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Zookeepers Try To Repopulate Israel With Biblical Animals

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By Sarah Grooters
Religion News Service

JERUSALEM (RNS) Like a scene out of a Hollywood action thriller, Shmulile Yedveb jumped out of the truck, package in hand, and ran into the building, the dirty door slamming shut behind him.

In loud, rapid-fire Hebrew, he shouted directions to two uniformed workers who were tight on his heels. Once inside, Yedveb turned on the lights, carefully opened the box and peered inside.

The life-giving cargo? A handful of white vulture eggs.

Yedveb works at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, about 20 minutes from its historic Old City, and the delivery of the eggs must be near perfect. The large white orbs could one day rescue their species from the brink of extinction.

The birds were first mentioned as "detestable" and "an abomination" in Leviticus 11:13, but today they're the centerpiece of Yedveb's efforts to repopulate the Promised Land with biblical animals that haven't been seen since Noah loaded them up, two by two, onto his ark.

There are nearly 100 different types of animals mentioned in the Bible, many of them key players in well-known stories: the lions in Daniel's den; the dove that scouted for dry land from Noah's ark; the ram that was sacrificed by Abraham to save the life of his son, Isaac.

Today, many of them are gone, hunted to the point of extinction or driven away by ongoing conflict. Of the 10 animals that are listed as acceptable dinner fare in Deuteronomy 14 -- ox, sheep, goat, deer, gazelle, roe deer, wild goat, ibex, antelope and mountain sheep -- only two (the gazelle and the ibex) could still be found in the historical boundaries of Israel in 1960.

"If you read the book of Job, God is describing to Job why he should believe. If you count the number of phrases, one-third of them at least -- even more -- are about nature," said Yehoshua Shkedy, a chief scientist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

"... I want to keep the vultures because they were mentioned in the Bible that it was a common animal and that's good enough for me."

Shkedy has spent the past 15 years trying to repopulate Israel with biblical animals. He works with zoo keepers like Yedveb across the country, closely monitoring and coordinating their efforts to return animals like the Griffon vulture to the wild.

Shkedy's team uses the Bible as a starting point to see what animals were once in Israel, reading the Scriptures with a conservationists' point of view. They then use the Bible as a marketing tool to raise support, as well as funds, for the cause.

While Shkedy would love to bring back lions and hippopotamuses, he focuses on the animals that realistically stand a chance to thrive again, like Persion fallow deer and vultures.

"Israel is now too dense to reintroduce predators, large predators," said Shkedy. "We lost the bear for example, but who would be brave enough to bring back a bear?"

In the Bible, vultures are only mentioned by name in a few places; some conservationists believe translators confused them with more frequently mentioned eagles. More recently, vultures have been victims of poisoning.

"Farmers want to kill wolves and jackals that hunt their chickens and cattle, so they put out bait to poison them, and because vultures eat dead animals, they get poisoned too. Then they die," explained Michal Erez, a bird keeper at the Jerusalem zoo.

"At last count, there are about 240 vultures in all Israel and it's a very sharp decline. Less than 10 years ago, there were about 400."

The illegal poisoning and low birth rates have placed the vultures in a critical situation, said Erez, who incubates the vulture eggs for about two months and then places the baby birds with foster parents. Ideally, within three months, the birds are then reintroduced to the wild.

But because foster parents are hard to come by, Erez rears many babies by hand. She never lets them see her, in hopes they will develop a healthy fear for humans.

The eggs come in from across Israel. Park rangers check vulture nests for eggs in the wild; eggs are brought to the Jerusalem zoo, where they stand a greater chance of survival.

"I believe that if my organization doesn't do its job properly, in a few years my kids won't have something to see -- no animals or nature," said Roee Arad, a park ranger who hunts for eggs in northern Israel.

For Shkedy, the fight to save Israel's natural wonders is personal. When his parents emigrated from Europe in 1947, they wanted to fulfill the Zionist dreams of their ancestors by working the land with their own hands. The dream has shifted in subsequent generations, he said.

"My generation, and my kids' generation, have to change this aspiration, this vision. We have to conserve and protect rather than develop and invest," Shkedy said.

"We should keep in mind that we didn't come to this country just because we wanted to see a sea of houses. We came to this country ... because of biblical things."