rewilding arabia III
So I’m driving through the desert just outside of AlUla, Saudi Arabia, watching the sunrise. We’re heading towards Sharaan Nature Conservancy on a mission to collect seeds. In order to re wild landscapes, you need to first build up the degraded ecosystem from the base. This starts with the grasses, plants and trees, upon which, wildlife and animals will survive. I adore leopards, however, I’m slowly beginning to adore grasses too, as without them we will not be able to build a prey structure upon which apex predators such as leopards, can live. Storytelling is a key resource that we can utilise for re wilding. Speaking to the older generations of Bedouin who can recall a treasure of rich stories about the landscape they grew up in, we are able to draw a picture of exactly what this landscape looked like 200 years ago. Plants also grow in communities, so if we look at these ‘plant societies’ we can work out what is missing in order to reintroduce it. Many of the plants required can be found in the surrounding landscape, and they are of course already adapted to living here, so what they’re doing is moving across this landscape, identifying plants, and trees, and gathering seeds. Each site will be recorded along with each seed and plant. These will then be transferred to Sami Almaki, the director of horticulture and plant nurseries for AlUla. In short he and his team will germinate the seeds, grow the plants, trees and shrubs from them, and reinstate the ecosystem exactly as it would have been.
A tree nursery that began with just 10 native species harvested from the deserts of AlUla, Saudi Arabia, has now produced over 60 native plants, the aim is to reach 200. This nursery is key to the entire success of re-wilding this part of Saudi Arabia. It’s small, I walked around it before the sun had risen to warm the trays of seedlings and it’s hard to believe that it has the capacity to grow more than 300 thousand seedlings each and every year. Today, one sapling from each species proudly sways in the warm morning breeze like artists acknowledging the applause of an audience. Rather like artists, each plant has its own story, and in many cases the learning is a work in progress. The large flowering fire bush – or Calligonum Comosum L’Her- is a perennial, which thrives in barren harsh sands. It stabilises the landscape, the flowers are edible, and it indicates a water source. Acacia’s are another one of the most important tree and shrub groups in Saudi Arabia. They flourish in Wadi beds, banks and runnels. We have so much to learn from the ecosystem, and here they are beginning to listen to the chatter of the wild.
What they’re building is the circle of life. First we have to propagate native species and then return them back to nature in a careful, considered way in order to build the ecosystem. These layers have to be in place before you can start to reintroduce wildlife. The image of an Arabian leopard moving through tall grass in pursuit of prey is seared into my soul, now I realise that it’s the tall grass that holds the key to the realisation of this image from dreams, to reality. To date, 110,000 seedlings have been planted in AlUla and over 200 captive-bred oryx and gazelle have already been released. By 2030, the hope is that the landscape will be able to support a full ecosystem of apex predators and prey – a complete food chain, including the Arabian leopard. Right now AlUla has five nature reserves and 12,500 sq km of land under protection, which is 50% of the ambition to have 80% of land to be preserved. The hope is that one day in the not-so-distant future, Arabian leopards will once again roam the sands of AlUla, but unless the right plant structure is in place to feed the gazelles, the apex predators won’t have anything to eat. As the sun sets on another desert day here in AlUla, Saudi Arabia, the expectation of the sights and sounds of Arabia being punctuated by the deep rumble of a leopards call, now seems very very real.