Hyraxes: why Israel's 'rock rabbits' have become pests

A hyrax in one of Galillee's many boulder piles (Image: Arik Kershenbaum) Boulder piles make ideal homes for hyraxes

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Israel's hyraxes are cute, furry and have a characteristic chirping song. But they are becoming a serious pest.

The animals, also known as rock rabbits, have moved into residential areas of Galilee and have been destroying people's gardens.

Scientists have now discovered why: hyraxes love to make their homes in the debris from building sites.

Researchers from the University of Haifa published these findings in the journal Wildlife Research.

Hyraxes on one of Galillee's many boulder piles (Image: Arik Kershenbaum) Hyraxes like to lounge in the sun, but they also like to stay close to bolt holes

"A lot of people in the west haven't heard of the hyrax, but it's very common in the Middle East," lead researcher Arik Kershenbaum told BBC Nature.

"It's even mentioned in the Bible as one of the main inhabitants of the land."

But, as Mr Kershenbaum explained, around Galilee the animals are no longer behaving in a "biblical way" - making their homes in the rocky hills and cliffs of the countryside.

"They're coming into the villages and eating everything they can find," said Mr Kershenbaum.

To find out more about their behaviour, he and his colleagues observed the movements of groups of the animals. They also attached radio collars to a group of hyraxes in order to track and follow them.

BIBLICAL BEASTS

  • The hyrax looks like a rodent, but is actually a member of the Afrotheria, a group of mammals that includes elephants, sea cows, tenrecs, elephant shrews and the aardvark
  • The animals are mentioned in Proverbs 30:26 of the King James Bible, which states: "The rock badgers are a feeble folk, yet they make their homes in the crags"

"It turns out that it's the piles of boulders [created by clearing sites for building] that attract the hyraxes," said Mr Kershenbaum.

They make their homes in the underground caverns and crevices created by these man-made rubble piles.

Hyraxes like to lounge in the sun, but they also like to stay close to bolt holes, which makes these boulder piles perfect for them.

"We confirmed that they're attracted to the boulder piles rather than heading specifically for people's gardens," said Mr Kershenbaum.

There is also some public health concern about hyraxes living so close to populated areas, because they can carry the skin disease cutaneous leishmaniasis, which may be transmitted to humans.

Although hyraxes are generally quite popular with suburban wildlife-watchers, some people have called for a cull.

But early research indicates that simply filling in the boulder piles would drive hyraxes out of the villages and back to the cliffs, just as it says in the Bible.

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