Teddy Roosevelt, the father of national parks, prodded most Americans into realizing that even their great tracts of land couldn't stand up forever against the ravages of man. In Jordan an alert king and a handful of wildlife experts are doing the same thing for the Jordanians.
A few years ago concerned Jordanian officials suddenly realized that even deserts can suffer from man's neglect. A whole new area of the young kingdom—the desert to the east of the marginally productive highlands—badly needed help. Goats were stripping the plant cover. Bedouin families were burning up precious shrubs—most of the plants growing on a quarter acre of land—every time they brewed a pot of coffee. Desert springs were drying up. Wildlife was vanishing.
Half a century ago, a man with a gun could live off the desert in Jordan. Gazelles and Houbara bustards could be shot almost everywhere. There were plenty of Arabian oryx, and ostrich eggs could provide an occasional meal. But since 1916 (the year the U.S. National Park Service was established), Jordan—through over-hunting—has seen the wild ass, the fallow deer, the Syrian bear, the ostrich and the oryx vanish. The cheetah, both the Arabian and Dorcas gazelles and the Houbara bustard, all of which were once plentiful, now exist only in very small numbers.
In the spring of 1963, an alarmed King Hussein invited a group of British scholars, scientists and naturalists to conduct an extensive survey of the rugged mountains on the eastern side of the Dead Sea valley and the deserts to the east of the mountains. An expedition of internationally known experts in conservation, botany, ornithology and archeology went to Jordan and covered 3,000 miles—chiefly over desert tracks—collecting plants, tagging and counting birds and photographing the terrain and the fauna, before preparing recommendations on the conservation of the desert's natural resources for the kingdom.
The experts visited mountain areas 5,500 feet high, the Dead Sea shore 1,300 feet below sea level, the Red Sea coast at Aqaba, the rocky canyons of Wadi Ram in the far south. Then, in 1965 they focussed on the extensive swamps and marshes of the Azraq oasis in the east—the only permanent standing fresh water in several thousand square miles of desert.
These pools, lying some 70 miles to the east of Amman in the midst of this vast wilderness, are crucial to the nomadic Bedouins and to the wildlife of the desert. For in the great Arabian desert, of which eastern Jordan forms only a small part, there isn't a single river. The marginal highlands bordering the Dead Sea and along the Jordan and Rift valleys all drain westwards. What little rain falls on the desert is spasmodic and the rate of evaporation is so excessive that its effect, is very brief. Only about three per cent of the moisture is able to penetrate the hot surface.
The 1963 expedition gave first priority to defining the status of the endangered animal species of Jordan on behalf of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund. The scholars carried out exhaustive searches for some of the disappearing wildlife, such as the Houbara bustard. This magnificent bird, almost as large as the European great bustard, demands wide expanses of desert for breeding and is very difficult to locate even when it has not been hunted to the point of extinction as in Jordan. Although the teams searched everywhere, all they found was a fresh feather in the north, and a nest in the south containing two eggs—which had just been sucked by a young goatherd.
The smaller birds of the desert, however, were numerous and 216 species were identified, of which 96 were breeding. These included no fewer than 10 different species of larks, many singing beautifully. The Azraq oasis attracted by far the largest variety of birds because of its importance to migrants. Every day the population changed as flocks continued their journey northwards. The expedition caught several hundred with mist nets and attached rings to their legs before releasing them as part of the migration studies. One such migrant, a wryneck, was recovered two weeks later in Russia, having flown a distance of about 1,400 miles from Azraq. Two ringed swallows were also recovered in Russia shortly afterwards.
Among the many small animals studied were the hairy-footed jerboas and the Palestine mole rats. The latter are almost blind, sausage-shaped, little creatures which tunnel into the hardest ground with their long, permanently-growing incisors. They do great damage to crops and grain in Jordan. So powerful is their tunneling that they often throw up their "mole hills" in asphalt roads.
The need to protect what remained of Jordan's desert wildlife and vegetation, added to the fact that the country had a wealth of archeological treasures and spectacular scenery, led to the decision that Jordan should create wildlife reserves in conjunction with national parks. The experts recommended three localities, the most important of which was the 1,500 square miles around the Azraq oasis. The second was Petra, including the remnants of the mountain forest of Wadi Araba, a total of about 800 square miles. The third, called the Rift National Park, was on a slightly smaller scale and centered on the magnificent jabals of Wadi Ram.
The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature was formed as a result of these recommendations. With King Hussein as Honorary President, the society set out to conserve and revive the wildlife of Jordan by the rigorous enforcement of strict conservation laws—and such "education measures as the use of helicopters to drop conservation leaflets on remote villages and Bedouin camps. The Azraq Desert National Park is already a place of international importance with a team of scientists from the University of Amman and from other countries studying the rehabilitation of the desert and also the anthropology of the local tribes.
Jordan's desert wildlife has obtained an eleventh-hour reprieve. The "Bull Moose" would have approved.
Guy Mountfort, a noted ornithologist, is co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and author of numerous other books including Portrait of a Desert, which describes the 1963 expedition to Jordan.