by Charles Levinson
It Took Cloak-and-Dagger Effort to Return Creatures From Iran to Biblical Home
JERUSALEM—On Nov. 28, 1978, as Iran was hurtling toward Islamic revolution, zoologist Mike Van Grevenbroek landed at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, coming from Tel Aviv, carrying a blow-dart gun disguised as a cane and secret orders from an Israeli general.
His mission: to capture four Persian fallow deer and deliver them to Israel before the shah's government collapsed.
It marked the daring climax of a years-long cloak-and-dagger effort to reintroduce the animals of the Holy Scriptures of Judaism to Israel.
In December 2009, Israeli wildlife officials added another chapter to the endangered ruminant's unlikely comeback when they released four descendants of those original deer into the Jerusalem hills. The animals joined the nearly 500 fallow deer that now roam freely in Israel. The deer are the crowning achievement of a program that has also returned biblical onagers, oryxes and ostriches to the wild.
Wildlife preservation was a low priority during Israel's early years of statehood that changed with the passage of a conservation law in 1962. An active-duty general, Avraham Yoffe, a founding member of Israel's pre-statehood militia, the Hagana, and commander of the army division that captured Sharm al-Sheikh in 1956, was appointed head of the newly created Israeli Nature and Parks Authority.
Conservationists say the general, who died in 1983, waged war in defense of wildlife with the same zeal he had brought to the battlefield. The 1978 Iranian "deerlift" remains his most daring feat and his biggest success.
The Persian fallow deer stands about 3 feet tall at the shoulder, with a tawny coat, white spots and flattened antlers like those of a small moose. In the book of Deuteronomy, the deer was listed as one of the hoofed animals the Hebrews were allowed to eat. The Book of Kings says the animal was tithed to King Solomon by his subjects.
The last of the fallow deer in Israel were believed to have been hunted to extinction in the early 1900s. The species was thought to be extinct until the late 1950s, when the deer were rediscovered in Iran.
When Gen. Yoffe learned of the deer's existence, he began courting Iranian officials. He invited the shah's brother, Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi, who was an avid hunter, to Israel's Negev Desert to hunt the rare Nubian ibex, a desert-dwelling mountain goat found in few places outside Israel. Months later, he arranged a second hunting trip for another senior Iranian wildlife official, Rashid Jamsheed, who bagged an ibex with more than 53-inch antlers, the Safari Club International world record to this day.
It was strictly forbidden to hunt the ibex, but then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, agreed to make an exception for his fellow general's pet project, says Mr. Van Grevenbroek, the Dutch zoologist whom Gen. Yoffe asked to lead the reintroduction effort.
Gen. Yoffe's efforts paid off. In 1978, the prince agreed to give Gen. Yoffe's Nature Authority four fallow deer. Later that year, Gen. Yoffe visited Iran to pick up the deer but had a mild heart attack as soon as he arrived in Tehran, recalls Itzik Segev, Israel's last military attaché to Iran. "As the general was being rolled onto the airplane on his stretcher, he turned to me, clutched my hand, and said, 'Segev, you will get me those deer,' " said Mr. Segev, who is now retired and living in a suburb of Tel Aviv.
In the following months, the Islamic revolution picked up steam. Massive popular protests turned violent. The teetering government declared martial law. In Paris, the Ayatollah Khomeini was preparing for his triumphant return to Iran.
At the Israeli Embassy in Tehran, diplomats and intelligence agents were frantically shredding documents and trying to evacuate the 1,700 Israelis living in Iran, says Mr. Segev. For Gen. Yoffe, the clock was ticking since his deal for the deer would collapse with the shah's government. He dispatched Mr. Van Grevenbroek to help Mr. Segev capture fallow deer.
After arriving in Tehran on Nov. 28, and taking a day to pull together supplies, Mr. Van Grevenbroek left for a game preserve on the Caspian Sea, a 10-hour drive from Tehran. His report to the Israeli nature authority concerning the trip shows he spent five days tracking, capturing and crating four deer before returning to Tehran late on Dec. 4. Meanwhile, Mr. Segev says he went to the Tehran game department to get the necessary export licenses for the deer.
The streets of Tehran were erupting. On Dec. 1, the Ayatollah Khomeini wrote a letter from exile in Paris calling on Iranians to spill "torrents of blood." On Dec. 2, more than one million Iranians marched through central Tehran. Mr. Segev recalls burned-out storefronts throughout the city, burning tires and the acrid smell of tear gas lingering in the air.
Fearing the angry mobs chanting "Death to America," he says, he ditched the Chevrolet Impala favored by VIPs for a low-profile Iranian-made Paykan coupe. He says he exchanged his starched military uniform for civilian rags as he moved stealthily about the city. "There was shooting all over the streets, and here I am, an Israeli general, going to the zoo," says Mr. Segev.
Prince Abdol Reza who had promised the deer to Israel had already fled Iran. Mr. Segev says government officials told him he would instead need to speak with the senior government veterinarian, a man named Mueller—nobody remembers his first name—to secure the necessary licenses. "I said, 'Mueller doesn't sound like an Iranian name,'" says Mr. Segev. "They told me, 'Mr. Mueller is from Germany.' "
They encountered a man who "was very pro-Germany and very anti-Israel. He was hysterical and screaming, 'I don't want these animals going to Israel,' " Mr. Van Grevenbroek recalls.
Mr. Mueller said he would sign the license but only if the deer went to the Netherlands instead, according to Messrs. Segev and Grevenbroek. They said Mr. Mueller also conditioned his signature on their agreement to take the shah's prized cheetah and leopard to Germany as well since angry mobs were threatening to kill off the shah's menagerie. They agreed to Mr. Mueller's demands, but when they swung by to pick up the two big cats, the crowds had already broken into the zoo and killed them, they both said.
At dawn on Dec. 8, the deer's crates were nailed shut, loaded onto trucks and taken to the airport. They were loaded onto the last El Al flight out of Tehran, packed between mountains of carpets and valuables that fleeing Iranian Jews and Israelis were taking with them.
"I arrived to the airport in Tel Aviv, unloaded the deer and there's the big general waiting with tears in his eyes," says Mr. Van Grevenbroek.
Charles Levinson Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.