Persian fallow deer now graze peacefully in their enclosures at the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve as ranger/caretaker Yakoub Makladeh feeds them nutritional pellets from a metal bucket.
Earlier this month, the lives of these rare animals were in jeopardy for four days as flames from Israel’s historic Carmel fire threatened the reserve nestled in the mountains outside Haifa. The vulture cage was destroyed; flames licked the fences of the deer enclosures, and the surrounding terrain is now ashen.
“Thursday, Dec. 2, around 11 a.m., we saw smoke coming from the direction of Isfiya, a Druze village south of our Hai-Bar location,” Makladeh remembers. “The animals already sensed something was wrong and were acting nervous.”
More than 100 rangers and volunteers, including Eli Amitay, director-general of Israel’s Nature and National Parks Authority, raced to the Hai-Bar to help. Minister of Environmental Protection Gilad Erdan also came to assess the situation.
Rare griffon vultures, whose cage overlooked a scenic green wadi, and other birds in their breeding cages — Egyptian vultures, Lanner falcons, Bonelli’s eagles — were evacuated immediately.
“By noon, the smoke was much stronger,” Makladeh said, “and we decided to move the rare fallow deer into a different and safer large enclosure built for this purpose.”
A heated discussion took place about whether to immobilize the deer and evacuate them to a zoo, but Makladeh, who has spent many years as the animals’ psychologist, companion and caretaker, argued vehemently against this, saying further stress from the immobilization procedure would increase the likelihood the animals might die.
“Some wanted us to leave the enclosure gates open and hope the deer would find their way to ‘safer pastures,’ but the deer wouldn’t have been likely to go,” Makladeh said.
So he asked everyone to clear the area, and then, “with friendly persuasion and a bucket full of their favorite feed,” led them to safe enclosures at the Hai-Bar.
“No one but Yakoub, whom the animals love and trust, could do this,” said Avinoam Lourie, a zoologist and former head of the Carmel Hai-Bar. Makladeh deferred all thanks to the Nature Reserve Authority rangers and volunteers, who “fought the fire with their bare hands,” cutting trees, building firebreaks with hoes, spraying water from tanks on their backs; and stopping the fire right at the fences.
While the fire was raging and communications were sparse, the outside world had waited nervously to hear whether the animals, let alone the people, had survived.
“We fought continuously for more than 70 hours,” Makladeh said.
“People slept on the ground and lived on coffee and sandwiches. When I finally took a break, I realized that my clothes were totally torn and burnt, I was bleeding, and my boots were completely destroyed.”
On Dec. 6, when Lourie went to the Hai-Bar to speak with Makladeh, he found they had already brought back the birds of prey to some of the safe cages and had begun to rebuild the main burned vulture cage and repair the deer enclosures.
“We even put all the roe deer together in one pen,” Makladeh said, “normally a no-no, as males are naturally aggressive toward one another; but they had just shed their antlers, so they couldn’t hurt each other.”
Lourie noted that “ample numbers of fallow deer had already been released back into the wild, in the Galilee, near Jerusalem, and in a few reserves elsewhere in Israel.”
“We are, however, still near the beginning of the reintroduction process for the roe deer,” Lourie said, “and now is the season for griffon vultures to mate and build nests and lay eggs, which I hope they will do because their status in the wild is very bad.”
After the fire was out, Lourie took a walk around the Carmel Mountain area. “It was very sad for me to identify large numbers of porcupines, jackals, foxes, wild boars, songbirds, snakes and other animals that had burned to death. We need to preserve and protect every specimen to strengthen the population of our endangered animals,” Lourie concluded.
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