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.”


A look inside Los Angeles’ movie-making machinery

Traffic and pedestrians at Hollywood Boulevard. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 October 2018
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A look inside Los Angeles’ movie-making machinery

  • Read on for an unexpected travel guide to Los Angeles
  • This glimpse into the reality of Hollywood could come as a surprise to some

LONDON: First-time visitors to America often remark that arriving feels like stepping onto one almighty film set. The country’s iconography, look and feel is so instantly recognizable — already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, via the land’s greatest cultural export: The movies. Which makes a visit to Los Angeles surreality squared. The home of Hollywood is at once both the most-photographed fantasyland on the planet and an uncomfortable glimpse behind the curtain, at the mechanisms and people bringing these daydreams to the world.

The mask slipped the moment I arrived, when an airport minibus spurted me out on top of a lump of faded metal etched into a grubby sidewalk, and I realized I was standing atop one of 2,627 stars making up the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

(Shutterstock)


That night I was served pizza by an aspiring opera singer, and I chatted with jobbing actresses in the coffee queue the next morning. When I brazenly strolled into a famed Sunset Boulevard rehearsal studio, rather than finding gold records on the walls I was asked, “La La Land”-style, if I was there to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music. I didn’t even have to look for the oily engine room beneath the star machine.

And of course, I was expecting to. Disavowing jetlag, I had booked an early slot on an arduous $139 “LA in a Day” guided two-wheel tour, from the excellent Bikes and Hikes LA — a 52km-workout through numerous neighborhoods and landmarks I knew only from the movies: from West Hollywood through Westwood to Santa Monica Promenade, down to Venice Beach and through Marina Del Rey. Peddling furiously up the titular inclines of Beverly Hills, our endlessly enthusiastic guide (and, naturally, aspiring film director) Zack pointed out gleaming once-residences of Michael Jackson, Tom Cruise and Lucille Ball.


To recover, that evening I feasted at Barney’s Beanery, the diner where Quentin Tarantino reportedly wrote much of his seminal early movies. When we asked which table he sat at, our waitress was as unimpressed as any of QT’s characters.

The next day I rested my legs, riding Starline Tours’ two-hour Movie Locations bus tour ($55), winding around a giddyingly geeky list of sights which, if you squint at them in the right light, remind you of the movies.

We glimpsed the US Bank Tower aliens obliterated in “Independence Day,” stopped at the historic Bradbury Building — its restored interior heavily exploited in the original “Blade Runner” — and visited Union Station, familiar from “The Dark Knight Rises” to “Catch Me if You Can.” We found the pond Jack Nicholson rowed through in “Chinatown” and the Hollywood United Methodist Church used as a dancehall in “Back to the Future.” Towering above was Griffith Observatory, the locale of the famous showdown in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Spotting all these real-life sites had the jolting effect of demystifying the movies, but nothing could prepare me for my visit to the modern Warner Bros Studio, Hollywood’s biggest surviving back lot, stretching to 110 acres out of town in Burbank.

For $65 visitors can join the 1,400 people who call this giant playground their office on an official studio tour and ride a golf cart through the fake streets and makeshift neighborhoods across multiple centuries and worlds that have been brought to life in hundreds of movies.

We visited a studio where dozens of weekly sitcoms are shot in front of a live audience with factory-like precision. (Shows such as “The Big Bang Theory” can wrap in just two hours.) We saw the dull soundstages used by make-believe epics including “Inception” and “Dunkirk,” and were shown a warehouse storing real-life Batmobiles, used over three decades of “Batman” movies.

Any semblance of mystery was totally annihilated with the closing blockbuster ‘Stage 48: Script to Screen’ complex, a collection of interactive educational exhibits allowing visitors the chance to ride a Harry Potter broom in front of a green screen, hold a real Oscar, and hear the award-winning audio to “Gravity” broken down layer by layer — and even act out a scene on the original Central Perk coffeehouse set of “Friends”. As I mimed firing up a fake espresso machine at the edge of the frame and served another tourist an unbreakable plastic mug, I realized my journey inside the Hollywood machine had gone far enough. Sometimes, illusion beats reality.