Picture by Dr. Mike Hill

Kuwait does not purport to be a tourist destination and it is unlikely to adopt such a position in the foreseeable future. On first appearances its physical geography seems to be quite limited, comprising as it does a predominantly desert landscape. Closer inspection, however, reveals a number of interesting features. First, there is the desert itself which, as those who have spent time in search of the country's natural delights will attest, has some rewarding environments with plants and animals that show fascinating adaptations to Kuwait's extreme temperatures. There are several distinct regional or localized features such as Jal Az Zor escarpment and ridge; Jahra marshes; Umm al-Rimam; Wadi Al Batin; Umm Niqa and the sand dunes of southern Kuwait. One of the richest biotopes is Kuwait's marine environment, both its shores and its underwater life. Here there are gems to be discovered that would satisfy even the most sceptical of visitors who felt that such an intensively developed country has little left to offer nature-lovers. And finally, beyond its mainland coastline are Kuwait's islands: Bubiyan, Failaka, Mishan, Umm al-Nammel, Auhhah, Kubbar, Qaruh and Umm al-Maradim.

Gulf War Aftermath
Having suffered what was probably the most intense environmental attack that any country has endured, there is an inevitable aftermath to the Gulf War that nature-watchers in Kuwait should take into account. First of all, national security measures require that certain areas are off-limits to the general public. These are usually well sign-posted but it makes sense to check with the local authorities before undertaking off-road exploration. Formal permits and authorized supervision are required to visit certain especially sensitive areas, including all border or near-border localities such as Bubiyan island. Secondly, whilst a massive mine-clearing and ordnance removal has been undertaken in Kuwait, and certain areas that were off-bounds have now been 'made-safe', it obviously makes sense to be careful. Inevitably, accidents have taken place and will probably do so for some time to come, despite the best efforts of the government to remove all the hazardous residue of Iraq's 1990-91 invasion and occupation. The good news is that, despite all the oil-flooding and toxic fumes, Kuwait's wildlife has proven to be far more resilient than many people expected. As often occurs in military conflicts, a reduction in human disturbance in many remote regions, has tended to favour recovery by many plants and animals.

Desert in Bloom
The word 'desert' is somewhat of a misnomer for the arid steppe-lands and low-lands of Kuwait's landscape. Scientists refer to the region as semi-desert and during winter-time there is a remarkable amount of vegetation, sufficient to support the camel-herds of old as well as a good variety of wildlife. Wild-flowers blossom in the desert after rain has fallen, often displaying compressed life-cycles whereby they emerge from the ground, bloom and produce seeds within very short time-spans. There are several good places to observe the desert in flower, the most famous of which is to the west of Kuwait, along the banks of tributaries of Wadi Batin. But this is by no means the only place to look and almost any area where rain-water collects will produce its own crop of desert flowers.

Camels & Other Grazers
The most obvious example of Arabian 'wildlife' one is likely to find in the Kuwaiti desert are camels. Although the camel has been domesticated it is a truly natural Arabian species, uniquely adapted to desert-life. This is in contrast to the goats and sheep which are also kept in large numbers, and which remain directly dependent upon the Bedouin for their survival. Unfortunately over-grazing by goats and sheep is damaging to the desert's natural plantlife and it is partly due to the reduction in their numbers, and restriction of their range, brought about by the Gulf War, that certain areas have experienced such encouraging recovery. Whereas goats and sheep devour virtually all of the greenery on each plant, camels take only a portion of the plant before moving on and their feeding stimulates, rather than depresses, vegetation growth. An Act passed in 1989 bans grazing across a large portion of Kuwait, equivalent to approximately half the total land area.

Among Kuwait's considerable reptilian fauna, the species most likely to entrance nature-watchers, especially those who venture forth in the early morning, is the spiny-tailed lizard or dhub. It is well worth staking-out a dhub burrow in order to get closer to these prehistoric-looking lizards. If cornered away from the safe refuge of its burrow, the dhub stands tall, stretching its legs to gain maximum height, pushing out its chest and hissing in a quite frightening manner: enough to warn off all but the most determined of predators. Whilst dhub has formed a traditional part of the Bedouin's diet, and was hitherto hunted in a sustainable manner, unfortunately the hunting continued in Arabia without the natural checks and balances of sustainable life-patterns. Apart from mankind however, dhub have other enemies including a member of their own family, the desert monitor or wurral. These are less common and harder to find than the dhub since they rove the desert in search of their prey which may include, apart from their fellow lizards, snakes, birds or small mammals. In addition to these two large lizards, the Kuwaiti desert has a good variety of other reptiles, providing the dominant contribution to the country-wide check-list of 38 species.

The sand boa is not uncommon in soft sand areas where it hides in wait for its prey (usually a lizard) which it kills by literally squeezing it to death! There are several other non-poisonous snakes in Kuwait, such as the leaf-nosed snake which also occurs in sandy areas, and the rat snake, more common in rocky areas. One of the commonest of the poisonous species is the Arabian rear-fanged snake which, as its name suggests, has its poison fangs situated at the back of its mouth and is therefore unlikely to pose a threat to nature-watchers, although it is obviously worth displaying caution. Among the snakes on the 'nice to have met you but excuse me while I run a mile' list are the horned viper and the black desert cobra. The latter, in particular, has an extremely toxic venom and should be treated with the utmost respect. Fortunately it is a very rare species with only a few specimens recorded. A measure of its lethal nature, however, is provided by the esteem with which the species is held in Bedouin folk-lore where it is believed that if the snake is killed, its spirit will return to demolish its attacker!

Kuwait's wildlife highlights are to be discovered among its birds - both resident breeding species and migratory forms. The breeding list for mainland Kuwait is relatively small, at around 16 species, of which the Desert Larks are perhaps the most prominent. What the country lacks in resident breeding species is more than compensated for by its long list of temporary visitors. Since Kuwait lies on a cross-roads for several important migratory routes the total bird count for the country is significant at around 280 species. The best time to bird-watch in Kuwait is at the peak of migration, during springtime when the largest numbers make their 'refuelling stops', feeding upon the relatively rich vegetation and associated wildlife that developed over the winter months. The Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) is one of the globally threatened species that can be seen passing over Kuwait city in April, but their numbers have declined in recent years.


Principal sites for bird-watching in Kuwait

Jal Az-Zor
Seen from across the shores of Kuwait Bay, the cliffs of Jal Az-Zor ridge and escarpment are a prominent feature of the landscape, acting like a magnet for many migratory falcons which perch along the ridge in the early morning before hitching a ride skywards on invisible thermal currents. The region, incorporating part of the ridge and the adjacent coastal area consisting of sand dunes, salt marshes and mud flats, has been incorporated into a protected area known as Jal az-Zor National Park. The protective fence was damaged during the Gulf War but it is understood that steps are being taken to re-establish the protected area. Among the highlights to be observed along the ridge are the Black Vulture which is a passage migrant passing through Kuwait in March and October; the Imperial Eagle which can be seen in March, October/November; and the Lesser Kestrel already referred to above.

Dawhat Kazima
This is a shrimp-rich shallow bay bordered by mud-flats which attract many coastal birds including Grey Herons, Avocets and quite large flocks of waders on their migration. At least 66 species have been seen here (Important Bird Areas of the Middle East). The shore here is also the home of Kuwait's endemic crab,Cleistostoma kuwaitense.

Ad-Doha Nature Reserve/ Al-Jahra Picnic area
The small reed beds here attract large numbers of migratory birds with at least 70 recorded species.

Sulaibikhat Bay
Large mud-flats with a fascinating associated fauna of mud-skippers and crabs provide rewarding feeding-grounds for many wading birds and waterfowl with more than 70 recorded species. Among the winter visitors here are the Crab Plover and Avocet.

Al-Jahra Pools Nature Reserve
The reed-lined pools of the Al-Jahra wetland are one of the best bird-watching sites in the whole of Kuwait with 220 recorded species. The pools are the result of effluent flowing from Al-Jahra town. It is described in Important Bird Areas of the Middle East as an 'important raptor migration bottleneck'. Among the raptors to be seen during their spring and autumn passages are Buzzard; Spotted Eagle; Steppe Eagle; Imperial Eagle; Marsh Harrier; Lesser Kestrel and Black Vulture.

Coral Islets including Kubbar Island
Here are sites for nesting terns including the Lesser Crested; Bridled; White-cheeked and Swift. Kubar is a favourite site for weekend visitors. In the past both green and hawksbill turtles nested among Kuwait's coral-islands but human disturbance may have been a factor in bringing this to an end.

Useful Addresses for Kuwait

Situated in the centre of Kuwait city, Kuwait's
Museum of Natural History has accumulated a mine of interesting information concerning the country's plants and animals. It is a useful starting point for those interested in discovering more about the country's wildlife.

The national authority with conservation as its main remit is the Environment Protection Council (EPC). Tel: 4835483; 4833165

Research into issues involving conservation are undertaken by relevant faculties at Kuwait University and by Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) P O Box 1638, Salmiya 22017 Kuwait.

The Public Authority for Agriculture Research & Fish Resources plays an important role in several areas of wildlife management, including providing the wardens for the Al-Jahra Pools Nature Reserve.
Issues of regional marine conservation are also handled by the
Regional Organisation for Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME) which is headquartered in Kuwait. Contact ROPME, P O Box 26388, Safat, Kuwait. Tel 5312140/1/2/3/4.

The Kuwait Ornithological Rarities Committee (KORC) was established in 1994. Contact Prof. Charles Pilcher, Faculty of Medicine, P O Box 24923, Safat, Kuwait.

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Arabian Wildlife. Volume 2, Number 2
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