Rock hyraxes in the city; the bi-directional effects of cultural norms on urban wildlife

Blog written by Noam Ben-Moshe and Takuya Iwamura . Read the full paper here.

At first sight, it looked like a junkyard in the middle of the neighbourhood, but as we approached, we noticed it was actually a kindergarten. In the Hassidic neighbourhood of Neve Ya’akov of north Jerusalem, several mobile structures stood surrounded by messy piles of children’s chairs, broken swings, and construction waste. The makeshift playground was covered with small, round feces and the acrid smell of urine was strong.

As we entered the compound, the doors burst open and the children came running out, eager to enjoy every second of their break time. There were no proper toys to play with, but everyone seemed to be aiming for a familiar attraction. They began to throw stones at the waste piles. Suddenly, as though responding to the children’s demands upon them, a large group of rock hyraxes appeared from the crevices.

Some of the children started chasing them in circles until the animals fled under one of the trailers while other hyraxes climbed the walls of the structures and began jumping from roof to roof to the sound of the children’s wailing. Another group of hyraxes gathered in the corner of the yard and ate flakes of an Israeli snack called Bamba that a number of children threw at them. The manager of the place approached us to ask if we were from the municipality and if we had come to pick up the animals that he said had “taken over” the garden. Whilst we were talking, we noticed that the manager, on an exposed area of his arm, had a large, muggy lesion. We were familiar with this type of skin infection. It looked like Leishmaniasis, a zoonotic skin disease transferred to humans by a sandfly sting. Rock hyraxes, as found only in recent years, are reservoir hosts of the pathogen causing the disease.

Artificial rock mounds, a by-product of the common building practices in Jerusalem, encircle the new neighbourhoods and create great shelters for wild rock hyraxes next to rich foraging grounds in the city parks.

We were visiting this community as part of our field study work, to understand the drivers that brought these wild animals from their native habitats in secluded canyons in the Judean desert to establish colonies in a core urban area up on the mountains. We also tried to understand why the animals had proliferated in one particular neighbourhood but not in another. Following the hyraxes’ expansion route, we based our research on habitat surveys and hyrax observations in the peripheral areas outside Jerusalem as well as inside the city.

The natural distribution of the rock hyraxes, as their names suggest, is associated with rock piles where they find shelter from predators and adverse weather conditions. While urban sprawl usually causes the extinction or relocation of local wildlife species, observation records show that hyraxes moved towards the city as it expanded.

Urban building practices and heavy machinery, used for the excavation and laying of new roadways, have pushed discarded piles of the rocks down the mountains and into valleys below. This debris have built up over time, and have become urban simulations of the hyrax habitats enveloping the new neighborhoods. We found that these artificial rock piles are great shelters for the hyraxes and they come with the added benefits of providing access to human waste and rich foraging grounds in the adjacent city parks. This combination of shelter and food security has created a fertile environment, which is promoting extremely dense population of hyraxes, while new unoccupied shelters become scarce.

Our findings suggest that these processes have caused a “spill-over” into the urban areas where these new urban invaders are demonstrating highly adaptive skills while taking advantage of the human cultural norms.

Hyraxes demonstrate little fear of humans in the urban parks of north Jerusalem.

Remarkably, we found that in the poorer and more religious areas of the urban environment, there were plenty of sites offering shelter and food in the middle of the urban area. The reason being was that in the poor areas, there seemed to be lack of municipal care, which you would find in more affluent areas. Moreover, in the poor areas there was a lack of awareness around environmental waste management by the local residents, which was demonstrated by the disposal and accumulation of dry waste in open grounds, as well as illegal building with mobile structures that are elevated from the ground; both make complex shelters that are an urban alternative to natural rock piles. To compliment this, a religious prohibition of dumping valuable food means that food items are left in open spaces. Consequently, the rock hyraxes are more common in the poor religious areas, and were not found in high-maintained areas.

In regard to the kindergarten manager we met earlier, and consistent with our research, we found that the largest outbreak of leishmaniasis in the city was next to the highest concentrations of hyrax colonies.

The story of the rock hyrax in Jerusalem could have been a great example for reconciliation ecology, a win-win situation in which a wildlife species flourishes amidst humans, while humans can enjoy observing these playful diurnal animals by their houses. Unfortunately, it is not so, as the animals dispersal is related to a spread of a disease in highly populated areas.

However, since the process is human-driven, we have the means to control it, instead of it controlling us. If we are smarter and adopt a more informed rural-urban strategy, we can manage the spread of the hyraxes in human settlements.

From our studies, observations and investigations, we feel that the following measures should be considered;

  • Enforcement of regulations on building practices, to prevent the common practice of pushing over rock debris from construction sites outside the city and improper placement of mobile structures in the urban areas.
  • Municipal investment in the maintenance of open grounds and a robust waste removal service.
  • Raise awareness and educate human communities about sanitation and how traditions, although well intentioned, may be having a negative effect on their health and well-being.

In these strange times when most of the world’s urban population is under the risk of another zoonotic disease, the last measure may be of the highest priority. 

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