By Zafrir Rinat

Environmental watchdog groups and activists have expressed concern over the increasing contact between humans and ibex in the Negev desert.

The ibex, a species of wild goat that indigenous to the Negev, is suffering from a serious shortage of food and water. The problem is so acute that it has forced bands of ibex to migrate toward the area near Midreshet Sde Boker, the agricultural college that is also home to the gravesite of former prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula.

The increased range of the ibex has placed them at greater risk due to the danger of eating food that is unsuitable for their consumption. In addition, the animals are also liable to be targeted by dogs.

The dire state of ibex in Israel is detailed in a comprehensive report being compiled by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. According to the authority, the ibex population in the Eilat region fell from 172 at the start of the last decade to just 59 in the fall of 2009.

Environmentalists attribute the reduction to a decrease in rainfall, which in turn leads to a shortage of food. “The lack of food exacerbates the problem between the ibex and the hikers who offer them food,” according to the report.

Authority officials who are conducting a census of ibex in the area near Sde Boker are discovering what local residents have known for quite some time: the animals are frequenting residential areas. Of the 141 ibex seen last year, 59 percent of them were spotted on the grounds of the college, which is recognized as a national park.

The reproduction rates have also seen a sharp decline due to the ibex migration. According to Amiram Cohen of the parks authority, the animals prefer to mate with young goats that are only found on the grounds of the Sde Boker campus.

“The ibex enter the gardens of the people who live in the campus and they eat the plantlife there,” said Shai Tahnai of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “In addition, there is the problem of stray dogs roaming in the area freely and attacking the ibex. There have already been instances in which the ibex died as a result of an attack by dogs.”

Ofra Tza’adi, a resident of Sde Boker, said that most of the residents welcome the ibex, yet they should grow plants that the animals are deterred from consuming so as to prevent them from trespassing onto their gardens.

“There is also a fence in the area that causes bodily harm to the ibex,” Tza’adi said. “This is an issue that needs to be dealt with.”

“From our viewpoint, the ibex need to take advantage of what nature has to offer and not rely on food provided by humans,” Cohen said. “At times they eat things that harm them, like plastic and paper. They particularly like to eat weeds that grow in some of the gardens. This year, the situation improved because there was more rainfall and there is still water and food in the desert.”