Persian fallow deer (Dama Mesopotamica) native to Israel from Biblical times were hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. The fallow deer is mentioned among the eight other kosher mammals listed in Deuteronomy 14: 4-5 — the roe deer, gazelle, addax, bison, oryx, wild goat, wild ox and ibex. Only the gazelle and ibex remained in Israel by the 1960s. In the biblical Book of Kings, the fallow deer is one of the many animals presented to King Solomon as a tithe. Until the late 1950s the species was thought to be extinct in the world — then a small herd was discovered in Iran. Here is the incredible story of how fallow deer have been introduced again into the Biblical landscape of Israel.
In 1962 the Israeli government enacted a conservation law to help restore the wildlife population decimated by hunting and wars and created the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, headed by General Avraham Yoffe. Yoffe had the idea to resettle fallow deer in Israel so he began courting high-ranking Iranian officials. He invited the Shah’s brother Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi, an avid hunter, to Israel’s Negev desert to hunt the rare Nubian ibex. Months later, he arranged a second hunting trip for another senior Iranian wildlife official, Rashid Jamsheed, who bagged an ibex with 53-inch horns, the world record to this day. It is against the law to hunt ibex but special permission was granted in this case by then Minister of Agriculture, Ariel Sharon (an Israeli army general who became an important politician). In 1978, with the stirrings of the Iranian Revolution, the prince agreed to give Israel four fallow deer.
When Yoffe arrived in Tehran, he suffered a mild heart attack. As he was being airlifted out he left instructions with General Segev, the Israeli military attaché in Tehran to fulfill his mission to bring the deer to Israel. Segev made the rounds to obtain the necessary export licenses. Meanwhile, Dutch zoologist Dr. Van Grevenbroek who was in charge of the project arrived from Israel to capture four deer. He was armed with a blow-dart gun disguised as a cane. Passing burned-out storefronts throughout the city, burning tires, angry mobs and the acrid smell of tear gas Segev reported, “There was shooting all over the streets, and there I was, an Israeli general, going to the zoo”. Van Grevenbroek assembled his supplies, and left Tehran on a 10-hour drive to a game reserve on the Caspian Sea. He spent five days tracking, capturing and crating four deer. He returned safely to Tehran. On December 8th, the deer were loaded on the last El Al flight out of Tehran, packed between piles of carpets and the personal effects of Iranian Jews and Israeli officials fleeing the country. These four deer arrived in Israel at the Hai Bar Nature Reserve where they were cared for and bred. Today there are fallow deer herds in the Carmel Hai Bar reserve, Jerusalem zoo and Neot Kedumim. The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo was involved in the initial reintroduction of fallow deer into the wild in Israel in the Nahal Kziv area (the route of the Yam l’Yam hike from the Mediterranean coast to the Sea of Galillee). In December 2009 officials released a small group of fallow deer from their acclimation enclosure into Nahal Sorek in the Jerusalem hills. Since then other Biblical animals, onagers, oryx and roe deer have been acquired and reintroduced into Israel’s wild, as part of Israel’s conservation efforts.