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Ilani's dismissal from the Authority in 1990 enhanced his legendary per-sona within nature circles and rendered his work a subject of even greater controversy. Ein Gedi residents are the most hostile of Ilani's detractors. Many claim that if he had not stuck his nose in, leopards would have re-tained their fear of humans and remained inconspicuously in the reserve. Uzi Paz, never happy with the way the leopard project was run (including the feeding of leopards), remains critical. He felt that Ilani had become too

emotional, which affected both the scientific quality of his work and the quality of his relations with the residents of Ein Gedi.[162]

Professor Lev Fishelson rejected the criticism out of hand and was ex-tremely favorable about Ilani's actual fieldwork. “Giora may not have been great with public relations, but he was amazing with the leopards. He un-derstood them so well. The problem is you can't catch leopards. You can ei-ther kill them or bring them to a zoo.”[163]

Others saw the failure as an institutional one for the Authority, which never succeeded in convincing local residents of the leopards' value. The leopards were always perceived as the Authority's problem. If the kibbutz had ever felt that they had a real interest in the reserve, it would have been the best of protectors.[164]

Uriel Safriel, Chief Scientist at the NRA, made the decision to release Ilani. He rejected the view that Ilani's familiarity with the leopards emboldened them to enter the kibbutz. Rather, it was the availability of easy food sources. Dan Perry, NRA Director during this period, shared this view and is surprisingly blase´ about the ramifications:

In the case of the leopards, reality and myth really diverge. Their survival may be an ecological miracle, but ten to twenty predators have virtually no biological significance. If we had put the same efforts in other areas, it would have been more efficacious. It may have appeared important for image and publicity, but really the leopards do not need us. We need to preserve their habitat and not concern ourselves with them.[165]

With ballpark estimates for the minimum viable population size of a species ranging from 50 (in the short run) to 500 (for long-term viability), the handful of Israel's leopards surviving in the wild are so far below sus-tainable levels as to appear tottering on the brink.[166] Most of Israel's zoo-logical experts actually are cautiously optimistic about the leopards' long-term chances of survival. The question optimists face is: Have we learned anything from Ein Gedi's disastrous encounters during the 1980s with local leopards? There may, in fact, be some room for encouragement. Israel's en-dangered raptor population suffered owing due to the reduction in available carrion after improvements in veterinary medicine and animal husbandry practices were introduced. To compensate, the NRA established feeding sta-tions that leave carcasses to the birds (as well as opportunistic hyenas, foxes, and wolves). The electric company has even taken pains to reduce the risk of electrocution of vultures.[167] The tourist potential of such active conservation efforts is only now being tapped, yet if the locals are not part of the solution, they will once again become part of the problem. This became painfully

evident in the Golan Heights in July 1998, when farmers used a persistent phosphorus poison in traps for wolves that were devouring their cattle. It hit higher up the food chain, decimating the precarious population of vultures that had slowly been making a comeback.[168]

In the meantime leopards continue to pop up unexpectedly. For exam-ple, one evening in 1997 Roni King, the NRA biologist from Eilat, re-sponded to an emergency call from the Negev town of Mitzpeh Ramon. A female leopard had been prowling the city streets before collapsing in ex-haustion in the courtyard of a local yeshiva. King thinks that even though the cat was young (according to her sharp teeth), she had just grown weary of hunting down food in the desert. After she was fattened up and fortified at the NRA Hai Bar facility, the leopard was released.

Then, on December 21, 2001, shuffling into the cold dark of a desert night after watching a film at the Kibbutz Ein Gedi auditorium, the audi-ence was greeted by a pair of fearsome eyes. A leopard had come back. There were already signs: Five goats had been devoured at the kibbutz petting zoo earlier that week. As it left its prey behind, this particular visitor was assumed to be a male. Yankele Gal-Paz, the kibbutz general sec-retary, told the press that the returning leopards did not alarm the kibbutz members, who “would do what was needed to protect them—and them-selves.”[169]

The leopard remains a symbol for Israel's nature lovers. The SPNI puts the animal's image on its promotional materials and its MasterCard. Although the jury is still out on this case, the NRA experience offers a warning about the perils of sentimentality. As Israel becomes more crowded, a laissez-faire approach will only hasten the clash between wildlife and humans.

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