Georgie Anne Geyer

Small Country Takes Large Steps Toward Saving Wildlife

MUSCAT, the Sultanate of Oman -- In a world that seems everywhere filled with violence and treachery, once in a while a humane, noble and inspiring saga from some magical corner of mankind comes to light. This prosperous little nation's attempts to preserve its remarkable wildlife for future generations is surely one of these.

If you travel the dusty five- or six-hour drive from Oman's exquisite white Arabian Nights capital up to the central high desert, you will find around the little settlement of Haylat Jaaluni some of the most beautiful Arabian oryx still in existence. They were not found here at all as late as 1970.

In other parts of the high desert and jagged mountains, you will find graceful Arabian gazelles, whose population in Oman is estimated at more than 10,000, the largest in Arabia; and the fascinating horned tahr, which is a kind of primitive goat related to the ibex; and on the Jiddat Plateau, you are likely to see a Nubian ibex, with its long and impressive notched horns curling back from its head; the Cape hare, the carnivorous, big-eared Ruppell's sand fox or even a leopard.

The hunting or capture of any wild animal is illegal here -- and the conservationist Sultan Qaboos and his environment-minded government mean it.

But of all the animals of Oman, by far the most sacred is the oryx. Not only is it a beautiful creature, a member of the antelope family with a sturdy, beige-white body, spotted face and huge, straight antlers, but it has the most romantic story of all in Oman.

It is a story of oryx being taken years ago far from home, to be protected in foreign zoos, or of being killed by Saudi poachers in the 1930s. But the young Sultan Qaboos was determined to bring back "his" oryx in the 1970s to regain their ancient home in Oman. It was an emotional moment when the first oryx, mainly from the Phoenix Zoo, were carried by Air Force planes to the highlands. The tribal peoples prostrated themselves in the sand at the sight of their animals returning and thanked God. And then, Oman did something different.

"They were all given names," Andrew Spalton, the British specialist who advises the sultanate on conservation, told me, sitting in one of the beautiful ministries in Muscat. "'Selma' was the first name given, and the tribesmen were given the responsibility for the animals. The question in the beginning was: Was this a species that could be reintroduced? Could it cope? But as it turned out, its status today has nothing to do with the biology of the oryx -- today, we need a social scientist, not a biologist."

Even after 1982, when the oryx were taken out of their protected region in the high desert and released into the wild, there were no problems. Everything seemed right on track in 1994 when the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was established and UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site.

By 1996, there were more than an estimated 400 oryx roaming over a huge area of the desert about the size of Holland.

"And then," the scientist went on, "came the difficult years. ... Starting in 1996, we had these huge poaching problems. The animals were taken alive and smuggled mostly to the emirates (the neighboring United Arab Emirates), where they would be kept in private zoos. The picture in the wild was not a happy one, and eventually we found a way forward when we found that the poaching involved international trade and local jealousies.

"In the early days, part of the great success then was that the rangers and the nomadic peoples were tasked with protecting the oryx. They had radios, the work was flexible, the government provided health care and water for everyone." But the main problem turned out not to be the animals themselves, but human nature, as there developed rivalries between different tribes over the care of the animals.

"Communities on the margins felt that they should have more," he went on. "After all, the animals ranged over a huge area, and even the rangers could not watch all of them."

Thus, 1996 to '99 were sad years, with the oryx diminishing in Oman from upward of 400 to only about 120. At this point, the government realized it needed to think seriously about its commitment to its wildlife and to add to its already impressive tactics and strategies -- and in doing so, turn Oman into a classic international case for the kinds of conservation battles that are being fought across the world.

In the five years since 1999, Oman has employed several strategies. In keeping with the sultan's desire to negotiate and mediate before taking military action, Oman set up successful negotiations with the emirates over smuggling of animals. They added security forces into the area -- local people, but from all the communities and even some from the cities. Oman officials are working toward getting a substantial tourism business going up to the high desert, since the presence of tourists would be a positive influence on conservation. And they are forming an Environmental Society of Oman, which will work in tandem with the private sector for funding and greater international communication. The first meeting of the founding members is in May.

Today the poaching has all but stopped, and the Omanis are again building up their herds. "Now," said Spalton, "we need to really address what happened in those years, because the project is a template for conservation projects across the world."

Meanwhile, the beautiful oryx, home at last and safe, roam the high desert, animals out of the biblical past and now in the modern present.

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