Although the Hebrew Bible mentions such figures as Samson, King David, and Elisha encountering lions and bears, these animals no longer populate the Land of Israel. Going back further still, it was once home to an even wider array of species, from elephants to baboons. Ofri Ilany writes:
The last leopards were spotted in the Judean Desert and the Negev a decade ago. In the 1980s, female leopards on whom were bestowed names like names Babatha, Humbaba, and Shlomtzion made the headlines and had their exploits reported upon in newscasts.
Earlier, in the 1950s, cheetahs still prowled the Arava desert. . . . Lions flourished in the land up until Crusader times; the charter of the order of Templar knights (which was founded in 1119) even stated that lions should always be killed. A few of the animals apparently survived for several hundred years more, and the last one was hunted near Megiddo at the end of the 16th century. Syrian bears survived until the start of the 20th century.
As for prehistoric times, Ilany speaks with Yoram Yom-Tov and Guy Bar-Oz, who have just written a book on the subject:
[D]uring most of the age of the dinosaurs, until some 65 million years ago, [Israel and its environs] lay beneath the primeval Tethys Ocean, . . . Bar-Oz explains. “You won’t find dinosaurs here, and if you do, it will usually be of the maritime variety.” . . . Around 40 million years ago, the sea receded. It was a period in which an African climate prevailed in today’s Israel. “When the Land of Israel emerged from the Tethys Ocean, [it was] part of Africa,” Bar-Oz says. “At that time, the whole region was African—giraffes in Greece and monkeys in Germany. The landscape here was largely savanna, with rivers along which there was denser vegetation. You find a kind of baboon that originated in Ethiopia, and an African macaque monkey in the Jordan Valley. Add to that elephants and giraffes, and you get a safari zoo next to the Sea of Galilee.”
According to Yom-Tov, “what is singular about the Land of Israel is that it’s a transit region between continents, and that accounts for the great diversity of flora and fauna. Even today, the Land of Israel consists of a mixture of animals of completely different origins. Most are of northern origin, but about 20 percent, including hyraxes, are of tropical descent. We are on the edge of both Europe and Africa, and it’s on the edges that the interesting things happen.”