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Volume 41, Number 2March/April 1990

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A Capital Zoo in Riyadh

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Lawrence Curtis
Additional photographs by Arthur Clark and Ali A. Khalifa

Lawrence Curtis, the Texan director of the new Riyadh Zoological Gardens, was only half kidding when we talked last spring. In the swimming pool behind his house at the zoo frolicked four young harbor seals, just in from an aquarium in Victoria, British Columbia. Their meals consisted mainly of mackerel.

For 59-year-old Curtis, who has adopted the traditional dress of his host country - a thazvb or long-sleeved gown, and a red-and-white-checked ghutra or headcloth - sharing space with the animals is part of the job.

It's also something of an honor, for the zoo, just three years old this month, is already home to more than 1,400 animals representing some 350 species, a number of which are on the world's endangered-species list.

The new seals weren't waiting for a zoo vacancy to come up. Rather, they were bobbing out their mandatory quarantine.

Also within the walls surrounding the zoo director's house were Barbary falcons, tiny dik-dik antelope and sand cats ready to breed. A 75-kilogram (165-pound) horned turtle named Hank was living in what looked like a dog house in the garage. "And somewhere around here," mulled Curtis, "are three mountain gazelle."

At 22 hectares (55 acres), the Riyadh Zoo is about the size of the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. It cost $33.3 million to build and the city reportedly spent another $6.4 million for animal acquisition and management. Open three days a week for families and women, and another three days for men, the zoo attracts hundreds of visitors each day, and officials, happy about its rapid development, confidently predict that "as it matures it will become one of the greatest zoos in the world."

The zoo itself not only provides the city's - and the nation's - public with chances for animal-watching, but serves broader aims as well. "The main aim of the zoo is to conserve and breed the native species of Saudi Arabia," says 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Zamil, general manager of Riyadh's Parks and Recreation Department, "and we're succeeding in doing that. The zoo also has cultural, research and educational purposes. That is why it is important to the kingdom as a whole."

Curtis was hired just four months before the zoo opened. He brought decades of experience to the job - 15 years as head of the Forth Worth (Texas) Zoo, 15 more as chief of the Oklahoma City Zoo - and a wealth of contacts in the international zoo-keeping community.

Visitors to the zoological gardens are greeted by a pond full of honking flamingoes, their diets enriched by ground carrots to keep them - literally - in the pink.

Strollers can continue their walk past the group of older seals, cool in a pool of their own. Less energetic souls can take a seat in one of the two gaily painted trains that make regular, 20-minute circuits of the zoo. Stops are timed to match recordings of information about the animals that are played in each car.

For youngsters, there is a playground where they can run off extra energy. Designed by the London-based consultants Safari Parks International, the zoo has a gemlike quality accentuated by careful landscaping, lush plantings of flowers and several bubbling watercourses. The Riyadh Zoological Gardens are sited on the grounds of the city's old zoo, built during the reign from 1953 to 1964 of King Sa'ud ibn Abd al-' Aziz. That zoo was razed in 1981.

Several groups of animals are displayed in cages or enclosures according to their geographic origin or their taxonomic classification. The wildlife of the Australian bush is represented, for example, by kangaroos, kookaburras, wallabies and emus. From South America come tapirs - rainforest dwellers - and alpaca, llama and guanaco from the Andes.

The Asian enclosure features water buffalo, black buck antelope and Sika deer. Zebra, eland, impala, ostrich and marabou stork represent the African plains.

Asian and African elephants live in the same large enclosure. Nearby, a Bengal tiger pads silently across a tree-trunk bridge; rare griffon vultures, native to the Riyadh region, soar through the air in a high-ceilinged aviary for birds of prey.

The reptile house holds pythons, cobras, and sand vipers. Rattlers were flown in from the Cen-Tex Zoo in Waco, Texas. There are also monitor lizards anddhubs, native Arabian spiny-tailed lizards. The zoo has some 80 species of birds, including the houbara bustard, which is probably extinct in the wild in Saudi Arabia.

Signs in Arabic and English front the exhibits and provide details about each species. Some signs carry a special emblem - the head of an Arabian oryx combined with the international negative symbol: a red circle and diagonal slash. The emblem means that the species faces worldwide extinction in the wild if man is not careful.

Abd al-'Aziz al-Zamil says his favorite creature at the zoo is a male Arabian oryx acquired from al-Areen Wildlife Park in Bahrain. It is the sole representative of its kind in Riyadh. Acquiring a female oryx is a priority for the zoo, so that it can start its own breeding program (See Aramco World, September-October 1989).

The zoo already has a successful breeding program for sand cats, thought by some to have been the animal once tamed by ancient Egyptians and thus the ancestor of the domestic tabby of today. There are about 30 sand cats in captivity worldwide, and 14 of those are in the Riyadh Zoo, where they are favorites of children. Last spring a mother sand cat zealously guarded week-old kittens in the temperature-controlled lemur house, the fourth such litter born at the zoo. Two more have been produced since.

Success in sand cat breeding has provided opportunities to carry out research into little-known aspects of that animal's biology. "We're learning about what sand cats eat, their social, solitary and breeding habits, and their dietary requirements and diseases," said Curtis. "Research is a very sophisticated activity for any zoo, but we're doing it already, and getting a lot of information on the breeding habits and biology of a number of native Saudi Arabian animals."

The zoo is also carrying out studies in cooperation with other organizations in the kingdom, including the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development and King Sa'ud University in Riyadh.

Other representatives of rare native wildlife species include the bateleur eagle, the Arabian leopard and the cheetah. The zoo has several ostrich, birds which once roamed the kingdom but are now extinct there in the wild.

Other native species in the collection, such as the dhub and the hamadryas baboon, can still be frequently spotted in their natural habitats.

Arabic and English-language publications are being prepared by the zoo for elementary, secondary and college-age students to tell the story of native wildlife. The guidebooks, keyed to the signs in front of each exhibit, will be based "on what visitors can see, what will make young people think," said Ahmed al-Hussein, zoo coordinator for the municipality, who has played a major role in drafting the Arabic texts.

"The zoo should be an outdoor classroom where people can learn about nature and the environment," added Curtis.

The zoo was the site, in June 1988, of a rare pygmy hippo birth that drew local and international press coverage. Zoo officials are now debating whether to keep the youngster for breeding or send him to another zoo. There have been losses, too. In the fall of 1988, a two-day-old lion cub, one of a pair, accidentally drowned.

The zoo has three full-time veterinarians, a well-equipped clinic and surgical facility, and quarantine facilities - including the director's pool - for new arrivals. Animals are vaccinated against diseases according to a computerized record-keeping system, and get regular checkups.

The zoo's kitchen provides dusk-to-dawn room service for 167 different diets. Among the delicacies: spinach leaves and cucumbers for tapirs; day-old chicks for raccoons and birds of prey; and bread with honey for the brown bear. The zoo's pythons get a guinea pig or rabbit once every 10 days.

The zoo raises its own mice, rats, mealworms, crickets, rabbits and tilapia fish as animal food. Commercially obtained food, prepared daily, includes 225 kilograms (495 pounds) of boneless beef, 140 kilograms (310 pounds) of apples and 90 kilograms (200 pounds) of carrots.

The kitchen staff starts the day at 3:00 a.m. "It's like a hotel where you're preparing meals for 1,200 guests," said the zoo director. Much of the animals' food is produced in Saudi Arabia. Locally grown birseem clover, a staple for the herbivores, "is the best feed I've ever found," said Curtis. "Any zoo director in the world would give his eyeteeth for this kind of fodder."

Curtis said the zoo directorship presented both cultural and professional challenges. "I had run two internationally known zoos, but here you have a totally different society - and a completely new zoo. It is well designed and the municipality is gung ho to make it a success."

Riyadh's summertime climate - dry and hot, with temperatures sometimes hitting 46 degrees centigrade (115'F) - also sparked Curtis's interest. "The climate posed a zoological challenge," noted the tall, blue-eyed Texan: "Can you really keep animals alive next to the Rub' al-Khali?"

To protect animals from the brilliant summer sun, hundreds of meters of shade cloth have been hung over cages to cut heat significantly and stop the penetration of dangerous ultraviolet rays. A computer-operated system of sprayers regularly mists many of the animals.

"There are not many zoos built in a climate with this extreme heat," said Curtis. "We've had a few failures [with species adaptation], but amazing success overall." He cites the seals as "a perfect example."

The zoo first opted not to stock any of the cool-water mammals in Riyadh's hot climate. But the installation of sprinklers and fountains, and the use of other cooling techniques, brought pool temperatures well within the seals' comfort range.

The proof? "We're going to have baby seals," said Curtis.

On the other hand, the Arabian Peninsula's position at the intersection of three major biological regions, Africa, Europe and Asia, presented a unique opportunity to show animals important to the region. "As a result of this country's location, you have flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world," he pointed out.

Another unusual aspect is that the Riyadh Zoo is one of only a handful in the world to be built from scratch in recent years. That provided the opportunity to establish policy and build an animal collection from the ground up. The zoo's animal acquisition campaign received a crucial shot in the arm when the municipality agreed to abide by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The treaty commits countries to honor the conservation laws of other states. Though the kingdom is still studying full accession to CITES, the municipality's decision brought its new zoo an international nod of approval.

In the spirit of CITES, the zoo has had to turn down some sales pitches for animals it would have liked to buy, but the policy has helped bring more wildlife into the facility than it has cost. "The CITES agreement is the most important thing the municipality did for the zoo," said Curtis. "It's why we have the animal collection we have here today."

The agreement helped open the doors of zoos from Texas to Kenya. The tapirs came from the zoo in Lima, Peru, for example, while Toronga Park in Sydney, Australia, provided kangaroos and dingoes. A conservation project in Mombasa, Kenya, sent two Nile crocodiles. The zoo in Cairo furnished giant tortoises and the Singapore Zoo dispatched a crocodile.

In the United States, Duke University in Durham, N.C., sent lemurs. The zoo's pygmy hippo herd was gathered from New York's Bronx Zoo, the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, and the private Eureka Springs Zoo in Mountain Home, Arkansas. Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge provided muskrats.

Riyadh has also begun to return favors. In 1988 the zoo sent two sand cats to the Cincinnati Zoo, which had earlier supplied Arabian leopards and a python.

Local sources have also helped fill out the zoo's collection. The bateleur eagles were acquired from residents of Jiddah and from the mountainous 'Asir area in Saudi Arabia's southwest. Its mountain gazelle, also native to the kingdom, were provided from private collections.

One of its trio of striped hyenas, an endangered native species, was handed over - on a leash - by a Bedouin, while his weeping children watched. "He'd raised the hyena from a pup," said Curtis, "but couldn't keep him any longer."

A few of the zoo's band of hamadryas baboons, also native to Asir, found their way into the collection in an even more novel way: They were bagged in Riyadh by zoo vets armed with a tranquilizer gun. Local travelers had brought baboons home when they were small, then turned them loose when they got too big to handle, said Curtis, adding that the first baboon-collection call came after one of the large and impressive primates "occupied an embassy." The zoo vets capture several baboons every year in the capital.

Curtis sees a bright future for the young zoo, with its modern facilities, its growing animal collection and strong support from the city. It has already won a special place in the hearts of local Saudis. "Many people come here carrying a rug and a coffee pot and, especially in the evening, they sit on the grass just enjoying nature," said Curtis. "I've rarely seen that in an American zoo.

"Coming here gives people a better feeling about the world," he said. "You can see it on their faces when they leave."

Arthur Clark, a veteran Aramco writer based in Dhahran, is a frequent visitor to zoos around the world.

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the March/April 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1990 images.