Asiatic wild ass

For thousands of years, from Biblical times until fairly recently, Israel has hosted some of the most exotic animals in the world, worthy of any safari!

By Nosson Shulman, Licensed Tour Guide

For almost any genre of tourism, Israel offers a unique experience paralleled by few. Whether one is a history buff, looking for a spiritual/religious experience, lover of fine cuisine, wine connoisseur, hiker, enjoys relaxing on the beach, driving an ATV or are a medical tourist, Israel is the answer to all of your travel needs!

However, other than birdwatching (where Israel is one of the premier locales), when discussing the great wildlife destinations of the world, Israel is seldom mentioned.  Nonetheless, for thousands of years, from Biblical times until fairly recently, Israel has hosted some of the most exotic animals in the world, worthy of any safari!

While many animals have gone extinct (within Israel), it is surprising that many of these incredible animals can still be seen.  Some of the animals were successfully reintroduced into the wild (Israel has a law that any animal, with a few exceptions, which once existed here should be re-introduced).  Others never went away.

The following is a list of five animals mentioned in the Bible which were once found in Israel (for Part 2, you will be shown 5 exotic animals which surprisingly still live in Israel’s wild):

1) Lion– “Then Sampson went down to Timna… and behold, a young lion was roaring towards him! The spirit of G-d came over him and he tore it apart (Judges 14:5-6)”

While Israel may not be the first country that comes to mind when one thinks of lions, throughout most of history, the opposite was true.  In fact, the Hebrew Bible has several exciting stories involving lions.  David (before he was King) would shepherd his sheep in the outskirts of Bethlehem, and often had to fend off hungry lions (1 Samuel 17:36).

Idol Worshippers Attacked by Lions

When the Assyrians exiled the Northern tribes of Israel, in their place, they brought idol worshippers from modern day Iraq. The transplanted idol worshippers to Israel were immediately attacked by lions (2 Kings: 17:25-26).   Less than a 10-minute drive from my home, is the actual location where Samson (the world’s strongest man) ripped apart a lion with his bare hands.

How were the abovementioned stories possible?  This is because Israel was filled with lions until about 800 years ago, during the Crusader period.  The local species, the Asiatic Lion, were found in parts of the Middle East as late as the early 20th century.  Today, India is the only country where this endangered species lives in the wild.

2) Hippopotamus– “Look at Behemoth (i.e. Hippo), which I made just as I made you, it eats grass like an ox. Its strength is in its loins, and its power in the muscles of its belly (Job 40:15-16). “

Today, hippos are found in only 2 places in the world: Africa and, since the 1990s, the Magdalena River in Colombia.  The hippos in Colombia got there by escaping from the private zoo of the late drug lord Pablo Escobar.  However, for thousands of years, Israel had its own hippos who lived in the Swampy coastal region (the swamps were dried in the early 20th century by Zionist pioneers) and archaeologists have the bones to prove this.  For example, in the Yarkon River (today in northern Tel Aviv) hippo bones were found from the time of the Judges (more than 3000 years ago).

It is believed that Hippos continued to live in Israel until the 2nd century BCE.

3) Cheetah – Can… leopards (in Biblical times, the word “Leopard” probably meant any spotted feline including Cheetahs) change their spots? (Jeremiah 13:23)”

Being able to run from 0 to 60 miles per hour within a three second span, Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animals.  They too lived in Israel from Biblical times, until after the State of Israel declared independence. The last known confirmed sighting of a cheetah was in 1959 in the Arava region of Southern Israel.  None are believed to exist today in the Holy Land.

4) Crocodile– “Thus said Lord Hashem: Behold, I am against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great crocodiles that crouches within its rivers (Ezekiel 29:3)”

hippopotamus femur

The femur of a hippopotamus, which once lived in Israel, (Nosson Shulman)

It will surprise many to learn that the Nile Crocodile, certainly one of the most dangerous animals in the world, used to live in Israel.  In fact, one of the rivers near Caesarea, a popular tourist site, is called “Crocodile River”.  The last Crocodile was killed by an Arab hunter in 1912.

Why was the crocodile killed?  In Europe, taxidermy (the art of stuffing animals) from animals of the Holy Land was in high demand.  Father Schmitz, a German priest, had a business that hired local Arabs to hunt animals, paying them very generously for their work.  The animals would then be stuffed and shipped to Europe where they would then be sold to Museums and private collections.  Unfortunately, this caused other animals to become extinct in Israel as well.

What happened to the last Crocodile in Israel? It can be seen today on display at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv.

Interestingly, Israel does have two Crocodile breeding farms where tourists can learn about and touch real crocodiles (which should only ever be attempted in the presence and assistance of a trained professional).

5) Syrian Brown Bear– “He (Elisha) turned around and saw them, and cursed them in the name of Hashem.  Two bears then came out of the forest (2 Kings 2:24)”

The last known sighting of the Syrian Brown Bear in Israel was in 1918.  It is now believed to be extinct in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, though small numbers live in Iran, Iraq and Turkey where they are endangered.

In 2017, for the first time in 60 years, a brown bear was spotted and filmed in Lebanon, raising the unlikely possibility that the Brown bear will re-appear in Israel.

Nosson Shulman is a journalist and Licensed Tour Guide in Israel specializing in Biblical tours. To allow tourists to experience Israel during the Corona era, he created the new hit Israel tour video series which brings Israel to the home of viewers by simulating actual tours. To check out his free sneak preview tour videos, click here. To view sample tour itineraries or to inquire about private tour opportunities with a personalized itinerary on your next trip to Israel, click here.