At Hai Bar Carmel, you enjoy the sight of graceful herd of Persian fallow deer at Hai Bar Carmel, the males with their noble antlers and the dappled young “Bambis” resting in the shade with their moms. At Hai Bar Yotvata, the ostriches gather curiously around your car and the oryx nuzzle each other companionably. But these are no ordinary zoos. You are seeing biblical wildlife that has returned to thrive in this land after a long absence.
Persian fallow deer, Armenian wild sheep, gazelles, oryx, addaxes, wild asses, as well as birds like vultures, owls and ostriches, all mentioned in the Bible, were part of the scenery here until World War I. It was then that the widespread use of firearms to hunt these magnificent creatures brought many to extinction. In the late 1960s, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) decided to embark on its wildlife restoration project by reintroducing the Persian fallow deer. Just before the Iranian revolution, the Shah had agreed to give Israel a number of these beautiful animals from his own breeding program. In a dramatic airlift after the fall of the Shah, Israel managed to get four of the deer aboard the last El Al flight out of Tehran. Persian fallow deer are still among the animals protected and nurtured at Hai Bar Carmel, nestled among Carmel’s wooded hills. From here, some are gradually released to the wild in the Upper Galilee and the Jerusalem Mountains, wearing special radio collars so experts, assisted by volunteers, can keep tabs on their welfare and progress.
Your tour of the Hai Bar Carmel reserve begins with a beautiful overview of the pastoral surroundings from the roof of a small visitor center, which showcases the INPA’s animal reintroduction efforts. Then it’s time to explore the reserve: You’ll walk down the mountain along an 800-yard paved trail. From wooden balconies you can easily spy the residents – roe deer, mentioned in the Song of Songs, wild goats, gazelles, and wooly Armenian sheep. Signs explain about each animal and its habits. At the end of the walk, you’ll find the enclosures for the fallow deer and the magnificent Griffon vultures, which are also fostered here.
You’ll enjoy a different kind of wildlife experience at Hai Bar Yotvata, 30 minutes north of Eilat. Here, you drive the few miles through the reserve seeing animals along the way – the oryx (believed to be the origin of the unicorn myth, since in profile their pair of scimitar-shaped horns appear as one) Somali wild asses, addaxes, ostriches and more. The INPA ranger who greets you can rent you a CD to play in your car, which describes the animals and tells unusual stories about their habits and even the idiosyncrasies of some individuals. Your tour ends with a visit to the Night Life Room where dimly lit enclosures reveal the desert’s nocturnal denizens, and the predator center, home to spotted leopards, wolves, the giant-eared caracal, snakes and more.