Researchers found that the Negev fox tends to stray away from human activity, and the expansion of cities in southern Israel threatens its survival.

A Negev fox roaming in southern Israel.
A Negev fox roaming in southern Israel.Credit: Michal Ucko / Reuven Hefner

Zafrir Rinat Jul 31, 2022

The Negev fox, also known as Ruppell’s fox, is considered to be one of the rarest predators in Israel, and a recent study shows it is being squeezed out of its habitats due to human activity and the entrance of competing predators.

This means that the fox’s future existence depends on the existence of large nature reserves with restricted access to vehicles and limited human activities in the areas it roams in southern Israel.

The Negev fox lives in the desert’s arid plains, and is defined as an endangered species given the sharp decline in its numbers in recent decades. Over this period, natural areas in the Negev have dwindled due to the construction of new communities and the expansion of existing ones. Widespread areas have been converted to agricultural cultivation, with paved and unpaved roads crisscrossing the area and being used by all-terrain vehicles.

The common fox, which benefits from human activity, follows humans into developed areas in the Negev, pushing out the Negev fox to the margins.

Estimates of the Negev fox population rely on earlier studies, which employed extended multi-year tracking of fox populations in the Nehalim Gdolim Nature Reserve in the Negev. This venture was coordinated by Reuven Hefner, a former ranger at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. A study published in March in Biodiversity and Conservation set out to estimate the state of Negev foxes, and is considered the most comprehensive study of this species so far.

The study, an initiative of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, was conducted by Hefner, together with Dr. Adi Barocas from Oxford University. Also taking part were Dr. Benny Shalmon, and Dr. Noam Leader from the Nature and Parks Authority, Prof. Eli Geffen from Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Michal Ucko, from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute.

One of the Negev foxes that was tracked as part of the study.Credit: Amram Tsuberi

As part of the study, 24 Negev foxes in the area between the southern Negev communities of Paran and Grofit were fitted with collars with GPS transmitters. Researchers used these to track individual foxes and collect information on their territories and roaming habits. Tracking revealed that a typical territory of a fox spans 66 square kilometers (25.5 square miles), slightly larger than the area of Tel Aviv.

According to the results of the study, the foxes were careful to keep a safe distance from paved roads and from centers of human activity, in contrast to other predators such as wolves, coyotes and common foxes, which have learned to adapt to the presence of human beings and to approach garbage and food locations close to human dwellings. It’s possible that the presence of these predators, which are competitors of the Negev fox, caused the latter to refrain from approaching these locations.

Furthermore, in contrast to previous findings regarding their preference for streambeds, the present study shows that the Negev foxes prefer smaller, drier streams or low ridges, where they feed on insects and rodents.

The Negev fox.
The Negev fox.Credit: Michal Ucko / Reuven Hefner

The results also demonstrate the great importance, especially for foxes, of protected areas that are uninhabited and unaffected by human activity, like the Nehalim Gdolim and other nature reserves. In order to prevent the penetration of common foxes into these areas, they must be kept clean of human waste.

The researchers recommended limiting all-terrain vehicles to marked roads and to regulated parking and camping sites. In addition to foxes, the Negev has several other rare predators, such as caracals and leopards, which are largely dependent on the existence of relatively isolated areas.