x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

New hope for survival of Arabian oryx

A project in Jordan's Wadi Rum is the latest in a series of schemes to reintroduce the Arabian oryx into the wild.

Twenty Arabian Oryx from the UAE were released in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert this summer to save the species from extinction.
Twenty Arabian Oryx from the UAE were released in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert this summer to save the species from extinction.

While some questions have been raised about the long-term success of a joint Emirati-Jordanian project to reintroduce endangered Arabian oryx into the wild, experts have defended the conservation efforts. The project in Jordan's Wadi Rum is the latest in a series of schemes to reintroduce the animal into the wild. The small ungulate variety was once populous across the Arabian peninsula but became officially extinct in the wild in 1972 as a result of over-hunting and the destruction of its habitat.

Conservation efforts began only a few years later, but their success has been limited, and some experts believe that this latest attempt, a joint project between the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD) and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority in Jordan (ASEZA), will fare no better. Earlier this year 20 Arabian oryx - 12 females and eight males - were flown to Jordan from Abu Dhabi as part of a conservation agreement between the EAD and ASEZA. The deal, signed in 2007 when Abu Dhabi agreed to fund the US$1.1 million (Dh4m) Wadi Rum project, is valid for three years. The animals were finally released into Wadi Rum in July.

According to Mohammed al Bawardi, the managing director of the EAD and secretary general of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, the plan to reinvigorate a dwindling Arabian oryx population was born in the 1970s under Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, who kept two breeding pairs in captivity. Abu Dhabi holds the largest population of the endangered species in the world, with around 4,000 animals.

A similar 2005 trial in Wadi Rum was troubled: the six animals introduced had difficulty adapting to the mountainous terrain. Two deaths resulted from oryx falling on the rocky cliffs. Of the animals that did survive, two produced two offspring, but not enough to regenerate a non-existent population. Nevertheless, Mahmoud Bdour, who works for both the ASEZA and Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), maintains that the rocky, mountainous ecosystem in Wadi Rum is suitable for the reintroduction programme. But Yahia Khaled, a biologist and director general of the RSCN, argues that the Arabian oryx may be native to Jordan, but not to Wadi Rum. "It's a desert animal, yes, but it's not a mountain animal," he said, adding that the RSCN had been conducting studies for years, looking at the suitability of Wadi Rum as a location for oryx. It concluded that the area was too heavily grazed, making it easy for diseases to be transferred. "The oryx need to be released in a less mountainous area than Wadi Rum," he said. Dr Frederic Launay, a biologist and trustee at the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, who is not connected to the project, said it was too soon to speculate about the success of the Wadi Rum venture but that ruling out a positive outcome was cynical. To be meaningful, he said, a conservation programme such as this required long-term commitment. "A lot has been learnt about species reintroduction since the beginning of the 20th century," Dr Launay said. "But you need this funding for a long time. You need follow-up. All the causes of the original decline need to be removed and controlled. "Habitat, quality, size, protection and management all need to be secured. Conservation is a dynamic process; you really need to do it forever." The animals just released in the wadi - an area of 720 sq km - may also face the problem of conflicting interpretations of the environmental laws and regulations meant to protect them and their habitat. Until 2002, Wadi Rum fell under the jurisdiction of the RSCN, before being transferred to the ASEZA. According to Mr Bdour, hunting is permitted in Wadi Rum. But according to a copy of Jordan's environmental laws obtained by The National, Wadi Rum is not among the legal hunting areas. The laws also ban any human activity in the protected area that would have any effect on flora and fauna, cause pollution or in any way hinder the survival of species. The ASEZA is bound by these laws as steward of Wadi Rum to "provide adequate protected area" for the Arabian oryx and other endangered species released in this area. Unfortunately for the project, Mr Khaled said, the ASEZA could not enforce laws outside the Wadi Rum area. "Hunting and poaching were a big problem here which has been improved in the protected area, but you have to understand that the oryx were released from Wadi Rum, not to Wadi Rum," he said. "They're going to roam outside the area." jhume@thenational.ae