Serengeti of the Desert? Saudi Arabia Acts on a Wild Ambition

Through high-tech captive breeding, the kingdom bids for natural restoration

Dramatic changes in the survival saga of Saudi Arabia's wildlife in many ways resemble tales of the expanding American frontier.

Livestock grazing here has destroyed much of the natural ground cover, and the advent of firearms and four-wheel-drive vehicles earlier this century turned every corner of the desert into a shooting gallery.

In Saudi Arabia, the last wild Arabian oryx - a graceful white antelope with long curved horns that adapted to the harsh desert over millenia - was killed by hunters in 1972.

"Guns and four-wheel-drives did to the oryx what frontiersmen did to the American buffalo. They were shot by the thousands," says a Western diplomat. "But now there is a big interest in saving such wildlife before it slips away."

Just as President Theodore Roosevelt saved the buffalo from the brink of extinction and set aside vast chunks of the country for wildlife preservation, the Saudis have also taken the lead in the Arabian peninsula by reintroducing and protecting endangered animals.

Rediscovering a heritage

In little more than a decade, the Desert Kingdom has established 14 protected areas, and plans to protect a total of 10 percent of the country.

Ambitious, state-of-the-art captive breeding programs have successfully brought back a breed of red-necked ostrich from Sudan whose Arabian kin were decimated 50 years ago, and the houbara bustard, a game bird.

For Saudis, saving wildlife has become an integral part of a growing fascination with their history. Awash with money from tapping the world's largest oil deposits - until very recently, "progress" meant only things new and modern - Saudis are rediscovering their desert heritage.

Success so far has officials dreaming about a return to centuries past, when the bleak peninsula was partly green, and known as the "Serengeti of Arabia."

"The environment here has become a part of human life," says Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the defense minister and a driving force behind Saudi Arabia's wildlife efforts, in an interview. "The Kingdom has seen the importance of this issue. It doesn't just mean environment for animals and birds, but for people also."

With the political will of Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy behind them, scientists and ecologists from inside the kingdom and around the world have set to work resuscitating the desert.

The heart of the program is the National Wildlife Research Center near Taif, on a plateau to the east above the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Here animals such as the oryx have been brought from outside and captively bred, then prepared for release in the wild.

Modern methods

Celebrated in Arab poetry and possibly the origin of the myth of the unicorn, the Arabian oryx is an example here of how modern scientific methods can recreate the past. Oryx were genetically mapped and bred to ensure a diverse genetic background that would grow normally in the wild.

Preparations for a release are a caricature of an initiation rite: Oryx are kept in progressively smaller pens, loaded onto vehicles, and driven for trial runs.

On traveling day, cotton is put in their ears, and the oryx are driven to the wide Mahazat as-Sayd reserve or flown to the edge of the so-called Empty Quarter, the southeastern portion of the country.

They are also fitted with radio transmitter collars for easy tracking. When released, they stay for weeks in progressively larger pens until they are let free. So far, free ranging herds number some 300 oryx, and growing.

The houbara bustard program has also been successful, though turning pampered birds into wiley ones that can elude natural predators like foxes has not been easy. More than 1,000 birds have been bred.

"They have spent millions on saving the bustard," says the diplomat. "Each bird is very expensive."

"If you look at the rest of the Arab countries, I think we have achieved something," says Mohammed Shobrak, a bird ecologist with the research center. "I wish wildlife protection had begun long ago, because there is so much we didn't see."

"The problem is that nothing was written in the 1950s and '60s. But now we are writing so that future generations will know about it," he says. "Children today only see animals in zoos, but maybe the next generation will be better educated and take care."

One teaching aid is a large poster of two trees in the desert, standing next to each other. One is green and normal; the other is dead and entangled by dozens of plastic feed bags carried by the wind. The moral of the story: When land is overgrazed, herders must buy grain to feed their livestock, creating a further hazard.

Some resistance

As with wildlife programs from Alaska to Africa, however, there is resistance in Saudi Arabia to fencing off and protecting land from those who have always hunted or grazed animals on it.

"There has been quiet but violent protest," says the diplomat. "Signs have been taken down, and fences cut. It is the 'silent sand' saying 'We don't approve.' "

"Before it did not affect them," he adds. "Everyone in their tents in the desert could watch King Fahd and the Gulf War on TV. But now land has been fenced off, and you just can't shoot at anything you want. Land use has become an issue."

Still, the difference between the rejuvenated ground cover of the reserve areas and the overgrazed desert is immense. The key is educating all Saudis to such benefits for the future, says Dr. Shobrak, the ecologist.

A case in point is the habitual feeding of troops of baboons along mountain roads.

"We'd like them to go back to the wild, though the only way to do so is to stop the interference of humans," he notes. "People say: 'The baboons are coming to us,' but really we are coming to them."

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