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The Extinct Mammals of Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

September 2005

By Sami Backleh

More than 100 species of mammals in Palestine had been recorded to have roamed in the forests, mountains and deserts of this ancient land, consequently creating an enormous impact on humans and the cultures of ancient civilizations. Although they became a source of fascination, popular inspiration and wonder, mammals also represent an important feature in the biodiversity and the food chain and they prove the abundance of a unique and valuable natural heritage in this small area. Yet, it had been stated that most mammals in Palestine and the surrounding areas are known to be endangered and threatened; some are vulnerable, while others are extinct.

In the modern age, the rate of extinction of wildlife in Palestine and in the world in general is steadily increasing and is 50 – 100 times greater than the natural extinction rate. This is due to many factors that accelerate the process of large animal elimination, such as the development of cultivation and the substitution of domestic animals instead. Deforestation, which has been taking place since historical times, also made life more difficult for these animals. The intensive development of open fields, besides many kinds of pollution and land degradation, has led to desertification and habitat destruction.

Fossils, documented history, and the remains of large mammals are witness to the abundance of a variety of extinct animals. Some had disappeared since millions of years while others recently became extinct.

Persian Lion

Lions in general have restricted numbers in the world. Their distribution is severely limited to Africa and small pockets in India. The lion was abundant in the Holy Land around the time of the Crusaders, and perhaps in the 13th century, when the last specimen – as documented – was hunted near Mejiddo. Some documents also state that a lion was last seen near Deir Hijleh in the Jordan Valley in 1460, where the thickets of that area formed its preferred habitat.

Syrian Brown Bear

This carnivore was a common animal in northern Palestine up to the 18th century. The last record of it was in the 19th century near the Sea of Galilee. However, the Syrian Brown Bear was last seen in 1914 in the southern Hermon Mountains, and nowadays is considered an extinct animal not only in Palestine but also in Lebanon and the Golan Heights where its natural habitat used to be. This is maybe due to its excessive hunting by German officers during the war.

Arabian Oryx

The Oryx inhabited most of the Arabian and Syrian deserts until very recently. In the beginning of the 19th century, and despite being common in some parts of Jordan and northern Arabia, the Oryx was rarely recorded in Palestine. By the mid-19th century the Oryx that had once roamed the Naqab and Sinai deserts had vanished; it was last sighted in Jordan in the 1930s. Unfortunately, its beauty has also been the cause of its near extinction. Once abundant throughout the deserts of the Middle East, this majestic animal became a favourite target of desert hunters.

Within a few decades, we have almost destroyed a delicate web of life that has tied us to the land for thousands of years. Hence, urgent conservation measures are needed to save the remaining large mammals such as the leopard, wolf, wildcat, ibex and gazelles that are considered to be endangered and vulnerable.

Sami Backleh is a freelance wildlife researcher. For more information please write to:

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