How the Mossad Saved a Biblical Deer Species from Iran

November 25, 2020 | Aaron Reich
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Among the undomesticated mammals listed as kosher in the book of Deuteronomy, is the yaḥmur, usually thought to be the fallow deer or roebuck. The creature is mentioned only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Kings, which states that the daily provisioning of Solomon’s palace included “ten fattened oxen, twenty pasture-fed oxen, and 100 sheep and goats, besides deer and gazelles, fallow deer and fatted geese.” While this species was once plentiful in the Land of Israel, they were thought to have become extinct in the 19th century—until, in the 1950s, a small population was discovered in Persia. Aaron Reich recounts the remarkable rescue operation that ensued, details of which only recently became public knowledge:

Israel tried to arrange with the shah of Iran for two members of the small Persian fallow-deer herd to be sent to Israel. Their efforts included Avraham Yoffe, [a former general and then then the head of the Nature and Parks Authority], working to court the shah’s brother, avid hunter Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi, inviting him to the Negev to hunt Nubian ibex. The ibex is a protected species in Israel but then-agricultural minister Ariel Sharon made an exception, . . . but no progress was made for nearly two decades.

[At last], Yoffe himself went to Tehran to retrieve the deer on invitation from the shah’s brother, but had a mild heart attack on arrival. . . . But everything changed in December 1978. Sensing the impending revolution, the Nature and Parks Authority was called by the shah, who told them to dispatch Mossad agents immediately to secure the deer.

By the time the agent arrived—reportedly the zoologist Mike Van Grevenbroek, armed with a blowgun disguised as a cane—nobody was there to greet him. The shah and his family had fled the country, and the agent was ordered to leave at once.

Despite the circumstances, the operation succeeded, and Israel now has a few hundred of the deer, which are being gradually reintroduced into the wild.

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