Oman opens sprawling oryx reserve to ecotourists

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An Arabian Oryx at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Umm Al-Zamool, some 290 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi near the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia.(AFP)
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An Arabian Oryx at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Umm Al-Zamool, some 290 kilometers south of Abu Dhabi near the border with Oman and Saudi Arabia. (AFP)
Updated 23 December 2017
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Oman opens sprawling oryx reserve to ecotourists

HAIMA, OMAN: The Gulf sultanate of Oman is looking to carve itself a new niche in ecotourism by opening up a sanctuary for one of the desert’s most fabled creatures — the Arabian oryx.
Once extinct in the wild, the rare member of the antelope family famed for its elegant horns has been dragged back from the precipice in a sprawling reserve fenced off for decades from the public.
That changed last month when authorities for the first time officially opened the sanctuary to visitors — part of a broader bid by Oman to boost tourism as oil revenues decline.
On a recent outing, wildlife rangers in SUVs patrolled the sandy plains of the reserve in central Oman’s Haima province, spotting groups of grazing oryx and other indigenous species.
For years, the main goal has been a basic one — ensuring the oryx can survive by focusing on “helping the animals here reproduce and multiply,” said sanctuary spokesman Hamed bin Mahmoud Al-Harsousi.
But now, as numbers have ticked up from just 100 some two decades ago to almost 750 today, the authorities began eyeing another role for the reserve.
“There has been more interest in its tourism potential — to take advantage of its uniqueness and rare animals,” Harsousi told AFP.

The Arabian ‘unicorn’

The story of the Arabian oryx — sometimes referred to as the Arabian “unicorn” due to its distinctive profile — is one of miraculous survival.
Hunted prolifically, the last wild member of the species was killed in Oman by suspected poachers in 1972.
The species only clung to existence thanks to a program to breed them in captivity and in the early 1980s a batch of 10 were released into Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.
Since then, regenerating the oryx has been an often precarious process.
The Omani sanctuary sprawls over 2,824 square kilometer (1,100 sq miles) of diverse terrain — from flat plains to rocky slopes and sandy dunes.
Its own fate has been nearly as tortured as that of the oryx it houses.
In 2007, the sanctuary became the first place ever to be removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage list as the government of Oman turned most of it over to oil drilling.

Plunging oil prices

Now, as oil prices have plunged over the past few years, it is the wildlife once again that has become an increasing priority for the authorities.
Harsousi puts the current number of Arabian oryx in the sanctuary at 742 and says that other species are flourishing there too.
“In the past three years, we have been able to increase the number of the Arabian gazelle, known as sand gazelles, from 300 to about 850,” he added.
In addition to the animals, there are 12 species of trees that provide a habitat for diverse birds.
Oman has been on a push to transform itself into a tourist draw — pitching its beach resorts to luxury travelers and desert wilderness to the more adventurous.
Officials in the sultanate told AFP that a major tourism plan would be announced within a matter of weeks.
Those working at the oryx sanctuary hope that it can help play a lead role in luring visitors to the country.
But there are also fears that greater openness could see the return of an old foe — hunters.
With that in mind security is being kept tight, said Abdullah Ghassab Obaid, a wildlife guard at the reserve.
“Thirty guards and a police patrol are working to provide security in the reserve to prevent any infiltration.”


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.