The Wildlife of the World’s Deserts – Part 6 – The Middle East

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Wadi Rum of Lawrence of Arabia Fame

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The majestic beauty of the red-sandstone scenery of Wadi Rum was immortalised in David Lean’s 1962 film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and it would be still recognised by TE Lawrence today. The film is about the Arab Revolt against the Turks during the First World War. The spectacular landscape impressed TE Lawrence to such a degree that he wrote: ‘Deep alleys, fifty feet across, divided the crags, whose plans were smoothed by the weather into huge apses and bays, and enriched with surfaces fretting and fracture, like design…They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place; this professional way, greater than imagination.’

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Indeed, the epic scale of the vast sandstone buttresses, reaching 1,700 metres at their highest point and towering over the 2-kilometre-wide sandy wadi bed below, is quite overwhelming. The dramatic sculpted rocks, carved by millions of years of wind, sand and water erosion, are spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset. Many canyons, enfilades and gullies divide the vast rocky bastions, forming a maze of corridors and dead-ends, making this mesmerising landscape a place of romantic notions. Wadi Rum supports diverse and interesting wildlife that include Oryx, Hyrax and Verreaux’s Eagle among many others.

Below is an aerial view of part of Wadi Rum

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Wadi Rum is well known as the Great Rift and is among the world’s most remarkable geological features, and it is the only one that can be seen clearly from the moon. The Great Rift is 40 million years old and is a relative newcomer, geologically speaking. It extends for 6,500 kilometres, from Lebanon south to Mozambique; the Rift then makes its way from the heart of the Middle East down along the Red Sea before suddenly weaving south through the Ethiopian Highlands, Kenya and Tanzania. All the way along there is an epic chain of dramatic features in their own right that includes many lakes, escarpments and open planes. Great Rift is indeed not a single element but a complex series of separate rift systems that are all interconnected and are still evolving as the associated tectonic plates continue to shift, grind and jostle their way about.

Petroglyph

There is evidence of human presence dating back many thousands of years and Wadi Rum was then an important centre for the Nabateans,  who as early as the sixth century BC were controlling passage from their capital at Petra, some 100 kilometres to the north. They traded on the traditional overland route for the transportation of precious goods from south Arabia, such as frankincense and myrrh, and strategically the position of Wadi Rum was vital. It was also a significant site for wildlife with cave paintings carved into the rock side showing images of oryx, ibex, and ostrich. In recent years this part of Jordan and the neighbouring parts of Israel have become known as one of the world’s major flyways for migrating birds, with many millions of birds funnelling through this narrow neck of land every spring and autumn.

Below is shown the Sinai Rosefinch.

SinaiRosefinch

Resident birds at Wadi Rum include many typical desert species. Among those most often seen are the Mourning Wheatear and the White-crowned Black Wheatear, Bar-tailed Desert Lark, and Desert Lark. One of the very colourful birds present here is the Sinai Rosefinch.

Below is shown the White-crowned Black Wheatear.

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Above is shown the Bar-tailed Desert Lark.

Wadi Rum has a large population of long-legged Buzzards but its most charismatic bird is Tristram’s Grackle whose sound is the defining sound of the desert. The birds are often seen in Petra when they fly around the magnificent Nabatean ruins.

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During the migrating season, birds of prey take over Wadi Rum with as many as 1000 birds seen in one day. Three species are predominant – the Honey Buzzard, the Steppe Buzzard and the Steppe Eagle. My very favourite is the Short-toed Eagle because instead of feeding on young migrating birds, it prefers to hover over rocky slopes looking for the food on which it feeds exclusively: snakes that oblivious to the danger are basking in the sun.

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For his heroic work, I think my hero deserves two pictures.

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Hyrax are widely distributed in the Wadi Rum but are not easily seen. Best located by their distinctive alarm calls, they live in small groups and spend much of their time sunbathing on rocky ledges. This delights their main predator, the Verreaux’s Eagle, a magnificent looking bird.

Below a family of plump cuties – Hyrax, hiding from Verreaux’s Eagle

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One of the hardest birds to see at Wadi Rum is the elusive and enigmatic Hume’s Tawny Owl.  Strictly nocturnal it is widely distributed and its numbers are increasing.

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The Brown-necked Raven is a classic Middle Eastern desert bird. It is often seen soaring overhead and calling raucously. He feeds on anything and everything, from berries, small reptiles and invertebrates to sickly lambs and roadkill. He survives as he is not regarded as ‘good meat.’

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Mammals at Wadi Rum are limited in numbers and diversity. Many of the larger species are extinct or severely depleted due to overhunting. One surviving species lives in an inaccessible to humans location and is the Nubian Ibex. The male has an impressive pair of horns that are used in the annual rut in aggressive tussles between rivals. Ibex live in small groups and rarely leave the rocky slopes that protect them.

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As the population of larger mammals dwindled, it affected the numbers of their natural predators. This was particularly the case with the Arabian Leopard who used to be quite common but is now extinct in Wadi Rum. The local Bedouin, fearful for their sheep and goats being attacked, shot or trapped the leopards who normally would pray on ibex. As the numbers of ibex dramatically declined due to overhunting, the leopard turned to livestock and constant persecution wiped out all of them in Wadi Rum. It is the same situation across the entire Middle East range, and the few remaining in Israel and the Sinai Desert are used for captive breeding to ensure that the Arabian Leopard doesn’t become extinct.

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The other main predator in Wadi Rum is the desert wolf, another victim of heavy human persecution. Wolves traditionally have been shot on sight by local people, who also lay traps and poisoned bait for them. The indiscriminate nature of these practices has had an impact on other predators such as the Striped Hyena, Caracal, and Sand Cat. This is the dilemma facing desert wildlife conservation. One of them, the enigmatic caracal, was once plentiful, but now numbers have severely declined. This big cat is solitary and feeds on small mammals and birds. The Caracal is capable of leaping up to 3 metres in the air to catch birds in flight.

Below is shown the Caracal demonstrating his enviable skills.

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There is some encouraging evidence that attitudes here are gradually changing. Over 700 square kilometres are now covered by the Wadi Rum Protected Areas designed to save wildlife and offer new opportunities for local people to benefit from the protection of nature, including working as guides and wildlife protection wardens. The area is also developed as sustainable eco-tourism.

The Lost Ibises of Palmyra

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The magnificent ruined city of Palmyra, once ruled over by Queen Zenobia and conquered by the Romans, lies at the heart of the Syrian Desert. Herds of wild ass, gazelle and oryx were once a common sight here but were wiped out by overhunting. It was, therefore, exciting news received some time ago that a relict breeding colony of North Bald Ibis was discovered deep in the heart of the Syrian Desert. This odd-looking bird used to be found in parts of the European Alps and across North Africa and the Middle East, but by the early 1990s, it had declined to the point where fewer than a hundred pairs survived. These were divided between Morocco and Birecik in Turkey. The two groups were regarded as ecologically and morphologically distinct from each other, one of the most obvious differences being that the birds in Turkey were migratory whereas those in Morocco were sedentary.

Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita)

Historically the Bald Ibis was widely distributed in Syria but it was considered extinct by the 1950s, mainly as a result of overhunting. There was a hope that the birds persisted somewhere but their location remained unknown until April 2002 when seven birds were found nesting on cliffs near the celebrated ancient city of Palmyra, in the middle of the Syrian Desert. By 2010 the total population had fallen to just three birds. As it stands, it is impossible to ensure adequate protection for these bizarre-looking but interesting birds, which is frankly tragic. Conservationists are currently looking at ways in which human intervention might help. This situation is replicated across much of Syria, which was once rich in wildlife. This situation was to change dramatically with the advent of motorised transport and improved firearms. Suddenly the desert became less remote, and even the swiftest of animals were incapable of outrunning a car. Today the Syrian Desert is largely devoid of large mammals. The trapping and shooting of birds is a problem across much of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. For instance, the ‘fig-birds’ are trapped in their thousands, while on their migrating route and sold for the table at the markets.  Improved environmental awareness could reduce the death toll, but who will undertake such a Herculean task?

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As the recent civil war has devastated a large part of Syria and caused the death of thousands of people, and the refugee camps are full of desperate, frightened children, is it reasonable to expect that those left bereft of everything will care what is happening to the Syrian wildlife?

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3 thoughts on “The Wildlife of the World’s Deserts – Part 6 – The Middle East

  1. Thanks for sharing such a great story, rich with the landscape beauty and wildlife. You are really doing great work. I love the desert and the deserts creatures.

    Like

  2. Thank you again. My main concern is how do we protect wildlife, so unique and so captivating, from every point of view.

    Liked by 1 person

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