Once there were Leopards

Barak Granit 25/10/2016 00:00

To the memory of Giora Ilani


I thought to digress a little from the usual topic – birding and birds etc. - in order to share with the readers, mainly the foreign readers, a thing that for me and for many others was the 'jewel in the crown' of Israel wild-life, and personally was my passion, long before I became a birder: the leopards of the Judean Desert. I'd like to give the many birders I meet a taste of what was really the wild-life in Israel not so long ago. Some are still surprised to hear for the first time that Leopards did roam here just a decade ago.  

But why now? Why write now about an animal that is most probably extinct in Israel? My answer is simply that it is October now. And every October, like phantom pains, I experience this same nostalgia. The meaning of the word Nostalgia is 'common pain' or 'shared pain' and all those who once shared that passion, indeed share this pain. Why do I feel it in October? Perhaps because three of my five encounters with leopards occurred in October. It would be lovely to really go back in time to one of those moments. Unfortunately it is possible to do so only by writing.

While I was working on this article I could relive again ancient moments. To hike again in the Judean desert knowing that this wonderful creature is around, even without seeing it. To feel the magic you didn't really need to see it, only to know it was there. This is their story:      


Personal encounters

June 1992. I was about 16 and just entering the world of real birding. Bored in the hot and birdless summer a friend and I decided to go to En-Gedi Field School along the Dead Sea to look for Desert Tawny Owl, a species I yet had to tick. Back then, the field school was the only reliable place for this mission since a regular pair used to perch on the perimeter fence. Failing to see the owl at the famous amphitheater, we walked down towards the large turf where there is a watchpoint viewing the EN-Gedi reserve. There, we were surprised by a female leopard, crouching meters away from us. The big cat even let us appreciate its beauty with our torches, but when we tried to get even nearer, enthusiastic kids as we were, she retreated quickly, vanishing into the dark.


That was my second encounter with Shlomtzion, the legendary radio-transmitted female. Three years before, in October 1989, I was lucky enough to join the NPA rangers who studied the leopards in En-Gedi for an experience I will never forget: it was early dawn. In the telescope we could spot three animals walking in line: Shlomtzion ahead and her two grown-up cubs behind her. The three made their way slowly between the big boulders looking for a place to hide after a long night. Perhaps, she left them there and went hunting alone. We'll never know. I know now that at the time of my second encounter with her, she was raising her one-year old cub, named Chariton (after the 3rd century Christian saint who lived as a hermit in the Judean desert). Chariton was to become a large male, which would roam the entire Judean desert from north to south for the next 15 years. He was the last cub to be born in the Judean desert and like the hermit he was named after, he also lived a solitary ascetic life. From time to time he appeared on a back-page headline telling about another encounter of civilians with him inside Kibbutz EN-Gedi, where he came to sneak a cat or a dog. This brought the Judean desert leopards back into the public eye, but also intensified the feeling that their fate is doomed.





Happy Days

In the beginning of the 20th century, leopards were still common in all the mountain regions of Israel, from north to south, including Galilee and Carmel mountains in the north, but by 1950 most of them were gone, mainly through hunting. In the Galilee near the Lebanese border lived the Anatolian Leopard Panthera pardus tulliana, one of the largest subspecies of Leopards in the world, lived mainly in Turkey and became extinct around mid 1970's. The last 'Israeli' Anatolian Leopard was killed through a fight with a Bedouin shepherd in 1965. At about that time the notion was that there were no Leopards left in Israel but in 1964 Bedouins killed a female Leopard in wadi Zeelim in the Judean Desert. They testified that the female had two small cubs who managed to escape. In 1967, another male Leopard was shot at northern Judean desert, in an area that back than was part of the Jordanian kingdom. Afterwards there was silence for several years and once again the leopards were considered to be extinct in Israel. At the same time leopards became extinct, or nearly so, from neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Egypt including Sinai.      


The Leopards of the Judean and the Negev desert were rediscovered by one old-school zoologist named Giora Ilani. In 1970, realising that some leopards may still exist, Ilani started a 3 year survey, roaming the deep canyons and wadis of the desert, looking for any signs of leopard. He put down baits and although it took some time before a leopard was lured, during one night baits were finally visited and eaten in two different locations in the southern Judean desert. With more success Ilani could now recognise the foot-print shapes and the difference between male and female, the shape and smell of the scats and the territory signs leopards leave. To his amazement, in the next three years Ilani found that leopards covered the entire region between the northern Dead Sea in the north, to wadi Paran at the southern Negev in the south. All that without seeing a single leopard.


During one night in October 1974, Ilani finally managed to see and photograph two leopards, a male and a female at En-Gedi reserve in the center of the Judean Desert. During the next years he managed to identify quite a few different individuals using photo and foot-print comparisons. And so he established that along the Dead Sea, in an area 70 km long and 10-15 km wide, there were some 8-10 adult leopards with a few more in the Negev mountains. He estimated that in the entire Israeli desert lived 17-24 adults.

But Ilani planned to extend his work beyond purely research. He was determined to expose the leopards to the Israeli public in order to raise public awareness in an ingenious way: he gave them names - not common names but historical names of heroes from the ancient Canaanite myth. Some were named after Judean Queens and Kings, famous Judean ladies and so on. This way the Israeli public came to know the 'iniquities' of Hummibaba, Anigma, Bavta, Rishat-Ninlil, Tihamat, Herod, Amrafel, Ktushion, Ben-aflul and others. Ilani also  published an on-going column named 'Leopards tales' in the SPNI magazine. In other words, Ilani created within the nature-lover public an emotional 'personal' connection with individual leopards.   





To this day I remember how as a kid I used to wait impatiently for the next monthly column years before I saw my first Leopard.

The leopards were also extremely cooperative in Ilani's PR effort: up until 1978 only few people were lucky enough to see one in the wild, but all this changed with the appearance of Bavta. She used to hang out shamelessly, fearless at day-time, in the En-Gedi reserve sometimes just 20 meters away from the many visitors. Moreover Bavta was the first leopard that used to enter human settlements, especially Kibutz EN-Gedi, in order to hunt much easier pray than Rock Hyrax and Nubian Ibex: feral cats and dogs. The lucky visitors to the En-gedi reserve didn't know that the modelling leopard had her two cubs hiding in the reeds just meters away from the hiking track.


Unfortunately, all this publicity didn't do the leopards any good. Although the local Leopards are much smaller than their African and Persian relatives, and there was no single threat to humans, the Kibbutz members, who suffered the loss of their dogs and cats and sometimes a goat from the childrens local zoo, pressured the NPA to catch and remove the leopards. In 1979 a Kibbutz member shot Bavta. The female leopard survived but was badly wounded and had to be captured. She ended her life in a zoo, her cubs left in the desert to their fate. Another fearless female, Anigma, was also captured and transported to a zoo that same year, leaving its cubs behind.


7 years countdown

Two years later, in 1981, a very old male named Cambrium disappeared from its territory and presumably died. A young male, named Ben-Aflul, approached another famous female, Hummibaba, that was raising an eight-month old cub - the son of Cambrium. Soon after Ben-Aflul appeared, the cub disappeared and Hummibaba was in heat again, ready to mate with Ben-Aflul. Over the coming years when things like that happened again and again, Giora Ilani realized the big scheme - males were killing  other male's cubs, in order to bring the females into heat again and set their own off-springs.


That behavior is regular among large cats and Leopards in other parts of the world, but healthy populations, i.e. one that has more females than males, can cope with that. In 1978 there were five females and two males in the Judean desert. But a year later, with the capturing of Anigma and Bavta, the balance was rapidly changing. Indeed, two young females, Shlomtzion and Tihamat entered the fertile cycle in 1982-1984, but around those years RIshat-ninlil, Shlomtzion's mother became old and unfertile and Hummibaba joined her two years later in 1986. In that year a man-made tragedy happened when the 3 year-old Tihamat was poisoned when a sanitary officer tried to reduce the growing feral cat population at En-bokek hotels area. Not only that but her only female daughter was run over by a car shortly after. And so: from 1986 onwards, Shlomtzion was the only known surviving fertile female, unable to satisfy the breeding instinct of four competing males. Every time she had cubs another male would kill them. This new ratio of males to females acted as a killing machine. Man-induced tragedies had finished the job. For example, the two cubs that I saw in October 1989 and managed to flee from the other male leopards' aggression, were poisoned at En-Gedi reserve, just a short while before becoming independent.     


Afterwards, there was only Chariton, the last Cub of Shlomtzion from 1991. in 1993 Hummibaba, was shot by a soldier who felt intimidated by the blind and deaf leopard and was too quick on the trigger.  She was 18 years old - the oldest leopard known to live in Israel in the wild. Shlomzion died in 1995 at the age of 15.





The last refuge

While the Judean Desert leopards were reduced to one or two during the 90's, there were still some Leopards left in the Negev. In the mid 1990's at least three females were encountered, yet it is not known whether they were fertile. In 2000-2002 Inbar Perez from Tel-aviv university tried to determine accurately how many Leopards have survived in both the Judean and the Negev deserts. She collected leopards-scats from all the places leopards had been observed through the decade prior to her study, and concluded by DNA analysis that there were still, at the time of research, eight leopards in these areas - three females and five males. Surprisingly, one of the identified females spent her days around En-Gedi and her fresh scats were collected there many times. (Chariton scats were collected throughout Judean desert from north to south).  Another females scats were collected at the southernmost end of the Judean Desert while only one female found in the Negev desert south of Sde Boker between the springs En-Akev and EN Ovdat and Wadi Hava - the area in the Negev which is richest with food. She could have been the same female that was observed with two cubs in 1995-6. Was there still hope?

Apart from the Sde-Boker female, at least two different male Leopards were visiting wadi Hava – the center of Leopard activity in the Negev, on a regular basis during 2000-2002 - established from scat collecting. At that time a leopard used to regularly enter the village of Neot Hakikar in the northern Arava and eat cats and dogs. Another male was seen and photographed near the Egyptian border at the high Negev mountains from time to time, some 90 km away. Yet scats analysis revealed it was the same male roaming back and forth through the entire Negev. In 2007, a Leopard male had entered a house in Sde-Boker, trying to catch a domestic cat. It was in such bad shape and so weak that the house owner had no difficulty in catching it by himself. The Leopard was transported to the Hai-bar at Yotvata for care. He was estimated to be about 10 years old. Around that time, spontaneous encounters and other signs of activity reduced dramatically even in the richest food zone of the Negev.  


The last observation of a Leopard in Israel occurred in the northern Arava in 2010/11. If there were any new cubs in the late 90's-early 2000's, it is possible they have met the same fate as the Judean desert cubs that were killed by hostile males. Leopards, although elusive and night-active animals, do leave their marks and their activity is noticeable: a foot-print near desert oasis when coming to drink, the typical digging where they leave their scats, a remaining of a Nubian Ibex they had prey on, and even spontaneous observations. During the last 5 years there was none of the above. In 2015 some 30 hidden cameras put in various 'leopard-trails' in the Negev by the "Arabian Leopard Project" and although revealed fascinating night-life, a leopards is yet to be "captured".   


My final farewell

In the mid 2000's Chariton, last of the known Judean Leopards, returned to En-Gedi reserve after a long absence. On 6 October 2006, I deliberately went to En-Gedi to look for him. I was informed by the reserve rangers that he had visited the Kibbutz and the Field School quite often during the weeks before. I started checking the Kibbutz Gardens but had nothing.  At 10 pm, while I was walking back along the Kibbutz En-Gedi perimeter fence, I suddenly saw the prehistoric like creature coming up from Arugot Wadi getting ever nearer to the Kibbutz fence. A majestic and spine-chilling experience that left me speechless. Without the slightest effort the leopard jumped the 2-meter high perimeter fence and in a split second he was inside the kibbutz. He gazed at me and turned away, walking slowly on top of the esplanade side-wall in the opposite direction. I knew he was the last of its dynasty and felt extreme gratitude for being so lucky. Later that night I relocated him crouching by the kibbutz dining hall, of all places, waiting for an unlucky cat or a dog. I just sat back on a bench watching him, almost sharing time together, thinking of my first encounter with its mother back in 1992, when he was about a year old.


3 months later, in January 2007, Chariton entered the En Gedi field school and was observed limping on one leg. He looked thin and in bad shape. The birder Amir Balaban captured him by video. This was the last encounter with him, and being 16 years old it is plausible that he died shortly afterwards.





I'd like to thank Eyal Bartov who was a major helper with the leopard research during 1981-1986 and kindly let us use his photographs.  




Leopard Step. Giora Ilani, 2004. Sifriat Poalim - Hakibutz Hameuchad LTD.

Perez I. and Geffen E. 2006. Critically Endangered Arabian leopards Panthera pardus nimr in Israel: estimating population parameters using molecular scatology. Oryx 40:3.    







land marks