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14 February, 2021

Staring down a gazelle

On my afternoon walk I stopped for a while and sat on a rock to read my book, until I heard a loud snorting sound nearby and turned to see a gazelle. At first it didn't seem to notice me, though maybe it had, because that snorting sound might be an alarm cry. I have read that's the case with some members of the gazelle family.

After a while it turned around to look at me. I remained motionless and stared back. It gave up, moved away a little, then began to peer at me again, even drawing closer. I continued to stare back; again it turned away and rummaged behind a bush. This continued three or four times, interrupted by snorts each time it turned away. It would have been nice to take a picture of my friend, but I knew that if I had moved to reach for the phone, the spell would have been broken and it would take fright. Eventually it pranced away, with another series of snorts.

The Palestine mountain gazelle is a beautiful creature. This one was a fine specimen; probably female because its horns were not long and didn't seem to be ringed. I didn't notice a penis. There are quite a lot of these gazelles in the nearby woods and fields, and it isn't unusual to see them. In the whole country, there are apparently about 3,000. There used to be more, but, till the 1990s, they were regarded as pests, and hunted. Judging by the foolish curiosity of the gazelle I met today, it isn't surprising that they are endangered. But according to the Hebrew Wikipedia article, they are intelligent enough to learn who to be scared of. They will get used to farmers and their tractors, while running away from cars. In zoos, they will come to recognize the people who feed them, while remaining wary of others.

Besides their beauty, they are also extremely graceful - they seem to glide effortlessly through the woods, over bushes and boulders. For their qualities, gazelles are given a place of honour in Hebrew and Arabic culture and tradition, especially love poetry, onward from the Song of Songs. The English word gazelle comes directly from Arabic ( غزال‎). And it is thought that the word for love poems and songs, ghazal (غزل) may derive from the name of the animal.

In Hebrew, the name for this particular species is "Tsvi Eretz Israeli" (צבי ארץ-ישראלי), however there is some confusion in Hebrew between the names for deer, antelope, ibices, etc. Another name is "ayal / ayala", to which the Ayalon Valley adjacent to our village, as well as the nearby ruined Palestinian village of Yalu, probably owe their names.

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