MERS battle: Camel imports face scrutiny

Updated 28 June 2014
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MERS battle: Camel imports face scrutiny

JEDDAH: Saudi authorities suspect that the MERS virus may have arrived in camels from the Horn of Africa, and could ban such imports until it knows more, says Tariq Madani, who heads the scientific advisory board of the Health Ministry’s command and control center (CCC).
Any ban on the camel trade with the region would badly hurt the economy of Somalia, which is a major livestock exporter to Saudi Arabia.
Madani said scientists are currently testing camels at sea ports before authorities allow them in.
“We do have suspicions that the disease may have been imported through camel trade from the Horn of Africa, but we haven’t proved it yet,” Madani said.
He said the final decision on a ban on camel imports from the region lies with the agriculture ministry.
Madani said the ministry “hasn’t yet released an official ban for the importation of camels,” although colleagues there had told him such a move is “under consideration.”
He said: “We have always imported camels from the African Horn.... but we will stop that until we get more information on whether they are infected or not.”
Much more scientific research is needed to nail down the source of the MERS infections in humans and exactly how it makes the leap, but preliminary studies suggest the virus’ animal reservoir is likely to be camels.
“Since this is a zoonotic disease we are collaborating with the ministry of agriculture to answer the question of whether these camels imported from the African Horn are possible sources of infection,” Madani said.
Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest market for livestock from Somalia, with at least 70 percent of Somali exports going to the Kingdom.
Most exports go via two Gulf of Aden ports — Bossaso and Berbera — in two breakaway regions of northern Somalia, but the animals come from all over the country, with some arriving across porous borders with southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.
Madani said that while Saudi Arabia does have some domestic camels, most of those used for meat and trade are imported from the Horn of Africa.
Lisa Murillo, an expert in virology and affiliate scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, said she had analyzed data on human MERS cases in the Middle East and camel imports from the Horn of Africa — and found striking correlations that cry out for further investigation.
As a result of her findings, Murillo says she has developed what she acknowledges is a “very speculative hypothesis” — that the number of MERS cases in Arabian Peninsula countries is related to the number of camels imported into those countries.
“That correlation just leaps off the page,” she said.
“The most important thing we need to be doing right now — outside of Saudi Arabia and the UAE — is looking for human and camel cases of MERS in the Horn of Africa — particularly in the ports of Somalia,” she said. “If it turns out to be in camels there, why wouldn’t it be in humans there as well?“
Madani said teams of scientists working under his leadership at the CCC were doing exactly that in Saudi Arabia.
“As we speak we are doing a study on camels imported from the Horn of Africa,” he said.
“We are taking samples from them in the sea ports before they are allowed in, and we’re also taking samples from people handling them to test them for antibodies.”
Experts say that if Saudi Arabia does ban imports from Somalia, it could have a severe impact on the nation.
A previous Saudi ban on Somali livestock exports in 2000 — the concerns then was rinderpest and Rift Valley fever — hammered the economy before it was lifted in 2009. From 2 million head shipped in 2008, exports jumped to 3 million in 2009 and hit 4.8 million in 2012, according to an EU official.


Height of adventure: Treading the ‘Edge of the World’ near Riyadh

Updated 19 April 2018
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Height of adventure: Treading the ‘Edge of the World’ near Riyadh

  • Cliffs in Tuwaiq were formed as a result of the movement of the Arabian plate toward the northeast because of the spread of the Red Sea rift
  • Several prominent Saudi tour companies offer daylong excursions to the site

Thrill seekers and fitness gurus all over the Kingdom will be pleased to know that their choices for weekend activities have increased. 

Several tour operators in Riyadh have started offering trips to the area known as the Edge of the World, making the location more accessible than ever.

With the country’s obesity rates on the rise and many citizens growing more concerned about their physical health and stress levels, people are seeking ways to maintain their fitness without having to restrict themselves to the monotony of a gym routine.

One such solution that has steadily increased in popularity over the past year is hiking, which many have embraced as being much more exciting and fulfilling than spending hours on the treadmill. And most popular of all for hiking and other fitness activities in a natural setting is the magnificent landmark of Jabal Fihrayn, more commonly known as the Edge of the World.

Described as a “window framed by rock,” the Edge of the World offers stunning views of the valley below, a lush grove of acacia trees teeming with wildlife and vegetation. The spot is well-known for being a favorite of visiting picnickers.

Hikers can choose from several trails of varying levels of difficulty, making their way to the top of the Tuwaiq escarpment to take in the magnificent views at the top of the trail, where the colossal cliff faces drop off to reveal the dizzying height from the valley below. In addition to the rich wildlife unique to the location, you can also find samples of fossilized coral and raw mineral deposits in certain areas of the valley.

The cliffs in the areas were formed as a result of the tectonic movement of the Arabian plate toward the northeast because of the spread of the Red Sea rift situated 1,000 km to the west of Tuwaiq.

Due to the increasing popularity of the site, the authorities have built a hardtop that leads to the gates of the sites and arrangements are in place to protect the area and its natural treasures. 

Several prominent Saudi tour companies offer daylong excursions to the site. The more intrepid explorer also has the option to go alone; though past visitors recommend that solo travelers take an all-terrain, 4x4 vehicle and extra precaution. Visitors can spend the day at the site and leave before 6 p.m. (when the gates are closed for the night) or stay behind for a night of camping to enjoy the sunset and the breathtaking celestial views of a star-studded night sky.

Nora Alfard, amateur hiking enthusiast and two-time visitor to the location, was quick to offer praise about her trip. 

“The trip out there was a bit tiring, but totally worth it,” she said. “The views are stunning, and the hiking itself is not that difficult. Most people should be able to make it to the top without too much trouble.” She said she was likely to go a third time, and encouraged others to do the same.

The Edge of the World is roughly 100km northwest of Riyadh, about 1.5 hours’ drive from the capital. Visitors should be prepared for at least 30 minutes of hiking, possibly more depending on your trail and your level of fitness and experience. Previous visitors recommend bringing water and snacks, and stress the importance of dressing appropriately — hiking shoes only!

Decoder

What is hiking?

Hiking means a long, vigorous walk, usually on trails in the countryside. Day hikers generally carry at least food, a map or a GPS navigation device.