Ostriches to run wild in Negev

Ostriches to run wild in Negev
Haaretz - April 17, 2005
By Zafrir Rinat

The ostrich, the biggest bird in the world, has been missing for nearly a century from the landscape of southern Israel. But in a few weeks, a group of ostriches will be reintroduced into the wild. If the project succeeds, the Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authority (INPA) will be able to chalk up a global achievement, having reintroduced in nature three different species of wildlife. Ahead of the ostrich are the oryx and the wild ass, both of which are now wandering freely and mating in the Negev and the Arava.

Two weeks ago, a group of 15 ostriches were transferred from the Hai Bar Wildlife Reserve at Yotvata, north of Eilat, to a habituation enclosure in the area of Nahal Katzav in the Arava. The purpose of the enclosure is to get the animals used to the area where they will later be released. Ten of the animals have been fitted with transmitters to monitor their movements.

Over the years, the INPA has populated its two wildlife reserves, Yotvata Hai Bar and the Hai Bar on Mount Carmel, with species and sub-species that lived in Israel in the past and became extinct. The ostrich being released into the wild belongs to a sub-species that never inhabited Israel, but did live in Egypt. "The last ostrich in our region was found dead in 1996 in one of the stream beds in Jordan," Dr. Benny Shalmon, INPA biologist for the Eilat region, says, adding that archaeological evidence shows that ostriches were once plentiful in the area.

At present there are 60 ostriches in the Yotvata Hai Bar. One of the problems that came up while raising them is that they are not afraid of humans, and they can be aggressive and dangerous. It was therefore decided to raise a group of birds at the Hai Bar in a separate enclosure with no direct human contact. This is the group to be transferred to the habituation enclosure, where they will remain for up to two months.

Ostriches have short, vestigial wings and long, strong legs that give them a stride some 3.5 meters long and allow them to run for a long distance at 60-70 kilometers per hour. "The ostrich has very interesting ways," Shalmon says. "The male, which protects its own territory, digs a nest in the ground and mates with a number of females. But in the end, only one female will sit on the eggs; she knows her own clutch and will get rid of eggs belonging to other females."

In addition to the concern of INPA experts regarding the birds' lack of fear of humans and propensity to respond aggressively, which they say they have solved by raising them without human contact, they are also concerned that the ostriches will harm the soil or prey on smaller animals. It has therefore been decided to follow closely the impact on the environment of the reintroduced group. Guy Alon, director of the INPA Eilat region says they are studying the area of the release beforehand, and that the reintroduction will be gradual. "If we see that it is successful, we will expand the reintroduction into additional sites in the Arava as well as the Negev." Alon says one of the planned reintroduction sites is Machtesh Ramon (the Ramon crater).

Shalmon says he is optimistic. "I don't think they will cause environmental problems, because after all they were here in the past and the natural environment remained similar. Raising them in isolation from humans went well - now they fear both humans and vehicles.

Alon says another group of oryxes was transfered last week to an enclosure near that of the ostriches, and they will also be released soon. The INPA believes there are about 100 oryxes in in the Arava and more than 100 wild asses in the Negev.

A particularly significant reintroduction in the Judean mountains (of the Persian fallow deer) is about to take place, following the transfer of a group of these large herbivores to a habituation enclosure in Nahal Sorek. They are expected to help keep vegetation in check and prevent forest fires.

More than 150 Persian fallow deer are living in the wild in Nahal Kziv in the mountains of western Galilee, and a few roe deer have been reintroduced at Ramat Hanadiv near Zichron Yaakov on Mount Carmel. The INPA had planned to transfer a group of roe deer from its enclosure in the Har Horshan Nature reserve near Zichron Yaakov, but the recent forest fire on Mount Carmel harmed the animals and has put the plan on hold.