On the Return of the Native
Recent history has shown us just how detrimental to wildlife the human presence is. In an extreme example, after the deadly nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and despite the high levels of radiation, with the departure of human residents the region has become a refuge for numerous kinds of wild animals: moose, deer, beavers, owls, brown bears, foxes, bison, boars, lynx, badgers, raccoons, and wolves. In what will, hopefully for humans but perhaps regrettably for animals, be an event of shorter duration, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the cause of a remarkable revival of wildlife in many regions, not only in the countryside but even within cities and suburban areas. This is a world-wide phenomenon, and some remarkable examples have been observed; for example, swans and dolphins in Venetian canals, foxes on London streets, cougars in downtown Santiago, Chile, dolphins coming further upstream than usual in the Bosporus, a big increase in flamingos in lagoons in Albania, herds of Kashmiri goats in the streets of Llandudno, Wales. In Israel, foxes, jackals, hyenas, ibex goats and in particular, wild boar, are recorded straying into suburbs and downtown streets, feeding from rubbish and generally making a nuisance of themselves, but also serving as a reminder of the varied types of wild animals that in the pre-modern era were a much more common site and, in many cases, have disappeared altogether.
Pilgrim accounts from the Middle Ages record animals in regions that they have long since disappeared from. The Anglo-Saxon pilgrim, Saewulf, wrote in c. 1102 of the wild beasts that left a trail of human bodies along the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. The early thirteenth century German traveller, Thietmar, describing Mount Carmel, wrote that it abounded with “…lions and leopards, bears, stags, fallow deer, wild boar and a very fierce animal, which the natives call a lonza and is moreover as formidable as a lion, papiones, which they call wild dogs, wolves similar in size to a fox, and innumerable goats, smaller than ours and having long tails.”
Of all the long departed wild animals, the most commonly recorded appears to be the lion. (It is also one of the most widely represented in Frankish sculpture, but that is the case in the art of many cultures.) The Asiatic or Persian Lion (Panthera leo persica) was once to be found in a broad area from the Caucasus to Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and from Macedonia to India. Today it is only found in the wild in a small area of western India. In the Holy Land, lions, along with several other animal species, became extinct due to unchecked hunting. When precisely this occurred is uncertain. The distinction is rarely made between the Asiatic lion and its larger African cousin (Panthera leo) which once ranged over most of Africa and parts of Asia and Europe, but today is limited to parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Several modern writers claim that this extinction occurred as late as Ottoman rule, whereas others date it to the Crusader period. This, I would think, is probably based on the fairly frequent references to lions in Crusader sources rather than to any scientific evidence for their demise in that period. In fact, there are reports that lions were still present in the north of Israel in the two fifteenth century. The pilgrim, John Poloner, described "lions and other beasts" in the region of Banias, as did the Swiss pilgrim Felix Fabri, who wrote: "This pool [the waters of Merom] waxes great in winter time, but in summer the water dries up, and bushes and thick shrubs grow there, among which lions and other wild beasts make their lairs." Poloner also records lions at Mount Tabor, "In this mount there are hollow places and caves beneath the ruins of splendid buildings, wherein lurk lions and other beasts.
Perhaps one of the most delightful accounts of lions in the wild is that told by the twelfth century Greek pilgrim, Joannes Phocas. He records the presence of a tall and elderly Spanish hermit living on a column in a cell near the monastery of St. Gerasimus in the Judean desert. This, "very pleasing and admirable person" told Joannes of a miracle that had occurred a few days before his visit. Two lions who lived in the reeds growing alongside the Jordan River would visit him every Saturday, on which occasions they would rub their heads against the column, "asked for food by the expression of their eyes" [an experience that any cat lover is well acquainted with]. He would feed them, albeit, rather remarkably, with vegetables moistened with water, and bread made of corn or barley-meal, and they would then "return rejoicing to their haunts beside the bends of the river." However, on this occasion the old man had no means of satisfying their desires, as for some twenty days he himself had received no food. Explaining this to these apparently very intelligent beasts, he requested that they go to the river and bring him some small pieces of wood from which he would make crosses to sell to pilgrims. The lions, thoughtfully obliged, thereby proving, as I have often contended in opposition to the opinions of some, that cats are not in the least inconsiderate creatures.
1. Saewulf, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 4, trans. Rev. Canon Brownlow, London, 1892, p. 8.
2. Thietmar, in Denys Pringle, Pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land, 1187–1291, Farnham, 2012, p. 108.
3. John Poloner, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 6, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1894, p. 27.
4. Felix Fabri, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 9.2, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1893, p. 25.
5. Poloner, p. 37.
6 Joannes Phocas, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, vol. 5, trans. Aubrey Stewart, London, 1889, pp. 27-8.