The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is an ark of sorts due to its unique mission of being a “genetic bank” for critically endangered species — particularly where their natural environment is disappearing – to ensure that they do not become lost to us forever.
One of the latest rescue undertakings at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo is saving the blind prawn Typhlocaris Galilea. These three-inch-long transparent creatures are not especially cute, nor do ecosystems depend on their survival, but the Israel Nature and Parks Authority approached the zoo to help keep the species alive through a dedicated behind-the-scenes breeding program.
The prawn is found in a remarkable habitat: It lives in one chamber of an ancient Roman cistern in a forgotten city on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Water from the chamber doesn’t flow in or out directly, but seeps through the clay bottom, and then into other sections.
Described first in 1909, the blind prawns are now critically endangered because the only place they can live is in the En-Nur pool, where groundwater drilling and pumping has leaked foreign water into their environment, changing the composition and temperature.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo created a little windowless hut to limit the prawns’ exposure to light, and the water is carefully balanced with just the right amount of salinity and dissolved gases they need in order to thrive. Someday they may be able to be returned to their native habitat.
There are many other breeding and conservation efforts at the Jerusalem zoo. Zoologists there have done remarkable work with Persian fallow deer, believed to be extinct until the 1950s when a few were found in Iran and brought to Israel to be bred. Also once native to Israel, the deer decades later are now back in the wild in the north of Israel and in the Jerusalem hills.
The European otter, also a threatened species, has been bred successfully at the zoo as well as the sand cat, the Negev tortoise and the Griffon vulture.
The zoo was also the first in the world to breed captive Asian elephants using artificial insemination.
Recently, Israel’s nature authority and zoos have had to deal with an influx of gray wolves entering Israel from the north. It appears the animals are fleeing troubles in surrounding Arab countries, such as Lebanon. Wolves, among them the gray wolves, are critically endangered and hunted in their native lands.
Nicole Wexler, development director for the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, argues that only zoos can accomplish this species rescue work.
“Today the world’s natural habitats are so threatened that without zoos these animals aren’t going to be preserved,” Wexler says. “We participate in both local and global programs to save animals and it’s important work as a whole.”