The wildlife extinction rate is increasing in the Modern Age and is currently 50-100 times the rate of natural extinction. Intensive development of open areas, pollution and illegal hunting are some of the factors contributing to the disappearance of many animals.
Israel was blessed with one of the most diverse array of wildlife in the world. According to various estimates, some 400 species of vertebrates live and procreate here, among them approximately 100 mammal species, 200 species of birds and 95 species of reptiles, in addition to 15,000-30,000 insect species and more.
During the 20th century, 22 species of vertebrates as well as four other sub-species became extinct from Israel. These were joined by at least six insect species and 15 types of mollusks. Many species disappeared without us ever knowing of their existence. These statistics were published in 1999 in a report about the condition of Israel's wildlife called "Born to Nature".
The leopard, a carnivore belonging to the family Felidae, belongs to the genus Panthera, which includes the four species of large cats that are able to roar: jaguar, tiger, lion and leopard. The global dispersion of leopards stretches over large portions of the Old World, in Asia and Africa, and in a wide range of habitats, where they prey on many species of herbivores.
The remains of a leopard dating back 1.7 million years were discovered in Israel and the leopard is mentioned six times in the Bible and the Talmud as a symbol of might and bravery. The leopard population of northern Israel was completely wiped out in the 1960's (probably by shepherds). Today only a small number of leopards exist in southern Israel, in the Negev and Judean Desert areas.
The leopards of Israel's desert population are relatively small (males weigh up to 40 kgs and females weigh up to 32 kgs) and a number of factors have contributed to a decrease in their dispersion in the southern part of the country:
- Lack of Shelter - the leopard ambushes its prey, thus it cannot survive on open plains
- Food - the leopard preys mostly on large and medium sized mammals. When wildlife ceases to exist it preys on livestock and house pets.
- Livestock - conflict between man and leopard has been created in areas where goats and sheep are herded in natural open spaces and even in ancient times man hunted the leopard with stone traps.
- Increasing Settled Areas - the decrease in suitable habitats in northern Israel has caused crowding among leopards and forced them to hunt pets, cats, dogs and fowl.
- Firearms - the use of firearms brought about a great increase in the rate at which leopards are killed, among other things for their precious fur.
Leopard sightings in southern Israel have decreased drastically during recent years and there is great concern that within a few years this noble predator might disappear from our region completely.