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Volume 46, Number 5September/October 1995

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Lords of the Sandstone Canyons

Written and photographed by Khushal Habibi

As you cross the Arabian Peninsula from east to west, the sandy plains seem to roll gently on for hours—until they are gouged abruptly by the 900-kilometer (560-mile) Tuwayq Escarpment, or Jabal Tuwayq. This intricate strip of sandstone canyon wilderness extends in a gentle s-shape from the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali in the south, past Riyadh, almost to the borders of Qasim Province in north-central Saudi Arabia, and it is full of surprises for the naturalist.

Once, the Nubian ibex (Capra ibex nubiana) made the whole length of the Tuwayq Escarpment its home. Except for habitats to the southeast, in the mountains of Oman, this marked the eastern edge of a range that stretched westward across the Red Sea to Egypt's Eastern Desert and, from there, south to the Horn of Africa. In advance of expanding ice sheets approximately 40,000 years ago, these magnificent mountain goats traveled south from regions near the Black Sea. When the ice retreated, the ibex stayed, and gradually adapted to what became, over the millennia, one of the driest climates in the world. Other subspecies of ibex today inhabit the Alps (Capra ibex ibex) and the Himalayas (Capra ibex siberica).

In this century, however, increased livestock grazing in wadis—streambeds that are usually dry—in the Tuwayq Escarpment often left the ibex short of food. At the same time, hunters acquired automatic weapons and four-wheel-drive vehicles and came to the canyonlands seeking meat and hides. By the mid-1980's the Nubian ibex was reduced to isolated populations of less than 100 animals each. It faced elimination from the Arabian Peninsula.

One of the largest of 15 known surviving groups of ibex found refuge near Hawtat Bani Tamiim, where sheer walls and labyrinthine canyons hindered human penetration. Here villagers had long maintained an informal, partial ibex sanctuary by prohibiting livestock grazing—except for camels—in the central canyons.

In 1988, Saudi Arabia's National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) declared the 2400-square-kilometer (927-square-mile) area a special ibex reserve, based largely on surveys my colleagues and I had conducted. It is now the second-largest of several protected areas for ibex in Saudi Arabia, and more are being planned.

We first entered the ibex habitat in November of 1987, in the time of year when the daytime temperatures are mild and the nights are cool. We quickly found that the animals were so wary of humans that it was almost impossible to catch sight of them. For three days we stopped along the rims of canyons, scurried up to the edges of weathered slopes and scanned the wadi beds with binoculars, all without spotting anything more than droppings and tracks. On the fourth day, the mid-afternoon sun had filled the canyon with dazzling brightness. Scanning the slopes, I saw what first looked like a small rock moving. Then I could tell it was the tip of a long, curved, knobbed horn: Our team's commotion had stirred a male—easily distinguished from the females by the great size of his horns—that had been waiting out the day's heat under a ledge. When he stood, he barely fit the narrow crevice he had chosen. At once he nimbly ascended the steep wall toward the escarpment and, within seconds, disappeared.

We were happy our effort had at last paid off. The sighting, along with the numerous tracks we had seen, strengthened my conviction that there was indeed a viable population in these mysterious canyons that was worth national effort to conserve.

Two years passed before I was able to see the ibex again, despite regular field trips to the area and the services of an NCWCD ranger who knew every bend in the maze of canyons. The ibex, with their cryptic coloration and keen senses of smell and hearing, were superb at concealing themselves. Toward the end of 1990, two years after the hunting ban went into effect, a few females began to return to the wadis that formerly had been the sites of hunters' ambushes.

About this time I also realized that searching for ibex by traveling within the protected area was not going to permit the observation I sought: I had to let the ibex come to me. The confluence of two major canyons known as Ghaba and Ghafar is wide and filled with acacia and other browse that ibex enjoy. It seemed the ideal spot to wait. I regularly went there at dusk, and waited until morning with hopes that ibex would come to feed.

Two weeks passed. One January morning whenthe sun had not yet hit the canyon walls, I heard the sound of sliding rocks. I sat still, anxious, not daring to stir inside the car lest I scare the animals that I could not yet see. I first saw a shape beyond a large boulder, and a moment later it was clearly a female ibex, followed by a kid less than a year old. Then two males came into view, another juvenile and a few more females and other young. I had hardly expected to see more than a dozen of these wonderful animals! At about 70 meters' distance (230 feet), they did not seem to be disturbed by my vehicle.

The males stood by the boulders for a while and then started clashing their horns, mock-fighting. One of the male juveniles stood nearby and watched the rivals attentively. The females, in the meantime, began feeding on the vegetation in the wadi bed. Later, the males joined them.

Moving as little as possible, I began to take photographs. But when I had to change the film, one of the ibex saw me stir and gave a shrill hiss, a sound whose meaning I knew all too well from other field studies. The others immediately raised their heads and looked in my direction; at a second hiss, the whole group took flight, scurrying toward the slope, up and out of view.

I was stunned by this first major encounter, which led to three more years of intensive study. I had not expected to be able to make close observations for a number of years, because nearly fivedecades of hunting had made the ibex extremely shy of humans. The young animals in this endangered population, I realized with my ranger guide, might be the first generation in 50 years to grow up without hearing rifle shots.

The frequency with which I could observe the animals gradually improved. Within a year there were instances when I was able to make day-long observations. As I started learning about their activity patterns and movements, I adjusted my own timing to favor the early-morning hours when the ibex were most frequently active. Then, the wadi beds were deserted and camels had not started their feeding rounds

In late September, I found that the cooling of the nights brings about a change among the males. Large males that spent the summer months in the higher drainages started to appear in the lower wadi beds. They are almost twice as large as the females, and their massive knobbed, scimitar-curved horns—some more than a meter long—make them look like lords of the sandstone pinnacles. They are muscular and stocky, with thick necks, long goatees and a dark coat. They hold their tails stiffly over their backs, and the gray hair on the mane remains erect throughout the rutting season.

It is these older males that are most successful in breeding the females. They dominate the younger males with a mere threat of their horns or a brief rush at a rival that is enough to deter a challenger, or, sometimes, make him leave the area entirely. Thus most conflicts are settled without physical contact.

Actual fights arise only when rivals of relatively equal strength meet, or if one male seriously challenges the dominance status of the other. Such fights can be prolonged; we watched one that lasted nearly two hours. In the beginning, the rivals clashed by rearing up and then striking head-to-head with full force. Fortunately, both the horns and the skull of the ibex have pneumations, voids which can absorb the blow and prevent injury to the head. Injuries do occur, however, when the horns slip. In one instance, a male started bleeding profusely from the forehead when he was struck between the horns. As the blood trickled over his muzzle, he continued to fight for another half-hour.

Most times, however, about a quarter-hour of initial clashing led to what appeared to be a shoving and pushing contest. The combatants maintained horn contact and tried to push each other off balance. This often went on for half an hour or so, after which horn clashes were often repeated, followed by more shoving and pushing. This continued until one male was hurt or became so tired he was unable to continue.

The hierarchical system of dominance appears to start among males at about one year of age. That is when males separate from the female groups and form bachelor groups. Here, young males frequently play-fight with each other: Once I saw a pair do this on top of a huge boulder for three hours, as if they were playing "king of the mountain." Juvenile females do not engage in such activities.

After the mating season, large males segregate from the female groups in which they do their courting. Juveniles of the previous year continue to follow their mothers, but with the advancement of pregnancy the females begin making it more difficult for the kids to follow, sometimes charging them. Juvenile males of eight to nine months, only slightly smaller than the adult females, challenge the females at this time, causing bouts of clashing.

When their time comes, the females retreat to the heads of the canyons, where the terrain is so steep that no other animal can enter the area. Here they give birth and stay with their young for three to four weeks.

One April morning I escorted a colleague who had studied the ibex of the Alps to these wadi heads, where I suspected that—with luck—we might find a female. We came to the head of Wadi Ghafar in the central part of the reserve, where the side canyons are impossibly steep and narrow, and the place has the kind of lonely feeling about it that a female ibex, I imagined, might find comfortable. When we had almost given up our search, my colleague saw something stir half a kilometer (500 yards) away: a female with her twins. She had chosen a sunny spot nestled under a ledge. Minutes later she got up and the kids started suckling. It was one of the brightest moments in my fieldwork, almost a symbol of the success of the protection effort that has raised the Nubian ibex population in the reserve from only a few dozen to today's estimate of more than 300.

When only a few weeks old, juveniles are capable of following their mothers, but I noticed that they cannot jump more than a meter. At times this forces them to seek alternate paths in order to keep up with their mothers, who will wait for them to catch up when necessary.

Soon the young are as sure-footed as adults, however, and can traverse what appear to be sheer cliffs without difficulty. Females and juveniles are more agile than adult males, which can weigh up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) and which often have more difficulty negotiating some of the steep paths. Panting and puffing, the males lag behind when a group flees. As if they were aware of the implications of their limitations, males never lead groups in flight: That leadership belongs to the females.

The young born in late March and April benefit from the new growth of grasses and herbs brought on by the winter rains. Although the wadi beds are dry throughout the year, even a few centimeters of rain can cause flooding in the canyons, which relieves the plants and brings the annuals to bloom. One January while I was observing a group, it began to rain, and the ibex began racing up and down the scree slope, apparently very excited. Since most ibex habitats in Saudi Arabia receive between 33 and 108 millimeters of rain a year (1⅓ to 4¼ inches), excitement would be understandable.

The young grow quickly, and it is not uncommon to see them mock-fighting, rushing at each other and gamboling fearlessly on the walls of the canyons, occasionally in apparent defiance of gravity. When they slip, they are sometimes able to turn in mid-air to land on their feet.

They are inquisitive. One curious juvenile once investigated a fox that was hiding behind a rock. When only a meter separated them, the fox decided not to challenge the kid and scrambled away.

I have also seen a male juvenile play with the spherical, melon-like fruit of the herb Citrullus colocynthis, which is a delicacy to the ibex. He picked up the tennis-ball-sized fruit in his mouth, dropped it and then rolled it about with his horns. Eventually he ate it. These "desert melons"—shary or hanzal in Arabic—are eaten only by ibex and gazelles: They make camels and cattle sick, and have a laxative, ultimately poisonous effect on humans. Ibex similarly consume the leaves of the shrub Calotropis procera, whose free-flowing milky latex contains a glycoside, calotropin, that in some tropical countries is used to make arrow poison. Bedouin call the plant 'ushar, and preferred charcoal made from its wood for manufacturing gunpowder.

With the help of local people who have observed the hunting ban and supported the stationing of rangers—most of them born in the area—the Nubian ibex at Hawtat Bani Tamiim seem to have regained their ancient foothold in the Tuwayq Escarpment. The first years of protection appear to demonstrate that, once the threats to their population are reduced, the lords of the sandstone canyons can propagate easily and abundantly.

Dr. Khushal Habibi was educated at Kabul and Michigan State universities, and worked as a consultant with the NCWCD. His book The Desert Ibex was published in the UK by Immel.

This article appeared on pages 6-11 of the September/October 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1995 images.