Urban Development: The Future of Nature

Amir Balaban
November 23, 2016

Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv Photo Dov Greenblat

An Expert's View on Wildlife in Urban Environment

There is a common misconception that nature’s place is far away, well outside the boundaries of our cities and towns, to be enjoyed only during vacation. Fortunately for our animal friends, quite the opposite is true.

In fact, when reviewing the living patterns of wildlife over the past couple of decades, we have noticed that they don’t simply survive in urban areas, but they are actually thriving.  This doesn’t always come about naturally though, and it is important for us to develop sanctuaries in urban settings if we hope to continue to enjoy living side by side with our local wildlife.

Like any other ecological system, urban environments develop according to the type of habitat it produces. That is to say, a bridge or a building edifice might be nothing more than a concrete structure for humans, but a bird will see the similarities to a cliff face and may decide that it is the ideal place to build its nest.  With this being the case, all urban developers must be mindful enough to begin the landscaping and construction process by figuring out how their new structures will fit within a given ecological system, specifically how the local wildlife will react to and even benefit from them.

Jerusalem Old City Photo Dov Greenblat

Israel’s urban landscapes are unique in that they are some of the oldest in the world, enabling us to examine how animals have been reacting to these environments over thousands of years.  Wherever you look, whether in Jerusalem, Jericho, or on the coast in Caesarea, you find ancient cities that have provided a home for a wide array of Israeli wildlife, successfully integrating many species into their historic structures and spaces.  Thus, Israel is like a living laboratory for the study and preservation of urban wildlife.

In the country’s ancient and modern cities alike, it is always fascinating to note how the local wildlife has changed to adapt to its newfound environments.

For instance, urban areas now boast fewer large animals, but smaller ones have adapted in ingenious ways.  Over the years, we have observed certain species actually surpassing their natural abilities to survive in the wild with the introduction of cities into their habitats.  With a more readily available food supply, thanks to trash thrown out by humans, and the decrease of natural predators in cities, certain species can grow unimpeded.

In order to ensure the continued survival of nature and wildlife within Israel, the urban conservation plan spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) employs both the mapping and maintenance of local nature hotspots in cities throughout the country.  These surveys supply the data needed for policy reforms that focus on creating tools for sustainable development.

Until recently, every weed in Tel Aviv was killed using harmful herbicides.  Upon reviewing the data, SPNI realized that this was incredibly harmful to the local animal population.  Together with several local activists groups, SPNI managed to persuade the municipality to change its method of operation.  Now, all weeds are mowed to safeguard the local animals.

Amir Balaban at the JBO Photo Aya Tager

This example highlights the need for public intervention in the preservation of nature, especially when it comes to public policy.  SPNI’s newest public policy campaign surrounds the design of new public building.  We are urging the Knesset to implement legislation that would call for architects and urban developers to integrate spaces on roofs, entrances and walls that could serve as shelter for local wildlife, thereby mitigating the negative environmental impact of these structures on the surrounding natural habitats.  Hopefully, this effort will be successful, and Israel will lead the way toward green building practices, fortifying nature’s place within our society.

With Israel’s population on the rise, continued urban development is guaranteed.  As such, conservations activists across the country will have their work cut out for them in the years to come.  But with every city expansion, we see great opportunities to implement change.  However, the activists simply cannot do it alone.

Living within nature, side by side with local wildlife, is part and parcel of life.  We may take it for granted, but it would impact us tremendously if it all slipped away.  It’s time for individuals to speak out and insist that their local government officials implement pro-environmental policies and become fully aware of the impact of urban development on the local environment.  At this crucial stage, it’s all about safeguarding the survival of nature itself, the future of which is firmly rooted within every city and town.

Amir Balaban is the urban nature coordinator at
the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).  He also serves as the co-director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and continues to be a force behind the renovation of the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem, a pinnacle of urban nature innovation.


Category: Animals

Tagged under: Urban Nature, Amir Balaban


For Gazelles, Love Is Different (But the Same)

Shmulik Yedvab, SPNI Mammals Expert
September 25, 2016

Gazelles Photo Dov Greenblat

The love life of the Israeli Mountain Gazelle

If you were to ask a female gazelle to detail the most important qualities of an ideal mate, the domination of an area with the tastiest and most nutritious food would most certainly top her list.

Male gazelles do their utmost to dominate territories that will attract females.  The richer the site, the more likely females will spend time there, thus providing the male with better opportunities to mate.

Gazelles Photo Dov Greenblat

But don’t be fooled.  A decent territory is never a matter of sheer luck.  Fierce male competition over quality area is simply unavoidable, as males are constantly busy marking their territory and chasing away other males who are challenging their control.  From time to time, these battles for dominance get violent, with goring incidents by intruders or defenders resulting in a loss of life.

It should be understood that not all males manage to dominate a territory.  In fact, most males are either too young, too old or simply incapable of such domination.  These males tend to huddle together into bachelor herds or dwell alone in less attractive areas, thus minimizing their chance of ever finding love.

So, it turns out that female gazelles are not at all shallow, but rather incredibly practical.  Their mating choices are not based on the short-term gains of occupying the areas with the best food and shelter, but the long-term gains of mating with a male capable of securing and dominating such an area, namely the ability to pass on traits like stamina, agility, and competitiveness to their offspring. In other words, for gazelles, love between a male and female is all about survival and progression of the species.

Gazelle Photo Dov Greenblat

But what about the love between a female gazelle and her fawn? A mother gazelle will do almost anything to protect her offspring. Though it defies human logic, this sometimes includes long periods of separation.  The reasoning is that predators are naturally attracted to the young fawns, who are slow and, thus, ideal targets.  In order to keep the predators at bay, the female gazelle hides the fawn away for long hours, only returning for brief nursing breaks a few times a day.

Every once in a while, hikers encounter an “abandoned” fawn.  In most cases, these animals are being well-cared for and protected in a way best suited for the survival of its species survival.  So, if you spot such a fawn while outdoors, please keep your distance and allow its mother to take care of it properly. 

We must remember that while animals love differently than humans do, and we may not understand their methods of care and survival, they are simply rooted in their nature, which is profoundly beautiful in its own way.

(NOTE: If you find an injured animal, please call the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hotline at *3639.)

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Gazelles, Shmulik Yedvab, SPNI Mammals Expert


Eilat, in feathered frenzy, chooses a city bird

Noam Weiss
July 3, 2016

Eilat's Mayor holding the poster of the city’s official bird. Photo Shachar Weiss

Official bird for the city of Eilat

If you know Eilat, you know it is a very unique place. It's remote and beautiful, surrounded by fantastic natural treasures such as the marine life, desert landscapes, bird migration, and the people who live here who have their own unique character.

So we at SPNI wanted the people of Eilat to embrace their uniqueness by connecting them to the birds of Eilat. The Environmental Education Unit of the Eilat municipality called it "place-making" and I called it getting the birds in to the hearts of the people. I guess it was both.

 Our basic assumption was that the uniqueness of Eilat – the extreme climate, remoteness and outstanding landscape - creates a special character for both humans and birds, which adapt to the habitat. We picked 10 flagship bird species that seemed to have identity issues: The Sunbird is a tiny and energetic bird that originated in Eilat but is widespread across the country; the Blackstart that looks grey and shy but has a built-in colorful character; the Little Green Bee-Eater – the most beautiful bird in town and knows it too; the Rosefinch, connected to the desert ground;  Brown Booby, is a “Tropical Storm” at sea that no one can ignore (it's a bird, just Google it!) and the Flamingo – that art-deco pink and ever-optimistic bird. 

White eyed Gull Photo Noam Weiss

Two months of bird madness struck town. Every school took a day to discover its Bird Identity, the local radio station was pumped with nonstop campaigns for birds and interviewed every possible person about their chosen bird, and signs were hung throughout the town and in work places. Our nature guides, dressed with the competing birds’ costumes, went through town and lobbied people to take a vote. The town was in a total birdy madness. 


Last week everyone gathered in the Eilat Bird Sanctuary; school children, teachers, families and even the Municipal Council moved their monthly meeting to the festive venue, SPNI's important birding research center at the southern tip of Israel's crucial global migration flyway. The mayor announced the iconic White-eyed Gull as the official bird of Eilat, having received 5,670 of the 15,769 votes. Eilat chose our calmest bird, one that can only live in quiet sea water, and is endemic to the protected waters of the Red Sea– local patriotism at its best.

Eilat's Birding Center team Photo Shachar Weiss.jpgThe event was nothing less than touching and exciting. The school kids played and guided the visitors, and the guides of SPNI, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and El Arzi educators quizzed and entertained the children with the bird costumes and games. It felt like the whole town was at The Bird Sanctuary, in spirit if not in flesh, from the Mayor and his Council to my favorite checkout girl at the supermarket. A flamingo and curious Caspian Terns showed up too and we all enjoyed the best celebration in town for a long time, in 113 (Fahrenheit) degree heat, but who cares. It's our party.

Thanks to all the 'dream-come-true' makers – the Municipality of Eilat’s Environmental Education Unit, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature and Parks Authority and the religious field school – El Arzi.

Noam Weiss is the Director of the International Birding Research Center in Eilat, SPNI

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Birding, Naom Weiss, Eilat


Many Mammals, One Evening

Lawrence Kasmir
July 23, 2015

Photo: Lawrence Kasmir

Lawrence Kasmir joined a special bat survey conducted by SPNI experts

The Challenge

A few days ago I celebrated my five year aliyahversary – (the anniversary of my immigration to Israel). For the past 3 and a half years I’ve been working for SPNI, learning a great deal about nature and sustainability – but apart from my frequent visits to the pet shop to see the latest baby hamsters, I’ve not had that many encounters with Israel’s wild mammals. I decided that it was time to change this. I was going on an adventure to meet some.


According to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are 103 mammal species native to Israel. That’s a lot for such a small country, bearing in mind that my native England has only 41. It was clear to me, being the paragon of efficiency that I am, that I needed to see a lot of species in one go. Fortunately, I had a plan. One third of Israel’s species are bats – the only order of flying mammalians, so I was going to see them – there were only 3 problems – 1) bats fly 2) they are active at night so are hard to spot 3) I enjoy using my nights for sleeping. However, I had set myself a challenge and made the decision to sacrifice a night of sleep, I took up an invitation to join SPNI’s annual bat survey.

Bat Servey

The Bat Survey

SPNI has been carrying out bat surveys for over a decade. The purpose is to gather basic data on Israel’s bats, such as species, gender, age, and also collect samples of fur and DNA for further analysis. This research plays a key role in developing policy and conservation activities, in Israel including the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Nature and Parks Authority.


The bat survey takes place over the course of the same week every year in a different site every night. As they emerge from their roosts, in this case as they fly over the water to drink, they are caught in nets (like badminton) strung up to catch them. I joined the researchers halfway through the week.

Bat Survey

Arriving at the Banias National Park in the Golan Heights, for the bat survey I was somewhat surprised to realize over ver 100 parents and children who also came to the site to learn some more about the bats. Though really I shouldn’t have been – it was a public event and who would pass up an opportunity to see bats close up, and learn about these fascinating creatures from the experts.


I also spotted my first new species – a rock hyrax, enjoying the last of the sun, on the lookout on top of the gatehouse. As darkness began to fall, the nets were opened, and the excitement among the spectators increased.

Bat Survey

Catching Bats

As the stars came out so did the bats. Within minutes of the sun going down bats started flying overhead. The crowds were scaring the bats away from the river but fortunately arts and crafts activities were provided to distract the younger ones while the teenagers managed to keep a respectful distance. Soon our patience was rewarded with the first bat caught in the net.


The bat was (very) carefully disentangled, and much to the crowd’s disappointment was taken first to the team of bat scientists led by expert Eran Amichai (of SPNI and Tel Aviv University). His team had recorded each bat’s vital statistics including the species, their age, sex, forearm length and weight. Samples of fur were trimmed and logged to undergo analysis for traces of heavy metals and DNA samples were also taken. From here the bats were taken to what can only be described as a mobile photo studio, where they got their close ups done as part of a soon to be published guide on Israel’s mammals.


After posing for the cameras the bats were finally ready to be presented to the adoring crowd. Most impressive (for me anyway) was that even the older teenagers were just as enthusiastic as the youngest children – pushing their forward to get a proper look and feel of the bats (they feel fluffy). A guide explained how the bats use echo-location to hunt, how their hands and arms are similar to ours, and that their wings are made of skin, not feathers. From seeing the reactions of the children (and their parents) it’s clear that they won’t forget this experience or look at bats the same way. Considering that a team from a Ramle school won a science competition with a device to scare bats away this is vital.

Bats Survey

Challenge Completed

And as for my mission - I got to see 6 bat species up close (common pipistrelle, Kuhll's pipistrelle, Savi's pipistrelle, serotine bat, Geoffroy's bat and an Egyptian fruit bat) while learning  about them from Israel’s top bat experts. In addition, I definitely heard a wild boar snuffling through the undergrowth. On the drive back I even got a glimpse of an Egyptian mongoose, meaning I got to see 8 species of animals I had never seen before in one evening – not bad at all. More importantly I had an unforgettable experience learning about bats with some very enthusiastic young people.


I’m already thinking of how to meet some wild rodents …

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Golan Heights, Biodiversity, Education


"Natureality" TV

June 12, 2013

Foxes playing around

"Big Brother"- SPNI version! For the first time in Israel, SPNI installs night vision cameras in the natural environment of animals in order to learn about their behavior without disrupting their daily routine.

Many of the travelers throughout Israel have heard time and and time again of the leopards, foxes, or rare animals that are lurking close by. All though our travel guides mean well, we almost never actually see the animals. There are, of course, exceptions, such as the abundance of ibex at beautiful reserve in Sde Boker, doubling as David Ben Gurion's burial place. 

Several months ago, the Mammal Department of SPNI decided to make it possible for guides and travelers alike to experience the animals that we usually read about in the books, such as the infamous "cliff fox" which was recently discovered to still be in existence, thanks to our cameras.

Under the Mammal Department's direction, SPNI guides began installing special, high-resolution cameras which would follow the daily lives of animals in Israel, all without disturbing their daily routines. The cameras are installed in distant places known to be on the paths of wildlife, where there is little or no disturbance. Their placement in natural habitats allows us to learn more about local wildlife and share images with the world. 

Environmental Education in Gush Halav takes a fun twist

In the heart of the Upper Galilee, an elementary school in the northern village of Gush Halav decided to launch an educational project whose goal was to connect and learn about the local environment. As a team effort of our Mammal Department, the Gush Halav Elementary School, and the Western Galilee Eco-Community Center, the students researched and surveyed the natural forest surrounding their community through special night-vision cameras that were installed in the natural environment of local wildlife. One of the higlights of the project was a full photo album of a family of foxes. 

To see the full photo album, click here

We'd like to congradulate the 5th grade class of the Gush Halav elementary school for their marvelous effort!

Original Article in Hebrew

Category: Animals

Tagged under: Animals, Nature, Israel, Mammals, Nature Cameras