They had ranged the open sand habitats of the Arabian Peninsula, the Empty Quarter Desert and Sharqiyah Sands (Wahiba Sands).
Though preferring sandy desert, they came down to the gravel desert of central Oman when it rained, in search of pasture and water. There were no hunters, no habitat degradation; two decades ago, the Arabian sand gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa marica), thrived across the Saudi Arabia-Oman border.
A survey by the Saudi Wildlife Commission in 1990 had reported a sizeable herd ranging across 30 kilometres of the border area of Ghanim on the Omani side. Ten years later, a two-day line transect by car in the central sand desert of Oman could sight just 44 gazelles besides tracking 34 others (totaling 78 gazelles - density of 1.26/sq km). The population trend has been on a decline and the unprecedented economic development in the region and the availability of 4WDs and automatic rides to poachers led to an almost complete wipe-out of the Arabian sand gazelles in Oman.
Something had to be done in Oman. Many countries had established captive populations of sand gazelles in zoos and breeding centres and some of them were re-introduced into the wild. In Saudi Arabia, a captive group had already been successfully re-introduced into the Mahazat As Sayd Reserve, a fenced protected area. Oman, too, couldn't turn a blind eye.
As the gate opens to this big enclosure, we see that Oman hasn't ignored the IUCN's (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List which has classified Arabian sand gazelle as vulnerable. Inside the enclosure and between the ghaf, samr and salm trees we spot them, a few hundreds of the sand-hued creatures with their beautifully 'carved' horns, pitch black eyes and tagged-ears, feeding on alfalfa hay. We are right in the middle of 'a large-scale programme undertaken by the Office for Conversation of the Environment of Oman's Diwan of Royal Court to introduce a free-ranging Arabian sand gazelle population in Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve (WWR) of central Oman'.
"This enclosure has two big sections besides four holding pens and we currently have here 344 sand gazelles," says Metab Al Ghafri, senior wildlife biologist in Jaaluni. The large section has a mix of 15 males, 114 females and 148 calves, while the other houses 'fighting' males, he adds. And there are holding pens which would ensure the reserve breeds a genetically diverse population with gazelles from three countries and a total of around 10 staff to look after them.
It has been more than a year since the launch of the project and the captive sand gazelles are doing well, says Khalifa Hamed Al Jahwari, the field manager and the senior specialist at the reserve. "Though there are no specific plans now on when to release them into the wild, they are expected to join Arabian Oryx and Arabian gazelle (mountain gazelle) in the reserve (100 kilometres to the east of Haima and enclosed by a two-metre high chain-link perimeter fence) in future," he adds.
|We have a qualified cadre of three biologists, and we soon expect to add another two to take care of the captive management of animals, besides other tasks, like field surveys and recording of animals in the reserve.|
Khalifa Hamed Al Jahwari
Field manager & senior specialist,
Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve
According to Khalifa, there has been no sighting of sand gazelles in the WWR during the recent years. "Although there was never a permanent population of sand gazelle in the area defined by the WWR, on occasions, after rain, sand gazelles came onto the 'Jidda' from the sands of the Empty Quarter. Unfortunately, during the late 1990's there was excessive wildlife poaching and many Oryx, ibex and gazelle were lost.
Consequently sand gazelles have not been sighted on the 'Jidda' in recent years," he points out. Besides, as per the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs' figures, there have been only a few reem sightings in the north-western outskirts of Dhofar as reported by the Maqshan Ranger Unit during 2011-2013. Hence, it was decided to launch this project in this reserve, 'which would also mean adding to its biodiversity'.
"A small captive group of sand gazelles had been safeguarded in the Omani Wild Animals Breeding Centre which was built in Al Seeb in the early 1980s. And in order to diversify the gene pool of the species, captive sand gazelles were provided to the project from two more different captive groups in two other range countries (75 from Oman, 80 from Saudi Arabia and 160 from UAE)," Khalifa elaborates. Within Jaaluni, the WWR's field headquarters, a new pre-release enclosure including holding pens was built for the sand gazelles and new staff was recruited to take on the daily feeding, caring and observation of the captive herd, supported by a veterinary team.
The animals were moved into separate holding pens for a three-week quarantine, after which a majority were released together into the pre-release breeding enclosure while a small number from each country group remained in separate holding pens to retain their genetic origin. "The captive reem are fed alfalfa hay and concentrated feed every morning and afternoon and a monitoring scheme is put in place on a daily basis with veterinary intervention in cases of severe injury or suspected disease," Metab Al Ghafri says.
Besides, a specific genetic monitoring and management policy was also required to minimise the loss of genetic diversity of the population, which could be done through screening of nuclear and mtDNA markers for representative individuals from the population. "At present, the laboratories inside the reserve look after collection of samples and do relatively simple tests. We need to establish a proper laboratory for coherent genetic monitoring," adds Dr. Qais Al Rawahi, senior nature conservation specialist.
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