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How Saudi Arabia’s Wildlife Sanctuaries Help Conserve Rich Biodiversity

JEDDAH: Relentless economic development, accompanied by agricultural and industrial expansion, the extraction of minerals and fossil fuels, and improved health and nutrition, has led to a global population explosion.

This in turn has resulted in the encroachment of urban areas such as towns and villages on previously uninhabited lands and animal habitats.

As living standards have risen over the centuries, the upward trajectory of unsustainable development has placed a heavy burden on global ecosystems, with carbon emissions, deforestation and overexploitation of land and fisheries causing incalculable damage to the environment. plant and animal life.

According to the World Wildlife Fund’s biannual Living Planet Report 2020, around one million animal species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, with potentially catastrophic consequences for pollinators and our food systems.

But as Saudi Arabia’s efforts show, the picture is not uniformly bleak. From the rugged Hijaz Mountains and verdant oases in the east to the wide valleys and vast desert plains that make up 30% of the country’s land, the diverse landscape is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.

To preserve this wealth of biodiversity, authorities in the Kingdom have devoted considerable resources to conservation efforts, including funding projects to protect endangered species and expand nature reserves, thereby preventing further human encroachment on vulnerable habitats. .

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman watches gazelle foals run as he attends the launch of plans for a nature reserve in AlUla. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia spans the majority of the Arabian Peninsula, but is among the least populated countries in the world, allowing it to set aside large swaths of land as protected wildlife sanctuaries, free from the urban, agricultural or industrial expansion.

These efforts date back to 1978, when Saudi authorities set aside an initial area of ​​82,700 square kilometers to protect natural habitats. In 1986, the Kingdom established the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development to oversee conservation initiatives.

One of the first species-specific programs he initiated was a captive breeding project for Chlamydotis undulata macqueenii, better known as the houbara bustard, whose population had declined due to overhunting and land use changes.

Poaching, falconry, unregulated hunting, overfishing, overgrazing and habitat loss have all contributed to the bird’s classification as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Conservation Union’s endangered species list. of nature.

Several long-term breeding projects have been initiated to build a self-sustaining houbara population within a network of managed sites and prevent local extinction. The Prince Saud Al-Faisal Wildlife Research Center successfully hatched its first houbara egg in 1989.

Two years later, the center had raised enough of them to be released into the protected area of ​​Mahazat as-Sayd. In the first two years of the project, the center raised more than 2,000 houbaras for release into the wild.

Farasan Island Nature Reserve. (Provided/SPA)

Building on the center’s monumental work, the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Royal Nature Reserve Development Authority announced in August this year that it had launched its own houbara breeding center to help replenish populations. local.

As part of its ecological protection and restoration efforts, Saudi Arabia has mobilized ecologists, scientists and special task forces to collaborate with international bodies, including the IUCN, and develop plans for its nature reserves. .

Sanctuaries have been created to protect endangered species in the region. Many of them combine conservation work with the development of ecotourism and public recreational spaces.

Currently, the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development manages 15 protected areas and proposals to grant protected status to another 20 reserves are under consideration.

40 additional areas are managed by other entities including Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, Neighboring Countries and Royal Commissions for Jubail, Yanbu and AlUla , among others.

Among the existing reserves in the Kingdom that have helped endangered species thrive.

From the rugged Hijaz Mountains and verdant oases in the east to the wide valleys and vast desert plains that make up 30% of the country’s land, the diverse landscape is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. (AFP)

Covering an area of ​​130,700 square kilometres, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Nature Reserve, the largest reserve in the Kingdom, is home to around 277 native vertebrate species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Its three main conservation areas – Khunfah, Tubaiq and Harrat Al-Harra – provide refuge for the rhim gazelle, Arabian wolf, Arabian oryx, sand fox, Nubian ibex, lizard Arabian spinytail and various species of migratory birds including the houbara, golden eagle and Eurasian curlew.

“Considerable efforts are needed to protect and conserve species of conservation concern, primarily to ensure that these species are well protected from natural and human-induced threats,” a KSRNR spokesperson told Arab News. .

“These efforts include, but are not limited to, several protection and conservation programs of habitat restoration, reintroduction, monitoring, protection and awareness. Current reintroduction programs mainly concern flagship and endangered species such as the Arabian oryx, Nubian ibex, Arabian sand gazelle, Arabian gazelle and Asian houbara.

“Preliminary results from these programs and efforts are promising, such as the recording of signs of acclimation from individuals and the success of having newborn individuals in the wild of reintroduced species, including the first oryx to be born in nature for nine decades.

“Another achievement…within the KSRNR (is the) breeding population of the griffon vulture, which is considered to be one of the largest resident breeding populations of the species in the Middle East.”

Houbara bustards are released into the wild. (Provided)

Despite recent efforts by governments and agencies around the world to conserve ecosystems, the rate of wildlife and habitat loss is staggering.

“The main obstacles facing the animals are habitat degradation due to overgrazing by local herds of livestock, mainly camels, as well as hunting,” the KSRNR spokesperson said.

“The Royal Reserve’s specialist team is tackling these habitat degradation issues by carrying out restoration programs, as well as using advanced methods and technology to monitor and protect the animals.”

Marine habitats in particular are suffering from pollution, acidification and rising temperatures. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, for example, has lost more than half of its coral due to rising ocean temperatures in recent years.

Meanwhile, marine life is rapidly disappearing around the world, with whales, dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles and many species of fish disappearing twice as fast as terrestrial species.

The Farasan Islands, an archipelago off the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia, are renowned for their unique biodiversity. It is home to over 230 species of fish, a variety of coral reefs, and several endangered marine animals including dugongs.

The Arabian oryx is returning to the wild after years of uncontrolled hunting. (Provided)

Since 1996, the area has been a protected nature reserve covering 5,400 km2 and it was recently added to the UNESCO World Network of Island and Coastal Biosphere Reserves.

It is a sanctuary for the largest colony of edmi gazelles in the Kingdom, endemic to the region, as well as for the white-tailed mongoose and several species of rodents.

The area is also an important corridor for migratory birds, with around 165 species passing through it. It also has flamingos, Eurasian spoonbills, the largest concentration of pink-backed pelicans in the Red Sea, and the largest concentration of osprey in the Middle East.

Its remoteness has, to some extent, helped to preserve the region and its animal inhabitants. However, with new coastal developments, passing ships and warming waters, some terrestrial and marine species are now in decline, inspiring efforts to preserve and restore marine ecosystems.

Ten billion mangrove trees will be planted across Saudi Arabia as part of the Saudi Green Initiative, launched last year to fight climate change, reduce carbon emissions and improve the environment.

Millions of mangrove trees will be planted to help marine habitats. (Shutterstock)

Nature reserves contribute to the Kingdom’s reforestation initiative. KSRNR is working to recover 90% of degraded habitats by 2040, with an ambition to plant 70 million seedlings of native wildlife.

“KSRNR is planting 1 million native plant seedlings in 2022,” the spokesperson said. “This planting target will be doubled in 2023 to reach 2 million plants planted.

“This will be KSRNR’s contribution to SGI goals relative to its size. In 2030, we will aim for 30 million plants, and in 2040 we will aim for 70 million.

Despite these tremendous efforts and the work of conservationists elsewhere, experts warn that much more needs to be done, both in the region and globally, if the extinction of a greater breathtaking variety of animal species with which we share our planet.

Nicholas E. Crittendon