In the Bible, a man named Noah built an ark to save two animals of every species during a major flood that engulfed the planet. A more recent tale centers on an Israeli general, Avraham Yoffe, with a similar mission: wildlife preservation in Israel.
The Wall Street Journal has the story of Yoffe’s dramatic rescue of fallow deer in an event known as a “deer lift” on the eve of the Islamic revolution. On Nov. 28, 1978, zoologist Mike Van Grevenbroek traveled to Tehran from Israel carrying a hidden blow-dart gun and secret orders from an Israeli general. “His mission,” reported The Journal, was “to capture four Persian fallow deer and deliver them to Israel before the shah’s government collapsed.”
The mission was part of a years-long effort to reintroduce to Israel the animals mentioned in the Jewish Holy Scriptures, including onagers, oryxes and ostriches. In December 2009, the story gained another chapter: Israeli wildlife officials released four descendents of the Iranian deer into the Jerusalem hills. There, nearly 500 fallow deer now roam freely in the wild.
Wildlife preservation gained prominence in Israel in 1962 with the passage of a conservation law. At that time, Yoffe was appointed head of the new Israeli Nature and Parks Authority.
An extremely rare species, the Persian fallow deer stands 3 feet tall and was thought to be hunted to extinction by the 1900s. The deer was rediscovered in Iran in the late 1950s, and that’s when Yoffe began courting Iranian officials. In 1978, the shah’s brother, Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi, an avid hunter, agreed to give Yoffe four fallow deer. Later that year, Yoffe had a heart attack and asked Itzik Segev, Iran’s last military attaché to Iran, to take over for him on the ground.
“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,’” Segev recently recalled.
At the time, 1,700 Israelis lived in Iran and the clock was ticking — for them and for Yoffe’s deal for the deer, which would expire with the collapse of the shah’s government. Dispatched to Iran, Van Grevenbroek captured the four deer at a game preserve on the Caspian Sea, 10 hours from Iran. “There was shooting all over the streets, and here I am, an Israeli general, going to the zoo,” Segev recalled.
They nailed the deer’s crates shut and loaded them onto the last flight out of Tehran operated by the Israeli airline El Al. “I arrived to the airport in Tel Aviv,” Van Grevenbroek said, “unloaded the deer and there's the big general waiting with tears in his eyes.”