The Threats to Israel's Ecological Corridors

Tristram's jird. Photo Yitzhak Cohen

Ecological corridors are a sequence of open natural areas, essential for preventing the extinction of animals and plants. Although the term has already become commonplace in the planning discourse throughout Israel, putting these plans into action and actually safeguarding Israel's natural corridors is still a challenge.

An extensive report recently presented by SPNI, drafted by Dr. Ofri Gabai, an ecologist, and Assaf Zanzuri, a national planning expert, details the current status of Israel's ecological corridors, focusing on planning, the state of statutory protection, and the actual management of the corridors.

An ecological corridor is a continuous strip of open spaces that creates connectivity between natural areas and habitats. This linkage is essential for the exchange of DNA between wildlife populations, which ensures the long-term survival of species, the conservation of biodiversity and the optimal functioning of ecosystems.  Animals and plants may remain protected in nature reserves, but nature cannot be preserved only in nature reserves.

Open area next to Modi'in. Photo Dov Greenblat

Reserves that exist as isolated islands are cut-off from each other, preventing the transfer of plants and animal populations between them.  As such, they do not support the necessary genetic exchange or access to renewal sources, which is important following an ecological crisis.

The exchange of genes between wildlife populations is vital for maintaining their strength and resilience facing disease and environmental changes. Segregated populations, with limited mobility, are characterized by a low genetic diversity and are more susceptible to disease and shifts in environmental conditions.  As a result, isolated wildlife populations are more vulnerable and at a higher risk of extinction.

No binding guidelines

In 2000, a document titled "Ecological corridors in open spaces - a tool for preserving nature" brought the concept to light, and it was largely integrated into planning and public discourse.  A further significant achievement for the preservation of ecological corridors was made in 2016, when the National Master Plan for Construction, Development and Conservation ("TAMA 35") marked the first time that ecological corridors were statutorily acknowledged on the national level.

In recent years, the subject has been addressed by various master plans, in the planning and administrative management efforts of corridors, and has impacted planning decisions made at various levels.  Despite this significant progress, current protection of ecological corridors suffers from two major deficiencies:

1. Because the corridors were outlined schematically and exclude the dimension of width, the National Master Plan does not provide enough protection. Without detailed mapping, the corridors are constantly being eroded and are seen merely as an outline on the map, rather than an actionable ecological corridor on the ground.  A detailed outline of the corridors was added to plan in 2015 by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority but it has not been granted statutory validity.

2. Even in cases where corridors are delineated as open areas, there are no binding guidelines for the management of these areas to ensure that they are, in fact, functioning as ecological corridors. As a result, an area which appears to be an open space in the plans, might be completely non-traversable by many animal species. In addition, these areas may contain hazards, such as lighting, noise, agriculture and waste, all of which hinder the existence of wildlife and impair the proper functioning of the corridor.

As such, swift action must be taken to ensure that ecological corridors maintain continuity and remain un-fragmented and open natural areas.

Gazelles at Naftuach area.Photo Dov Greenblat

Mapping 140 critical sections

SPNI’s new report details the current status of the ecological corridors, addressing two major aspects that influence them: the planning and statutory protection of corridors, and the management of the ecological corridors on the ground.

The planning segment of the report presents mapping of the areas that are of critical importance and must be preserved in order to maintain continuity of open spaces, specifically those that are vulnerable or are the subject of development plans.

There are 140 ecological corridor sections that have been mapped using the following criterion:

1.  Extremely narrow corridors or corridors that are affected by roads, railways, residential neighborhoods and industrial areas.  A corridor is considered narrow if its width is less than 300 meters (or 800 meters if the area is inhabited by gazelle populations).

2. Sections of corridors that future development plans will diminish or impair, in some cases to the point that they will no longer function as ecological corridors. Under this criterion the report includes areas that are not necessarily functioning as bottlenecks today but will become such if development plans are realized.

3. Sections that serve as the only connection in a given territory and ecosystem, and without which there would be no linkage between open areas. The same applies to bottlenecks that currently have one of two alternatives but are threatened or not functional.

Twisted Acacia. Photo Avner Rinot

Designated corridor area vs. Actual corridor area

The report also examines obstacles that hinder the functioning of the ecological corridors in several areas in Israel. The findings reflect a discrepancy between the planned corridor area and the actual area.

In many cases, the corridors examined are technically considered open area but are hindered by many disturbances that are "transparent" and overlooked by the planning system, which in practice harm the corridor's function.  As a result, the effective size of some of the corridor areas are dramatically smaller than the planned area.

The report indicates that despite the importance of the ecological corridors, there is no appointed authority responsible for maintaining them, and this lack of management leads to continued loss of territory and ecological functionality.  It is, therefore, necessary to develop a system to manage these areas and ensure their continued functioning.

Maintaining and protecting the ecological corridors requires action on two levels:

1. Statutory – Creating a spatial definition of these areas and a set of guidelines for maintaining them.

2. Administrative – Appointing an authority that will both manage the area and address the nature protection and agriculture needs, including supervision and law enforcement activity.

Such a complex role requires an authority with power and capabilities on the national level, as well as a supervision system and deep understanding of and familiarity with the area.  We believe that the National Unit of Open Area Supervision (also known as the "Green Patrol") should be considered as the authority to execute this task – with the required adjustments – in addition to performing its traditional roll.  The activity will be directed by a professional directive that includes the regional councils, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and other stakeholders, who will outline the management policy.