Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 13 July 2020

Newborn gazelle represents a milestone for conservation efforts in Saudi's Al Ula

Plans to create an ecosystem that can support endangered Arabian leopards starts with the shaky first steps of a newborn antelope

Healthy gazelle populations are key to "potential re-birth of Sharaan as a complete, fully-functioning eco-system". Courtesy Al Ula
Healthy gazelle populations are key to "potential re-birth of Sharaan as a complete, fully-functioning eco-system". Courtesy Al Ula

The first steps of a baby gazelle, taken this week under the watchful eyes of rangers from Al Ula’s Sharaan Nature Reserve, were a milestone for the region in Saudi Arabia.

They represented the first successful efforts in the re-wilding of Al Ula, after decades of overgrazing and other human activity destabilised the fragile natural environment.

[They signify the] very early steps towards the potential rebirth of Sharaan as a complete, fully-functioning ecosystem as it once was hundreds of years ago

“We’re delighted with this first generation of native-born gazelles here, signifying very early steps towards the potential rebirth of Sharaan as a complete, fully-functioning ecosystem as it once was hundreds of years ago,” says Frank Rietkerk, captive breeding manager at the Royal Commission for Al Ula.

"We’re still in the first stages, but we’ve had some crucial early successes, this new generation of gazelles, of course, but also re-establishing the vegetation they need to survive."

Healthy gazelle populations are key to "potential re-birth of Sharaan as a complete, fully-functioning eco-system". Courtesy Al Ula
Healthy gazelle populations are key to "potential re-birth of Sharaan as a complete, fully-functioning eco-system". Courtesy Al Ula

The baby gazelle’s new home, Sharaan, was designated as a nature reserve because of its extensive geological, topographical and environmental features. The aim is to restore a fully functioning ecosystem, with a view to eventually introducing critically endangered Arabian leopards in the area.

“We believe that the Arabian leopard was once well-established here as one of Al Ula’s native species and its presence looms large in the area’s ancient history and even persists now in the popular imagination,” Rietkerk explains.

“Sadly, both hunting and the damage to the wider environment have caused their numbers to fall precipitously. We are now working to a five to 10 year timescale to reintroduce these majestic big cats.”

Sharaan Nature Reserve. Courtesy Al Ula
Sharran Nature Reserve. Courtesy Al Ula

As part of its wider conservation plan, the Royal Commission for Al Ula signed an agreement in June 2019 with Panthera, a world leader in wild cat conservation.

“Leopards are perhaps not the first animal people think of when they think of Saudi Arabian wildlife,” says Dr. Guy Balme, Panthera leopard programme director and conservation science deputy executive director. “With this new partnership we’re excited to work with RCU in addressing the reason behind that."

As part of this process, the team is establishing a network of wildlife detection cameras, in 10 key sites across Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to uncover how many leopards remain in the wild.

A ranger on patrol in Sharaan. Courtesy Al Ula
A ranger on patrol in Sharaan. Courtesy Al Ula

Over the next two years, RCU, Panthera, and Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) teams will place up to 80 cameras in each of the 10 sites. Each camera station is capable of storing approximately 6,000 images.

A baseline of wild Arabian leopard populations across Saudi Arabia will provide information needed to fine-tune the vision for a reintroduction of Arabian leopards in Al Ula.

If we can’t make this habitat work for the gazelles, then it won’t work for the leopards

But first, the gazelles must thrive. “We’re not looking to have a hands-on approach to supporting the leopards,” Rietkerk. “We want to see this ecosystem function as it did before we humans disrupted it.

"That’s why it’s so important to get the whole food-chain rebalanced – from the plant-life, through the herbivores, and up to the leopards and other apex predators. Ultimately, if we can’t make this habitat work for the gazelles, then it won’t work for the leopards.”

Updated: June 5, 2020 12:28 PM

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