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Volume 44, Number 5September/October 1993

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An Inventory in Arabia Felix

Written by Rod Martins

The highlands of southwestern Arabia surprise most Westerners.

The region, much of which lies within the borders of today's Yemen, was once called "Arabia Felix" - literally, Fertile Arabia - and its spectacular scenery, ecological diversity and rich cultural traditions justified the name. It is a fascinating land (See Aramco World, May-June 1981).

Here flourished important civilizations of antiquity - the Sabaean, Minaean and Himyaritic, among others - and here, during a fine flowering of Islam's civilization, early advances in algebra, astronomy and other fields were made under the Rasulid dynasty in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The city of Zabid, in particular, was a veritable Islamic Oxford, with some 230 schools and colleges devoted to the arts, sciences and Qur'anic studies.

Since ancient times, mariners of this region traded extensively with the East African coast, the Indian subcontinent and the islands of present-day Indonesia. Chronicles of their travels are often the earliest written descriptions of the lands rimming the Indian Ocean.

Changing trade patterns eventually relegated southwestern Arabia to the fringes of international commerce. For most of the 20th century, rulers of the region remained wary of outsiders, and discouraged foreign visitors. Few students of the natural sciences penetrated the western ramparts of Yemen's mountains - and many of those who did failed to return, their expeditions succumbing to the ravages of disease, or foundering on personal conflicts.

In recent times, however, circumstances have changed. In 1985, for example, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME), working with several institutions in Yemen, initiated a two-month program of field research in southwestern Arabia, focusing on Yemeni ecology and the prospects for conserving the region's rich endemic bird life. At that time, fieldwork was possible only in North Yemen. But after the unification of the two Yemens in May 1990, OSME could finally realize its longstanding plan to undertake complementary fieldwork in what had been South Yemen.

After months of careful preparation, an international team of 18 ecologists and ornithologists arrived in Yemen last March, working under the guidance of OSME with the support and sponsorship of Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife International, and of Yemen's Environmental Protection Council (EPC). Richard Porter of the RSPB, an elder statesman of Middle Eastern conservation, headed our group; he was assisted by Arabist Francine Stone and myself.

"Yemen is something of a paradox to conservationists," notes Porter. "It's a developing country with a large population, so it's a welcome surprise that the Yemeni authorities are so eager to implement conservation measures and encourage research. In fact, they see it as a natural extension of the Islamic view of life."

One practical demonstration of these beliefs was the government's appointment of Yemeni environmental scientist Dr. Omar al-Saghier as the team's strategic advisor. In exchange, expedition participants shared their conservation experience and knowledge of field investigation techniques with Saghier and his Yemeni colleagues.

As we left the capital, San'a', and headed south, one of our first priorities was to examine the status of Yemen's famous wintering population of the extremely rare bald ibis, Geronticus eremita. Following the extinction of Asia's last remaining wild population of this species, at Birecik in southeast Turkey (See Arantco World, November-December 1989), the bald ibis can now be found only in Morocco and Algeria, and perhaps in Ethiopia. According to Turkish legend, this bird, migrating southward, guides the souls of the departed to Makkah; in another tale, as the bird freed from the ark by Noah, it is a symbol - ironically - of fertility.

For many years, however, there have been occasional sightings of the bald ibis in Yemen: The bird is mentioned in Hugh Scott's famous In the High Yemen, which describes the author's travels before the Second World War, for example. An earlier OSME expedition confirmed that a small population regularly winters in a unique complex of wetlands in the valleys and hills surrounding Ta'izz. Here the very high annual precipitation, typical of the southern uplands of northern Yemen, keeps the water table high, and surface water is not unusual. We were delighted, in our turn, to find new marshland areas around Ta'izz which provide suitable feeding grounds for the bald ibis, and helpful local residents who know the bird well suggest that more sites await discovery. This is most encouraging news, as Yemen's recent rapid development and growth has had a radical negative effect on the birds' feeding areas, with many being drained and put to the plow - a classic illustration of the mounting pressures on rare species and their habitats in southern Arabia. It symbolizes the problems which have, until recently, beset conservationists throughout the region.

Yet even after the momentous discovery of the species' wintering grounds in Yemen, the mystery surrounding the bald ibis persists: Where does Geronticus eremita breed? Yemen's population of the birds must come from an area that provides the species' habitat requirements: rocky cliffs and permanently watered wadis. The most likely locales, ornithologists speculate, include the well-watered region between Ta'izz and al-Turbah, in former North Yemen, or perhaps some quiet corner of the Dhofar region, most of which lies in Oman. Much more field-work, and perhaps a little luck, will be required before the breeding site - the "Tutankhamun's tomb" of Arabian ornithology - is discovered.

One of our expedition's chief objectives was to identify "important bird areas" in Yemen: sites of crucial importance to bird conservation that merit inclusion in a future network of protected areas. A project underway throughout the Middle East, jointly undertaken by BirdLife International in Cambridge and a network of Middle Eastern contributors, will publish a list of sites in book form before the end of 1994. We identified a total of 11 areas that may be added to the list.

We located one such site as the expedition traveled south from Ta'izz along the coast south of Mocha, between Dhubab and the cape at Bab al-Mandab. Here a whole, diverse series of habitats, all typical of the Yemeni Red Sea coast, occurs within one small area. Most of the shoreline here slopes very gradually and there is much deposition of silt that produces extensive open mud flats, combined with stands of both newly colonizing and mature mangroves. These habitats constitute an attractive staging point where millions of migratory birds - mostly shorebirds that travel the Red Sea flyway between Eurasia and Africa each spring and autumn - can stop to rest and feed. The site's location close to the Bab al-Mandab enhances its importance; OSME-sponsored research in Djibouti, on the African side of the Red Sea, recently demonstrated the significance of the area as a route for migrating birds of prey. Many thousands cross the narrow straits each autumn at Bab al-Mandab, bound for the African mainland.

There are thus many reasons for considering this part of the Yemeni coastline of crucial importance to migratory birds. During our visit, migrants were everywhere: In one small bush by the checkpoint at the rocky promontory of the Bab al-Mandab itself, we found red-backed shrikes, whitethroats and several willow warblers; driving along the dusty roads in the area, we saw more exhausted red-backed shrikes resting in the open desert. Barred warblers appeared to be calling from almost every acacia. In a grove of large trees in a nearby cultivated wadi, we found small flocks of golden orioles and amethyst starlings, as well as an exhausted, newly arrived gray-headed kingfisher. At sea, small flocks of pomarine and arctic skuas were traveling westward along the Arabian Sea coast, rounding the Bab al-Mandab and heading northward up the Red Sea on their way to Arctic breeding grounds.

Even from the limited evidence we gathered during the expedition's short visit, it is clear that the Bab al-Mandab and its coastal environs represent a migration watchpoint that badly needs systematic, prolonged monitoring. We look forward to the day when such monitoring is conducted by young Yemeni ornithologists, perhaps working with expert colleagues from overseas. The Bab al-Mandab and its surroundings surely present the ideal location to spark the interest and enthusiasm of Yemen's growing band of conservationists.

Our expedition's next task was an investigation of the habitats and bird fauna of Jabal Iraf, a mountain site located exactly on the old border between the two Yemens and thus, until recently, inaccessible. Botanical studies have identified this as a site of great interest. Here we conducted population surveys in a small area of about four square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of juniper forest on the mountain's summit (See Aramco World, July-August 1989). The area held good populations of several of southwest Arabia's important bird species, including Arabian partridge, Arabian woodpecker, Yemen warbler, Arabian waxbill and golden-winged grosbeak. It is also home to a large troop of hamadryas baboons which, outside Arabia, occur only in northeast Africa.

The impact of human activity down the centuries has largely destroyed the original forest which existed on the better-watered tops of the Yemeni highlands, so the survival of this unique area - partly because of its relatively small human population - is exciting and welcome news for conservationists.

Once the area had been extensively surveyed, it became clear that Jabal Iraf represents an ideal location for Yemen's first national park. The high scarps of the mountain, nearby peaks that still await our investigation, the Tihamah foothills below and the Tihamah plain itself, stretching to the coast, together represent a natural "textbook" of enormous scientific value, for they show the country's best-preserved altitudinal succession of vegetation types and plant associations.

Proposals for such a park are currently being developed. Following the example of Saudi Arabia, Oman and other Gulf countries that are already defining and protecting networks of important sites, the Yemeni authorities are keen to keep pace with current environmental thinking in the Peninsula, and Jabal Iraf will surely feature in their plans.

Our team traveled eastward along the entire length of Yemen's southern coast, as far as the border with Oman, to assess several key sites that have received little attention from ornithologists since the days of the British administration of Aden and its hinterland.

We surveyed the extensive mud flats in Aden harbor, clearly another important staging post for migratory shorebirds. Moving farther east, we located an especially interesting area at the mouth of Wadi Hajar, the only permanently flowing watercourse to reach the sea between Aden and Mukalla. Construction of a dam, usually a damaging activity from a conservation perspective, has created an interesting complex of wetland habitats, and our time in the field here was rewarded with some unusual observations.

A white-breasted waterhen discovered here was the first known occurrence of this species in Yemen. While individual records of so-called vagrants such as this are generally of little scientific value in themselves, they do sometimes reflect major changes in distribution of a species. Farther east, in Asia, the white-breasted waterhen has expanded its range remarkably in recent years - a development perhaps related to the growing number of records from the Arabian Peninsula during the same period.

Even more astonishing was the discovery here of a pair of malachite kingfishers, which behaved as if they were breeding. This would be the first known breeding record of the species not" only in Yemen or in Arabia, but for the entire Asian continent. As there is one historical (non-breeding) record from former South Yemen, our sighting was a timely reminder that true African birds can stray to Arabian shores more frequently than previously thought.

Much farther along the coast, the area around Ras Fartak provided more ornithological surprises. A complex of small lakes and inlets behind the nearby beach at Abdullah Gharib proved to be an important roosting area for many species of marine birds found in this part of the Indian Ocean. We saw up to six species of terns regularly, and the very large numbers of immature sooty gulls along the beaches illustrated the importance of Yemen's coast as a feeding area for young birds that are not yet ready to return to their breeding areas around Oman and in the Arabian Gulf. We also found the scarce red-billed tropicbird breeding at two localities in the Ras Fartak area, representing an interesting extension of the species' known range in the region.

The beaches along this part of the coast were frequently pitted by the diggings of hundreds of turtles of at least two species - loggerhead and green - which find a safe haven here for laying their eggs. Happily, the local people protect the turtles in what may prove to be their most important nesting area on the south coast of Arabia. Often we could see these great reptiles from the cliffs and headlands, their ease and grace in the clear waters below belying their cumbersome progress on land.

Reaching the "far east," adjacent to the Oman border, we spent several days investigating the habitats and bird life of the small part of Dhofar that extends into Yemen. In Dhofar, a distinctive region of south coastal Arabia, the summer monsoon brings substantial rainfall to the continuously forested limestone scarps of the Dhofar mountains, pitted with caves and sinkholes. These seaward-facing slopes constitute a region of special interest because the distinctive range of habitats here, as on the western scarps of the southwest Arabian highlands, supports many of Yemen's essentially African breeding birds.

Offshore, the abundance of feeding seabirds, whales and dolphins demonstrates the extraordinary biological productivity of the marine ecosystem along the Dhofar coast. The upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water from the ocean depths is responsible, and makes these coastal waters important feeding grounds for Audubon's shearwaters and Socotra cormorants. While the shearwaters were normally in small feeding flocks, we sometimes saw the cormorants offshore in very large flocks. They would assemble in dense swarms where fish shoals came near the surface, animated by the frenzy of mass feeding. We did not find any local breeding colonies, although it seems possible that some might exist on Ras Fartak. Other notable species we observed from onshore included the wedge-tailed shearwater, the flesh-footed shearwater and the masked booby.

Our studies of the bird life of the Dhofar coast culminated in an offshore survey by fishing boat. More than 20 kilometers (12 miles) offshore, we located substantial feeding concentrations of the little-known Jouanin's petrel. First described in 1955, this species' breeding grounds still await discovery, and may well lie within the mountains of Dhofar. Jouanin's petrel is presumed to return to its breeding colonies only at night, like many other deep-water seabirds, so much more exploration is needed in Dhofar before the true picture can be established.

On the Dhofar coast itself, we identified the seaward slopes of the Shahrut Hills near Hawf as an important bird area. The bird life here, like that of the western slopes of the southwest Arabian highlands, is strongly influenced by the nearby African continent, and many species migrate from there to breed in Dhofar during the spring and summer. Although the hills are well-forested, their ground vegetation is clearly under intense pressure from grazing goats and cattle. Grazing damage, perhaps aggravated by the lack of rains in recent years, has destroyed the normally rich ground flora so characteristic of Dhofar; in some places, only bare earth remains. The area would probably recover after a good rainy season, but the damage illustrates the need for some kind of conservation management strategy for this distinctive region.

Despite these problems, the Shahrut Hills still support the most extensive forests in Yemen. We recorded the existence here of important populations of some of the scarcer African species breeding in the country, such as the African scops owl and didric cuckoo, and found extremely high population densities of scarce species like the Arabian partridge and golden-winged grosbeak. As a result of the expedition, recommendations will be made to the Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture and the Environment to include the previously unsurveyed Shahrut Hills in the network of protected areas or national parks currently being prepared for the entire country.

The 1993 expedition amplified and extended the work undertaken in 1985 and gave us a proper understanding of the priorities for conservation and ornithological research in Yemen. As with any major research project, however, completion of the field-work merely sets the stage for the next, perhaps more important, phase: translation of the field observations into a strategy for future action.

OSME is fortunate that the expedition worked closely with several ongoing Yemeni initiatives for conservation and environmental awareness-efforts spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Council. A good example of cooperation between the EPC and OSME is the recent publication of a book on the birds of Yemen for the country's schoolchildren, part of a broader effort to heighten the interest of young Yemenis in wildlife and the environment. The aim, of course, is to advance the day when there will be enough experienced local conservationists to take full charge of Yemen's conservation program. Until that happens, the work of the expedition will not be complete.

Ornithologist and author Rod Martins was also a member of OSME's 1985 expedition to Yemen; his fascination with birds and wildlife has taken him to more than 30 countries.

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the September/October 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1993 images.