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World Environment Day: The desert is not deserted
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 04 - 06 - 2020

As the world turns its attention to the subject of biodiversity, the theme of this year's World Environment Day, it is worth reminding ourselves of the wonderfully diverse ecosystems that make Saudi Arabia so unique.
The country's biological diversity is one of the Kingdom's best kept secrets and it may come as a surprise that so many species exist in such a hot and dry landscape.
However, from the coastal lowlands to the arid desert, from the crystal clear sea to the stunning mountain ranges, a variety of ecosystems thrive in this remarkable landscape; each with its own distinct set of plants and animals that have adapted to their particular habitats.
Saudi Aramco is helping to protect the biodiversity within each of these ecosystems, whether that entails establishing one of the world's biggest fenced nature reserves (the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary) or building artificial reefs.
The sparkling Red Sea
If we were to travel from west to east across Saudi Arabia, we would begin in the sparkling waters of the Red Sea. This divine body of water is famous for one of the most biodiverse reefs in the world. These exquisite coral reefs are home to over 1,000 fish species, including uniquely Arabian examples such as the Arabian Angelfish, Arabian Blenny, and the Red Sea Seabream.
The Red Sea also contains hundreds of islands belonging to Saudi Arabia, which host a quarter of a million pairs of breeding seabirds every year. For example, most of the world's population of the stately White-eyed Gull forages and breeds in the rich, warm waters of the Red Sea.
Traveling east we encounter the picturesque Red Sea coastline, which holds unique shorebirds such as the Crab-plover, a species that breeds only in coastal areas around the Arabian Peninsula. This bird is a living fossil — it has no close relatives anywhere in the world.
Saudi Aramco has partnered with King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) to conduct detailed biological surveys and applied research to ensure that our operations do not impact upon the internationally significant habitats within this special ecosystem. Furthermore, we have planted 200,000 mangrove trees near Jazan where mangroves had previously grown.
The magnificent ‘Asir – a global biodiversity hotspot
Moving inland we come to the distinctive Tihama coastal plains, which biologically are a slice of eastern Africa peppered with Arabian species, such as the Arabian Toad, Arabian Partridge, and the enigmatic Arabian Grosbeak — a rare but gorgeous little bird.
We then move east into the prodigious ‘Asir Mountains, formally designated as one of the world's endemic biodiversity hotspots, which means it contains internationally significant numbers of distinctive plants and animals that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.
This is where we find unique animals such as the Arabian Scops-owl, the Arabian Chameleon, and the Arabian Leopard — the world's rarest big cat. It is also home to the ‘Asir Magpie — a highly endangered bird that lives in a few tiny high-altitude patches of juniper forest around Tanumah. Only 100 pairs remain, fewer with each passing year.
Saudi Aramco has designated three Company Biodiversity Protection Areas in the west, at Abha, Bahra, and Madinah, which cover 127 km2 and help to protect some of the Kingdoms most vulnerable wildlife.
The rocky central deserts
From the ‘Asir we can move north to the mighty Hijaz mountains where we find the resplendent Arabian Sunbird — often mistaken for a tiny humming bird — or east across the jumbled lava fields (known as harrats), and into the central Arabian deserts that lie atop the Arabian Shield, a three billion year old lump of bedrock that was exposed when the Red Sea split Arabia from Africa.
Here huge lumps of rock, jabals, provide habitat for Desert Tawny Owls, Arabian Mountain Gazelles, and Arabian Spiny Mouse.
Acacia-filled wadis dissect the landscape like the branches of a great tree providing food and shelter for countless native animals, such as the Arabian Babbler, Arabian Sand Gazelle, and Arabian Toad-headed Agama.
Within these wadis and gorges are tiny wetlands, home to a select range of native freshwater fish, almost all of which are unique to Arabia, such as the Arabian Garra, Arabian Himri, and the Arabian Bream — a fish that was first discovered in 1983 and not seen again until it was rediscovered in 2014 at Khaybar.
As we travel east we find the gravel deserts of the north, home to the Arabian Green Bee-eater, one of Saudi Arabia's most attractive birds, and the Arabian Lark, one of its most enigmatic.
Saudi Aramco has mapped the distribution and abundance of every bird species in Saudi Arabia. This allows us to create GIS maps of the most sensitive habitats, helping to avoid impacting the Kingdom's delicate bird fauna. The company has also established a biodiversity protection area at Udhailiyah to help protect some of the vulnerable desert plants and animals at the site.
The magnificent Rub' Al-Khali
Heading still further east takes us to the legendary sand seas of the Rub' Al-Khali and the Great Nafud, two immense deserts, as well as the Ad-Dahna, a river of sand that connects them. Even here, where life on Earth is pushed to the very limits of endurance, native animals manage to eke out an existence.
It is in these vast sand seas that small mammals bustle about, such as the Rub' Al-Khali Hare, and the Arabian Jird, as well as reptiles such as Arabian Sand Boa and Arabian Sandfish — a lizard that evades its predators by swimming beneath the sand.
To help protect one of the world's last true wildernesses, Saudi Aramco has constructed one of the largest fenced nature reserves in the world, the 637 km2 Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary. Three large bodied animals have been reintroduced into the sanctuary — the Arabian Sand Gazelle, the Ostrich, and the iconic Arabian Oryx. Each of these species is now free to once again roam the sand seas after being hunted to extinction in the wild.
The Eastern Province
Continuing our journey east we will encounter the Arabian Gulf coastal lowlands, which include the Al-Hasa oasis, Abqaiq wetlands, Dhahran community, as well as the Gulf coastline itself, which together support over 200 species of migratory birds that crisscross Saudi Arabia while traveling between Africa, Asia, Europe and India.
The Eastern Province lowlands are also home to unique local species, such as the Arabian Web-footed Gecko — perhaps the most adorable reptile imaginable.
Saudi Aramco has established Biodiversity Protection Areas at Abqaiq Wetlands, Tanajib, Safaniyah, Manifa, and Abu Ali, covering 213 km2 and helping to protect hundreds of native and migratory species. The company has planted over two million mangrove trees along the coast and is currently planting one million native desert trees inland to help restore lost vegetation.
Saudi Aramco has also produced the first ever field guide in Saudi Arabia, the Field Guide to the Biodiversity of Dhahran, which identifies the staggering biodiversity protected by the company's headquarters. In addition, we have developed a mangrove eco-park at Rahima Bay, which will provide educational facilities and a chance to explore the critical habitat provided by mangrove trees.
The mighty Arabian Gulf
Traveling west to east, our last stop is the Arabian Gulf, a relatively shallow body of water that supports the largest population of Dugongs outside of Australia. It is also home to numerous marine species found only in the Gulf, such as the Arabian Banded Whipray, Arabian Sillago, and Arabian Pandora.
The Arabian Gulf is also home to six shallow islands that support critically endangered nesting sea turtles and vast numbers of breeding seabirds in summer, including 35,000 pairs of threatened Socotra Cormorant — one third of the world's population.
Saudi Aramco helps to protect the ecosystem and biodiversity of the six Gulf islands, and has produced two invaluable books about the biodiversity of the gulf, Marine Atlas to the Western Arabian Gulf, and Ecosystems and Biodiversity of the Western Arabian Gulf: 50 years of Scientific Research, which showcase the exceptional biodiversity supported by the Gulf.
The desert is not deserted
When we add all this biodiversity together, we find that Saudi Arabia is home to precisely 500 species of birds, 117 mammals, 107 reptiles, 8 amphibians, and 1,230 fish. In total, almost 2,000 different animal species live in Saudi Arabia, along with 2,400 plant species and countless invertebrates.
The desert is not deserted. It is full of life.
There is one more species that lives in Saudi Arabia: humans.
It is no exaggeration to say that we humans need plants and animals for our very survival. They provide us with food, fuel and shelter; they pollinate our crops; they clean our water; they stabilize our sand; they are our primary source of medicine and clothing; they are the inspiration for our poetry; they improve our health; they make us live longer.
Saudi Aramco is helping to protect Saudi Arabia's native biodiversity and is constantly striving to conserve our natural resources in innovative ways.
As people around the planet mark World Environment Day, we renew our pledge to focus on supporting academic research in the field of ecology and the environment, particularly to benefit desert conservation projects worldwide.
— The writer is environmental specialist, Aramco


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