Pictures by Dr. A.A. Khathlan & Lobley

Few people think of Saudi Arabia as a travel destination for eco-tourists and yet the country contains many fascinating wildlife habitats, including a number that have remained relatively undisturbed. Whether one is interested in marinelife, plantlife; invertebrates such as butterflies and other insects; reptiles, birds, mammals or other animals, it is likely that intelligent exploration will surprise and delight those who make the effort, and will open up a whole new dimension to one's perception of this vast country.

Eco-tourism in Saudi Arabia is primarily focussed on internal travel by residents to areas of interest from a wildlife viewpoint. Despite the fact that it is not an international destination, within the general sense of tourism marketing, it would be a mistake to under-estimate the economic or social value of the country's domestic tourism sector or of the role that nature and wildlife can play in this.

audi Arabia's impressive natural beauty was captivatingly portrayed in the three-part television series, Arabia Sand Sea Sky, which was broadcast all over the world and won major international awards for its wildlife photography and production standards. The fact that such films can be made in Saudi Arabia is an important indicator of just how valuable the country's wildlife is, both as a national resource and as a vital factor in the survival of many Arabian species.

Saudi Arabia's birds are among the best studied aspects of its wildlife. The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia (ABBA) project which has now been running for over ten years has accumulated much valuable information on the status of the Kingdom's breeding birds. The recent publication by BirdLife International of Important Birds Areas in the Middle East, lists 39 sites in Saudi Arabia and acknowledges that this may not represent the entire picture since over 100 sites have been ear-marked by NCWCD for protection and many of these are not well known from an ornithological viewpoint but may merit inclusion at a later date. Highlights of bird-watching in west and south-west Saudi Arabia have been reviewed in Arabian Wildlife in a two-part article on the subject, published in Vol 1, no 2 and in this issue. Other areas will be discussed in future issues. A brief summary of the major sites is given in the table on the opposite page .

If contemplating a special journey within Saudi Arabia in order to enjoy the country's natural attractions, then these are some of the places that are worth visiting. There are of course many others and almost anywhere off the beaten track will reward investigation. Needless to say, proper customary, safety and regulatory procedures should always be followed. If in doubt about a certain area enquiries should be made beforehand. If planning to visit any of the protected areas then permission should first be obtained from the NCWCD (Tel: 01 441 8700; fax 01 4410797).

Both snorkelling and scuba diving are well-established activities in Saudi Arabia with dive-clubs; diving shops; training schools; and special interest groups vying with each other for members, customers and pupils. There are national and regional diving regulations which should be checked out with a local dive-shop prior to any underwater explorations. Once properly organized, equipped and trained, the Red Sea offers some superb diving, combined with opportunities to experience spectacular marinelife, and it remains one of the most enjoyable and keenly supported outdoor activities in the Kingdom.

Given that urban and ribbon developments have taken a heavy toll on coral reefs and marinelife close to the major cities, such as Jeddah, and that the direct impact of divers on underwater habitats is an increasing threat to their survival as more and more people take up the sport, there is a real need to encourage environmentally friendly diving practices. These include no spearfishing, use of fixed moorings rather than anchors (which destroy corals); correct weighting of divers; careful use of flippers; a complete ban on any form of marinelife collecting whilst diving and the designation of special 'no-go' areas where marinelife is left undisturbed.

Desert treks
Various locally-based organizations arrange well-planned excursions into the desert. These trips can present a good opportunity to become familiar with desert flora and fauna. They are carried out by groups of four-wheel- drive vehicles, at least one of which is equipped with navigation equipment. Experienced desert travellers act as guides and careful planning is undertaken to ensure that full safety equipment is carried, along with any necessary permits. Readers wishing to experience the Saudi Arabian desert for the first time are advised to participate in one of these excursions. At the other end of the scale in terms of desert exploration in Saudi Arabia are the special expeditions that are carried out, frequently involving crossings of the Empty Quarter, the world's largest expanse of sand desert. Such trips require professional expertise and support. They are not to be undertaken lightly.

The best time to view flowering plants in Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly the spring, in areas where winter rains fall. In addition the highland areas remain moist throughout the year and they have their own characteristic flora.

Shiela Collonette's epic book on the wild-flowering plants of Saudi Arabia contains 1700 pictures of over 1500 species. This is not the complete flora of the country but it does provide a vivid illustration of just how rich Arabia is in plantlife - something that many people find hard to equate with their perception of an arid wasteland.

Wildflowers are as much in need of our protection as is the abundant marinelife mentioned above. Habitat loss and degradation through over-grazing by domestic herds, or by building developments, have played a major role in restricting the range of many species. Those that survive deserve better from us than to be picked or trodden on without consideration for their future.

Fossil Hunting
Saudi Arabia's modern development has been financed from a form of fossil-hunting - the recovery of oil from deep below present ground levels by tapping in to the trapped organic remains of ancient marinelife. Oil prospectors and geologists use fossils as indicators of the age of certain rock structures. Saudi Arabia can be a rich place for fossil hunting and, whilst many fossils that are found here are the remains of creatures that once lived in shallow seas covering much of the peninsula, there are also numerous terrestrial fossils.

Among the most fascinating fossil-bearing areas of Saudi Arabia are the Miocene mammal-bearing sites on the eastern side of the country. The area around Ad Dabtiyah (26° 27'02"N; 48°35'24"E) has been investigated by members of the Department of Palaeontology of the British Museum who have discovered fossils of a group of animals which were once spread from Africa, across parts of Europe and into Asia. The creatures found here include the Asian mastodon, two species of rhinoceros, a new genus of hominoid regarded as in 'the sister group of the great ape' and remains of palm trees that suggest the area was once covered in woodland. Crocodile bones have also been discovered. Further information on this particular site is available in the following reference: Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology. Vol 41 No 4 29, October 1987, in a report entitled: 'Miocene geology and palaeontology of Ad Dabtiyah, Saudi Arabia'.

There are sites all over Saudi Arabia that yield interesting fossils. The above is just one of these fascinating examples.

Cave-exploration and Rock Art
The fact that Arabia enjoyed a wetter and more amenable climate during the period 8000 to 2000 BC meant that areas of the country which support little vegetation today, due to the arid climate, were once suitable for human settlement and supported a wide selection of wildlife. A systematic study of rock art throughout Saudi Arabia formed part of a general archaeological survey undertaken during the 1980s under direction of Dr Abdullah H. Masry, then director of Antiquities and Museums. The survey revealed a fascinating wealth of cave drawings which provide an insight into how man and animals lived at that time. The most frequently figured wild animals of the rock art are oryx, ibex, camels, ostriches, and some other birds. Major sites are concentrated in the north, north-west, west and south-west of the country with important locations at Jubbah (a short distance inside the Nafud desert) 85 kms north of Hail; and at Hanakiyah 130 kms east of al-Madina.There is a site approximately 110 kms west of Riyadh, on the New Makkah Highway, known among local people as 'Graffiti Rock'. Animals depicted on the rock include adult ostrich with chicks of about 3 months old; a long-horned bovine, ibex, camels, hyaena, onager, and probably a leopard.

Unlike many animals whose numbers have followed an inverse relationship to the rise of human population, baboons have adapted to the presence of man, and their numbers have increased locally, as a result of increased food supply. Thus, the baboons that one sees on the mountain roads of south-western Saudi Arabia are no longer afraid of people but they are still part of a wild population. Their social life has been closely investigated by NCWCD biologists who showed that, unlike their African cousins, the Arabian hamadryas female baboons pair for life, remaining faithful to a single male. The males on the other hand gather together a group of females and thus form quite large family units comprising the father, several 'wives' and their offspring. Baboon numbers used to be partially controlled by their natural predators, leopard and striped hyaena but these have been hunted over many years so that they no longer provide a natural check to baboon numbers. Visitors to the baboon areas are requested to refrain from feeding the baboons. It is hoped that they will gradually adopt more natural behaviour.

A green turtle lumbering ashore on one of the nesting beaches in the Red Sea or Arabian Gulf may not have been back to that place since its birth, when it climbed out of the sand as a vulnerable hatchling, possibly as long as 60 years ago. Whilst turtles depend upon being able to rear their young by burying their eggs on sandy beaches, above the tide-line, this is also where they are at their most vulnerable. It is almost as if the traumatic experience of running the gauntlet of marauding gulls, foxes, crabs, groupers and sharks, as young hatchlings trying to make their way out to the relative safety of the open sea, formed such a strong impression upon them that it takes the irrepressible instincts of breeding to return to such a dangerous place.

During the lives of these ancient and magnificent maturing reptiles the impact of man upon their natural world has increased significantly. Nevertheless, they have survived, and after running the gamut of monofilament fishing nets, fish and shrimp trawls, threats from increasingly fast and large commercial ships, pollution and loss of inshore feeding grounds, the males and females finally congregate in the shallow waters close to their traditional nesting beaches. In the Arabian Gulf, they start to come ashore in April and continue to do so for several months. It is an incredibly moving sight to watch the old females emerging from the moonlit waves in order to struggle up the beach, carrying their heavy load; and then to see the care with which they select a nesting site and delicately place their pearly white eggs in the beautifully excavated egg chamber.

Given the effort that they have made to reach their nesting beaches and the continued threats to their survival, the last thing that any of us would want is that man's love for turtles, and our inquistiveness about their behaviour, should itself pose an additional threat to their lives. Thus 'turtle-watching' per se has to be a very carefully controlled activity. In the event that you come across nesting turtles on unprotected sites, then great care should be taken not to disturb them. In practice, what this means is that no lights should be shone towards the sea (discouraging other turtles from coming ashore), noise and movement should be minimized, and one should keep away from nesting turtles until they have completed their excavations and commenced chambering, immediately prior to egg-laying. At that stage a quiet approach will not put them off their task but one should take care not to disturb their efforts and it is enough to simply lie on the warm sand and soak in the timeless scene, like something from a prehistoric world. When the egg-laying is completed the turtles cover their eggs, energetically scooping or flinging the sand back over them as they climb out of the deep pit and crawl back down the beach and into the welcoming waves.

Nature Photography
Winter and spring are probably the best periods for nature photography in Saudi Arabia. An understanding of the animals, their natural behaviour and their habitats is essential for good wildlife photography. Professional wildlife cameramen, whose living depends upon bringing home stunning close-ups of animals, are among the first to ensure that their actions do not disturb the creatures that they are photographing. Thus for example, a good wildlife photographer will never force a bird to leave its nest long enough for eggs or chicks to over-heat (or become too cold), or for predators to leap in and attack the nest. Such photographers firmly believe that the animal comes before their own desire to take the ultimate picture. Amateur cameramen are often not quite so well versed in the etiquette of nature photography but it is hoped that readers of this article will aspire to the ranks of the professionals - at least in their caring approach to wildlife. This is also a hobby that requires great patience, often having to remain still for hours in order to take a single picture. If choice of locality is combined with a knowledge of what to expect there at a particular time of year, the results can be well worth the effort. Study the table of recommended locations for bird-watching and time your visits to coincide with particular events in the natural calendar, such as nesting time, or spring or autumn migrations. Equipment for nature photography is continually improving and Arabian Wildlife magazine runs regular features on special techniques or items of equipment that can enhance efforts. Finally, remember to enter your best wildlife pictures in the Arabian Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition!

USEFUL ADDRESSES: The National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD),
P O Box 61681, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


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Arabian Wildlife. Volume 2, Number 2
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