The national program for terrestrial biodiversity monitoring


Terrestrial biodiversity monitoring consists of continuous surveillance of flora and fauna, and of the environment they live in. The program is designed to enable identification of trends and changes in natural systems, and to identify possible reasons for the changes taking place within them. This monitoring can contribute to more effective management of natural resources, and to development of solutions to halt the deterioration of ecosystems and biodiversity in Israel.
The national monitoring program was developed during 2010-2011 by an interdisciplinary team of over 70 scientists, professionals from different fields and open landscape managers. The process included dividing Israel into 12 units (ecosystems or geographic regions). For each unit a dedicated team of experts determined the most significant processes taking place within that unit, including threats to nature, and the relevant indicators for monitoring. These indicators included, among others, annual and perennial vegetation, mammals, birds, reptiles and arthropods.
Monitoring in half of the units commenced in early 2012, using the most advanced scientific tools and methods, including development of software for collecting field data, use of surveillance cameras for monitoring mammals, and remote sensing tools (satellite images and aerial photographs) for monitoring changes in the vegetation. Additional technologies will be added in the near future.

Long-term ecological monitoring and research

The monitoring program complements the long-term ecological research program – LTER:
While long-term research is carried out within limited areas, and enables performance of experiments and scientific manipulations, monitoring programs deal with very large areas, and therefore provide a “control” for the LTER findings.
Between the monitoring program and the LTER there is bilateral transfer of information:
The monitoring program may identify trends and processes without providing a mechanism. Transferring the issue to the LTER stations allows performance of controlled experiments in an attempt to identify causality.
The LTER program may reveal changes occurring within a limited area and transfer the findings to the monitoring program for follow-up in order to assess whether the same result can be scaled up to a much larger area.

Remote sensing – photographic monitoring, on the ground and from space

Ground-level monitoring of flora and fauna is conducted by surveyors and entails high manpower and training costs. Additional problems arise when certain animal species avoid the presence of humans, making data collection difficult.
Remote sensing, using photographic technology, both on the ground and in space, allows collection of data without direct contact and can solve such problems.
Ground photography – mammal monitoring
To date there has been no methodical and effective monitoring of the 103 mammal taxa found in Israel. Current knowledge is based on random observations, limited (in space and/or time) field studies, and a few local surveys. Consequently, open landscape managers did not have sufficient information for making decisions regarding management of natural systems.
It is known that changes in the presence and activity of mammals indicate that a change is occurring within their habitat. Therefore it is important to collect information on a continuous basis.

Challenges in mammal monitoring:

  • The nocturnal behavior of most mammals
  • Human avoidance by mamnals
  • The need to develop a repeatable, structured and periodical monitoring program 
On the other hand, the number of mammals is known and limited, and for most species, visual identification by field workers and experts is relative easy. In light of these issues, we chose to use capture cameras, which are activated by a motion detector when animals cross their path. Dozens of cameras will be installed in the areas within the units where mammal monitoring was determined to be important. The collected pictures will then be analyzed.

Monitoring from space – vegetation monitoring by remote sensing

This method is effective for monitoring large areas. For instance: the analysis of forests and native woodlands in Israel over the last 20 years that is currently being conducted by HaMaarag. Using satellite images it is possible to identify clear trends of tree desiccation across wide areas, and in contrast, recovery and increased woody vegetation cover and forest health in other areas. In the case of large fires (for example the fire on the Carmel in 2010 or the fire in the Jerusalem region in 2012), continuous monitoring can provide data on post-fire processes within the area, and the rate of natural rehabilitation of the vegetation.

Vegetation monitoring by remote sensing enables land managers (Israel Nature and Parks Authority, KKL-JNF and other organizations) to better understand the ecological processes taking place, at a large scale. This contributes to improved management of forests and woodlands in Israel and to decision-making about intervention i.e. where to create fire breaks for preventing spread of fires; whether there is significant and satisfactory natural post-fire recovery, or perhaps there is a need to intervene in the rehabilitation process, by planting trees etc.

The “black goat law” to illustrate results of decision-making without continuous information

The law, whose official name is “The law for vegetation protection (goat damage) 1950” was legislated by the young State of Israel to limit breeding and grazing of goats in woodlands and forests, so as to avoid situations of overgrazing which prevent natural regeneration of the vegetation.
Since the approach was based on observation and immediate inference, it is possible to understand the rationale behind this law. The sight of a herd of goats devouring shrubs in areas which from the outset are not particularly “green” could indeed lead to concerns that continuous presence of goats could wipe out the vegetation.
And indeed, during the period following implementation of this law, there appeared to be remarkable recovery of the vegetation, seemingly proving that the law answered a real need. However, this proved to be a case of drawing conclusions aprematurely.
In retrospect the true picture became clear: not only is the presence of goats not detrimental to the vegetation – it is actually necessary. This became clear when, over a period of time, the lack of natural thinning induced by goat grazing became apparent: late-dominating plant species “took over” the area while other species were suppressed or became extinct. In other words, due to this law, the benefit of (controlled) grazing was precluded, and biodiversity decreased. Another consequence was an increase in the amount of dry matter at the tree bases, which is liable to hinder fire-fighting efforts.
This example illustrates how long-term research could better describe the situation, and facilitate correct management decisions. We propose that long-term monitoring can allow early identification of dynamic processes within the ecosystem, and their significance, and can support formulation of appropriate decisions. Conversely, decisions based on data from a single point in time are liable to cause more damage than benefit.
In the picture: A wild boar trapped in the lens of a capture camera during the Northern Galilee monitoring, May 2012.