June 5 marks the UN’s 46th World Environment Day. This year’s theme is biodiversity, which provides an opportunity to celebrate the plants and animals that share the land, air and water with us.
Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity is remarkably rich. Precisely 500 species of bird live in the Kingdom, along with 117 types of mammals, 107 reptile species, eight kinds of frog, 148 varieties of butterfly, 266 types of coral, and 1,230 species of fish.
At Saudi Aramco, we strive to create a culture that prioritizes an understanding of the country’s ecological habitats, their plants and animals — and promotes their protection.
From creating a wildlife sanctuary in Rub’ Al-Khali (also known as the Empty Quarter), to establishing artificial reefs, to planting millions of mangrove trees and desert trees, and developing a mangrove eco-park, we conduct initiatives that protect the biodiversity of our land, seas and coastlines.
Almost 300 of the 500 species of bird in Saudi Arabia are migratory, flying in from breeding sites in Greenland, Europe, Asia, India or Africa. Some nest as far away as Alaska and Canada in the east, from where set off on an epic, 15,000 kilometer journey across all of Asia, through Saudi Arabia, and on to southern Africa, where they spend the winter before returning north to breed once again.
Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity is enigmatic. New species are still being discovered and many more have yet to be found.
Some of these birds are tiny, such as the willow warbler, which weighs only 10g — as small as a teaspoon of sugar. Others are some of the largest birds on Earth, with colossal wingspans exceeding 3.5 meters, such as the formidable Great White Pelican.
These migratory birds are guests in our desert Kingdom, and we must help them by giving them safe passage across this wide and sandy land. Each year, about 27 million pairs from more than 200 species breed in the Kingdom. There are surely few places on the planet that offer a more challenging nesting site than this hot, dry, windswept ecosystem. And yet birds manage to breed throughout the country, from the forested peaks of the Asir Mountains to the extraordinarily sparse sand seas of Rub Al-Khali. Nowhere is devoid of birds.
The presence of these birds is testimony to the capacity of animals to endure extreme hardships just to raise their young. Given the great challenges of breeding in Saudi Arabia, we must help these birds by not disturbing their nests, by keeping our hungry cats inside, and by leaving every tree and bush and shrub and blade of grass intact wherever possible.
Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity is enigmatic. New species are still being discovered and many more have yet to be found. For example, a new species of reptile (known only by its Latin name, Tropiocolotes wolfgangboehmei) was discovered recently in the Ath-Thumamah area just north of Riyadh. If new animals are being discovered just outside of the capital, then just imagine what species await discovery in the many remote regions of this vast Kingdom.
Some animals in Saudi Arabia have only been seen once or twice in history. A species of snake called the Sarso Island racer, for example, is known only from a single specimen collected in 1964 on Sarso Island in the Farasan archipelago off Jazan. It had never been seen before and has not been seen since.
Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity is special. About one in seven plant and animal species in the Kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula can be found nowhere else on Earth. Indeed some live only in Saudi Arabia, such as the Asir magpie, which can be found only in a few tiny patches of juniper forest in the Asir region.
Saudi Arabia’s biodiversity is special. About one in seven plant and animal species in the Kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula can be found nowhere else on Earth.
These are the animals that help to make Saudi Arabia such a unique place to live.
However, the Kingdom’s biodiversity is vulnerable. Many of our plant and animal species are listed as threatened with extinction. Creatures such as the wonderful Asir magpie and Arabian leopard are perilously close to disappearing forever, while species such as the Saudi gazelle and Arabian ostrich have already fallen into extinction.
Mammal species have fared particularly poorly in Saudi Arabia, as they have across the planet. The 12 largest species of wild mammal in the Kingdom are all either endangered or extinct.
The UN has chosen the theme of biodiversity for this year’s World Environment Day because, quite simply, the world’s biodiversity is in crisis.
Saudi Aramco is helping to protect biodiversity. More than 2.2 million mangroves have been planted along the coasts and a further 1 million native desert trees are being planted inland.
The company has designated 10 biodiversity protection areas, covering 977 square kilometers, which helps to protect more than 500 species of plants and animals, including 55 species or subspecies that are unique to Saudi Arabia.
Three endangered species have been reintroduced to the company’s huge wildlife sanctuary at Shaybah — the Arabian oryx, Arabian sand gazelle, and the common ostrich — all of which once roamed the Kingdom in great numbers.
Future plans include the construction of a research station and operations building, and enhanced partnerships with academic institutes such as the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, paving the way for further environmental-based research in the area.
It is fitting that this year’s World Environment Day recognizes our planet’s rich biodiversity. Protecting earth’s ecology and our natural environment has never been more important, which is why Saudi Aramco will continue to help safeguard our natural heritage as part of our environmental stewardship goals.
• Chris Boland is an environmental specialist at Saudi Aramco.