Oman opens sprawling oryx reserve to ecotourists ahead of new tourism push

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

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 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.
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.”


Davos Diary: An evening in the life of WEF, from Brexit to biodiversity

Updated 28 min 57 sec ago
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Davos Diary: An evening in the life of WEF, from Brexit to biodiversity

  • An absent Theresa May was the star of the show at WEF last year, before the Brexit debacle took such a serious turn
  • Sir David Attenborough was present to spread the word about climate change, which is one of the hot topics of Davos 2019

DAVOS: The Belvedere hotel was buzzing with rumor on the eve of the formal opening day of Davos 2019, and most of it centered on British Prime Minister Theresa May. Will she? Won’t she?
The UK leader has apparently withdrawn from this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting. She is one of a number of big-hitters who have decided their services are needed at home, in the face of populist “crises” ravaging the US and Europe.
In the Belvedere, the reason for May’s absence was apparent from the first step in the door. There, in the main lobby amid all the corporate branding for the banks and consulting firms that make the hotel their home base for the duration of Davos, flew the Union flag of the UK along with the slogan “Free Trade is GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Very in-your-face, but it was hard to work out exactly who had hung it there. Was it a Brexiteer, anxious to promote the idea that after withdrawal from the EU, the UK would be free to trade with the rest of the world? Or was it a member of the Remain camp, pushing the line that Britain within the EU would be free to trade with the 27 other member of the customs union?
There were other conspiracy theories being spun around. It was a greeting flag, it was said, to welcome May on what would be a surprise visit after all. British business leaders — marginally more anti- than pro-Brexit — are due to hold their annual Davos lunch event on Thursday.
Some recalled that May was the star of the show there last year, before the Brexit debacle took such a serious turn. Maybe she would want to reprise that triumph? Such is the hectic pace at which rumor spreads in Davos that I heard the same notion being put around later in the day as hard fact. We shall see, but if it happens, you read it here first.
After the excitement of the Belvedere, the agenda moved to the Hilton hotel, back within the ring of steel that surrounds the main WEF congress hall. That was the venue for the welcome bash thrown by the WEF media team, which is always a “must attend” event. Even more so this year because the guest speaker was the distinguished British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough. The nonagenarian TV supremo — maker and voiceover to the “Planet” series of nature programs on the BBC — was in Davos to spread the word about climate change, which is one of the hot topics of Davos 2019.
Adrian Monck, the WEF’s head of public and social engagement and a former broadcaster himself, introduced Sir David with the words: “It’s not often you get to hear from a TV legend, but I don’t want to get into my TV career now,” drawing a few laughs around the room.
Sir David’s message on climate change and biodiversity destruction was rather more serious. “There are people here in Davos with enormous power, some who have more power than national states.
I want to tell them that we know what the matter is and we know what we can do to fix it,” he said.
He hopes his new documentary series “Our Planet,” which will air on Netflix, will help change perceptions, especially among climate change deniers. Sir David resisted the chance to criticize President Donald Trump, maybe the denier-in-chief, but he did say: “It is easy to say the problem does not exist, so we need bold action and bravery.”

  • Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai