Nature reserves and their contribution to preserving biodiversity in Saudi Arabia

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

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

While living standards have risen over the centuries, the upward trajectory of unsustainable development has placed a heavy burden on the planet’s ecosystems. Carbon emissions, deforestation and overexploitation of land and fisheries have caused incalculable damage to plant and animal life.

According to the biannual “Living Planet Report 2020” from the World Wide Fund for Nature, around one million animal species are threatened with 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 mountains of the Hejaz to the verdant oases of the east, to the wide valleys and vast desert plains that make up 30% of the country’s land, this diverse landscape is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.

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

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

Saudi Arabia covers most of the Arabian Peninsula, but is one of the least populated countries in the world, allowing it to set aside large swathes of land as protected nature reserves, free from all 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 these conservation initiatives.

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

Poaching, falconry, unregulated hunting, overfishing, overgrazing and habitat loss have contributed to classifying the bird as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered species list. .

Several long-term breeding projects have been initiated in order to build a self-sustaining population of houbara 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 bred enough Houbara Bustards to be able to release them 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. (Photo provided/SPA)

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

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 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN ), and develop plans for its nature reserves.

Reserves 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 the Conservation and Development of Wildlife manages 15 protected areas, and proposals to grant protected area status to another 20 reserves are under consideration.

Another 40 areas are managed by other institutions, including the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs, neighboring countries and the royal commissions of Jubail, Yanbu and AlUla , among others.

The Prince Saud Al-Faisal Wildlife Research Center in Taif, the Prince Mohammed Al-Sudairy Center for Reem Gazelle Breeding in Al-Qassim, and the Sharaan Arabian Leopard Nature Reserve in AlUla are among the reserves existing in the Kingdom that have enabled endangered species to thrive.

From the steep mountains of the Hejaz to the green oases of the east, passing through the wide valleys and the vast desert plains which represent 30% of the country’s land, the diversity of the landscapes is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. (Picture, AFP)

Covering an area of ​​130,700 square kilometers, 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 – serve as a sanctuary for 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 sparrowhawk.

“Substantial efforts are needed to protect and conserve species of conservation concern, primarily with a view to ensuring that these species are well protected against natural and human-made threats,” a spokesperson said. from the King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Nature Reserve, to Arab News.

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

He said “Preliminary results from these programs and efforts are promising, such as the recording of signs of species acclimatization and the successful birth in the wild of the reintroduced species, including the first oryx to be born in the wild. for nine decades.

“Another achievement…within the King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Nature Reserve 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,” underlined the spokesman of the reserve.

From the rugged Hijaz Mountains and verdant oases in the east to 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 (Photo, AFP).

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

“The main obstacles facing the animals are habitat degradation due to overgrazing by local livestock herds, mainly camels, as well as hunting,” said spokesman for the Royal King Salman Nature Reserve bin Abdelaziz.

He said, “The Royal Reserve’s specialist team is tackling these habitat degradation issues by carrying out restoration programmes, as well as using advanced methods and technologies with the aim of monitoring and protecting the habitats. 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 corals 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 located off the southwestern coast of Saudi Arabia, are renowned for their unique biodiversity. There are more than 230 species of fish, a variety of coral reefs and several endangered marine animals, including dugongs.

Houbara bustards are released into the wild (Photo, Supplied).

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

It is a reserve for the Kingdom’s largest colony of edmi gazelles, which are 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. Also found here are flamingos, Eurasian spoonbills, the largest concentration of pink-backed pelicans in the Red Sea, and the largest concentration of ospreys in the Middle East.

Its isolation has, to some extent, helped preserve the area 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 mangroves 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.

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

Nature reserves contribute to the Kingdom’s afforestation initiative. The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Nature Reserve is working to recover 90% of degraded habitats by 2040, with an ambition to plant 70 million seedlings of native wildlife.

The King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Nature Reserve will plant 1 million seedlings of native plants in 2022,” its spokesperson revealed. “This planting target will be doubled during the year 2023 to reach 2 million seedlings planted”.

Millions of mangroves will be planted to help marine habitats (Photo, Shutterstock).

“This will be the King Salman bin Abdulaziz Royal Nature Reserve’s contribution to the Saudi Green Initiative goals in relation to its area. In 2030 we will aim for 30 million trees, and in 2040 our goal will be 70 million,” he said.

Despite these remarkable efforts, and the work of conservationists elsewhere, experts warn that much remains to be done, both in the region and globally. All this in order to avoid the extinction of a greater number of animal species, of a breathtaking variety, with which we share our planet.

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Nature reserves and their contribution to preserving biodiversity in Saudi Arabia

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