in the Authority was as enthusiastic about his initiative. But Avraham Yoffe, pre-dictably, was captivated. He gave Ilani his full support.[153]

Ilani became extremely resourceful at finding the leopards. It was al-most as if he had developed a sixth sense to detect the distinct four-toed paw print, the droppings with the encrusted hair of the last meal, and the smell of urine that marked the leopard's territory. Ilani would offer tips to help find leopards by watching the ibex and hyraxes. They developed a dis-tinct warning call when they sensed the presence of this most deadly pred-ator.[154] By 1974 he had fifty-one confirmed observations of leopards in the area and hundreds of definitive signs.

Ilani pressed on to the next stage. He left food for the animals, stunned them, and then collared them for continuous monitoring. Ilani gave all of them names and befriended them. Almost twenty years later he and his wife still argue over which female was in which wadi. The transmitters en-abled Ilani to reach a new level of intimacy with the animals. For instance, he could identify the female “Shlomzion” as a young virgin and record her first sexual encounter—a three-day orgy which involved sixty separate acts of copulation (per day) with the virile “Alexander Yanai”! Ninety-one days later, two cubs were born in the very cave where the revelry took place. Attempts to visit her were foiled by an angry male hovering above the cave. Ilani was never able to ascertain whether the roaring leopard was “Alexander Yanai,” the protective father, or “Katushion,” a rival suitor.

From the start, Kibbutz Ein Gedi opposed the project. They were nei-ther intrigued with the racy nuances of leopard mating rituals nor thrilled about sharing their oasis with a savage predator. Even Ilani acknowledged that if you startled a leopard at night, it could kill you in self-defense. Such concerns became more palpable in 1975 when leopards began to penetrate the kibbutz looking for food. In the nearby community of Neveh Zohar, a leopard ate fourteen cats. In 1979, “Bavta” ate a couple of sheep in the kib-butz's petting zoo but was shot and wounded before she could return to her cubs. Residents responded to the presence of the leopards by planting poison bait. In Ein Boqeq leopards were killed with strychnine.[155]

The NRA moved to assuage local concerns. Avraham Yoffe felt that the people of Ein Gedi should see their new neighbors as a boon to tourism,

which offered a more promising economic future than agriculture.[156] The kibbutz hotel and associated facilities were flourishing, but residents were unhappy about the uninvited guests. They argued that, in fact, the leop-ards returned from their forays to the kibbutz with diseases that were the real cause of the epidemic of early cub deaths.[157]

In general it is hard to enlist public support for predators. People enjoy watching them in documentaries, but they become edgy when they meet them face to face. During the same period, Giora Ilani served as an expert witness in a 1976 prosecution against an illegal shooting of a hyena. Ilani explained to the judge, in his meticulous fashion, the essential ecological role that the animal plays in clearing the remains of dead animals. The judge retorted that while the letter of the law required him to issue a fine, he was completely sympathetic with the defendant.[158]

In 1982 the NRA installed an electric fence around the kibbutz to keep the leopards out.[159] It reduced the number of infiltrations, but the cats be-came crafty and learned that the fence short-circuited during rainstorms. Then they would come in and feast on the local pets. The farmers took matters into their own hands, getting out the traps and the strychnine.

The numbers of leopards continued to drop. Females, who were the most adventurous hunters, were disproportionately hunted down. Although they can live past the age of twenty-five, they are fertile only from age three until eleven. The decline in fertile females created a macabre dynamic. The male impulse to perpetuate his own genetic mate-rial became a major threat to species survival. As long as they nurse, fe-males are infertile. Male leopards naturally seek to kill the cubs and thereby hasten female ovulation. As the population dwindled, problems of inbreeding and poor genetic diversity began to set in.[160] A 1992 scientific survey estimated that there were between eight and seventeen leopards in the Negev High Mountains, including at least one fertile female.[161] But none remained in Ein Gedi and the Judean desert.

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