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Volume 36, Number 1January/February 1985

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In the Lions' Den

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

Though al-areen means "lions' den" in Arabic, there are no lions in Bahrain's al-Areen Wildlife Park and Reserve. Indeed, the only predator in the park is man - and all he can shoot is film.

For that reason, normally wary and fearful animals like the Reem gazelle and the Arabian oryx rarely show any fear of man - and possibly never will. As part of some fascinating experiments underway at the park, this approach to animals reflects a tradition going back 4,000 years. Then, it is thought, Bahrain was ancient Dilmun, where, says a tablet unearthed in Mesopotamia:

"the wolf snatches not the lamb,

unknown is the kid-devouring wild dog,

unknown is the grain-devouring boar...

the dove droops not the head...

its old woman says not 'I am an old woman,'

its old man says not 'lam an old man'."

Located on Bahrain, an island country in the Arabian Gulf some 24 kilometers off the coast of Saudi Arabia (15 miles), al-Areen park is the inspiration of Crown Prince Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, heir to the throne in Bahrain. Prince Hamad is also heir to a tradition summed up by the word hima, an Arabic word symbolizing a heritage of conservation with roots deep in the pre-Islamic Middle East.

In that tradition, hima, a protected reserve of land, was established by kings or princes to allow flora and fauna to flourish undisturbed by man, and to control grazing on valuable ranges. When that system of conservation began to erode some two centuries ago, wildlife - and man - paid dearly. Al-Areen is an effort to right the geological imbalance that resulted.

Al-Areen is located in the southwestern part of Bahrain's main island, in a natural desert area accented by tree plantings, shaded spots under palm branch shelters, pools of water and swampland. "We hope," says its director, Shaikh Rashed bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, "to implant a conservation ethic in young people that will be passed on to future generations." Notes the facility's administrative manager Nelson De-souza: "We're trying to show the role man plays in maintaining the balance of nature. Education is one of the pillars on which this project stands."

To reach this goal, al-Areen is working with the Ministry of Education, in hopes of involving the young audience targeted for the experiment. Already, the park has been opened to selected groups of youngsters. "Their reactions have been extremely positive," says Desouza. "Nobody expects to see what they see. Even the Bahrainis say, 'Is this really Bahrain?'" During the last full season at the park, October 1983 through April 1984, 5,000 of Bahrain's school children paid visits.

Among the mammals in al-Areen's 2,000-acre public park and restricted access reserve are four types of oryx - an animal once on the verge of extinction (See Aramco World, July-August 1982) - the Arabian, the Scimitar-horned, the Fringe-eared and the Beisa oryx. There are also Addax and Defassa waterbuck and nilgai, along with the Reem gazelle, Grant's zebra, Chapman's zebra, blesbok and wild sheep. Species of birds to be housed in walk-through aviaries include the Kori and Houbara bustard, Secretary birds, Crowned cranes, Helmeted guinea fowl, partridge and francolins, while ostriches, their smaller South American cousins, the rhea - and an Australian relative, the emu, have free run of the facility. There are also falcons, including the Sakar, Gyr falcon and Peregrine, in a recently erected falcon house in the park.

Visitors to al-Areen begin their tour at the new visitors' center. Facing the center's wide-windowed rear wall are several Arabian oryx, kept apart from the other animals in a partitioned but unfenced area. Called the flagship of the conservation effort by Desouza, the oryx also serve as al-Areen's central logo; a pair are emblazoned on the side of the tour bus, on the cover of the handsome al-Areen guidebook and even on special al-Areen T-shirts.

Mini-buses with guides take guests through the park after a 15-minute film in the visitors' center auditorium which explains the goals of the facility and a little about its wildlife. The conservation message is given further impact in the color guidebook, with paintings of the animals and detailed text. It also has been carried state and worldwide in a recent series of Bahrain stamps featuring al-Areen wildlife.

Visiting al-Areen, some feel like interlopers at a sun-blessed health spa for animals. As Desouza says, about the birds and beasts all around: "This is their preserve. The only animals in a cage are the visitors."

The charm of al-Areen - and, indeed, its conservation message - comes through vividly with the sight of ostriches roaming free, the Scimitar-horned oryx calmly nibbling at al-Areen-grown alfalfa, while Reem gazelles graze not far away and a tiny Thompson's gazelle - tan and white, with a black stripe on its flank and smaller than a Saluki dog - romps through the broom bush.

On my visit, I saw, on the horizon, an austere, white-bearded wildebeest loom up from one of the feeding and watering points that dot the park, and, later, a flock of eight ostriches from Tanzania crossing the road, heads held high; brilliantly striped zebra, grazing closely by and, in a flash of black and white, a diminutive springbok, one of numerous species of gazelle in the park, blinking up at me from behind an acacia tree before bouncing away into the bush.

In 1979, this same springbok was among the animals saved in what the news stories dubbed "Operation Rescue." The rescue - which brought several springbok, Chapman's zebra and blesbok to al-Areen from Rome's airport where they had been stranded on a flight from South Africa to Naples because of importation problems - catapulted Bahrain's conservation program into the headlines and brought accolades from around the world.

Bahrain moved to save the animals as soon as their plight came to the attention of the crown prince and the government. But by the time Bahrain was allowed to act, 40 of the 54 animals in the plane had died from the fumes and heat in its hold. In all, the animals were on the runway for four days while airport authorities debated what to do. With the red tape finally unraveled, the living animals were transferred to another plane and flown directly to Bahrain. In a matter of hours they were at al -Areen.

The upshot of the affair, says Desouza, who has been involved in the project since the park was opened in 1976-77, was a wave of letters from around the world to the Amir of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, to the crown prince and to the foreign ministry thanking Bahrain for effecting the rescue.

"We were touched by such a response," says Desouza. "It was especially satisfying because what we had been saying to international wildlife organizations - that Bahrain and the Arab world were serious about conservation - was proved correct. It was a tragic story that had a bit of satisfaction at the end."

Just two kilometers inland from the Gulf (one mile), the site of al-Areen includes salt flats and low-lying coastal sands on the western boundary, with undulating, vegetated sand dune, and rimrock on the eastern border.

The climate of the park and reserve is marked by high temperatures in the summer, scanty, irregular rainfall and a recurring wind from the northwest. Sand and sandy loam are the main surface soil textures. The facility has been planted with thousands of acacia, eucalyptus and palm trees and is watered by an underground irrigation system.

To stock the reserve, al-Areen has often cooperated with other nations particularly the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman. Recently, for example, al-Areen shared a planeload of ostriches and gazelles from East Africa with the UAE. Other animals at the facility have come from even further afield. The addax were purchased from Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, while the Scimitar-horned oryx came from Germany and the Fringe-eared oryx from the San Diego Zoo.

In all, there are some 500 animals at the preserve. Why has al-Areen imported so many animals from outside the Arab world "There are not enough Arabian animals to set up an exhibit," replies Desouza. He stresses, though, that al-Areen itself is "not an import," but something that is part and parcel of the region's heritage. And he notes that the facility's broad scope gives it what he calls the "most comprehensive approach" of any wildlife park and reserve in the Arab world.

In a very real sense, al-Areen is a return to the old ideal of a hima or protected reserve. Says Desouza, "Oil wells and wildlife can live together; they are not mutually exclusive. It is our hope that the Arab world can set aside 10 percent of its land for the future and for a revival of our ancient heritage of conservation. It is possible now. And we cannot let the chance go by."

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the January/February 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1985 images.