Bringing wildlife back to the Empty Quarter

Deep in the Rub’ al-Khali — the Kingdom’s Empty Quarter — something remarkable has happened. Three Arabian animal species, some of which were on the brink of extinction, are once again roaming freely across their ancestral homeland.

One of the key environmental signals the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary is succeeding is that of the 68 sand gazelles there today, 14 are newborns conceived within the sanctuary.

The Arabian oryx, sand gazelle and ostrich have long been missing from this legendary and unforgiving landscape. Once a common sight, they graced the Rub’ al-Khali for thousands of years, but their numbers were decimated by hunters over the past century.

Now, Saudi Aramco’s Shaybah Producing Department (SyPD) in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) has turned back the clock. The completion of the first stage of the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary, inaugurated by Saudi Aramco’s Board of Directors in December 2016, has given these three species a new lease of life.

Representing the culmination of years of hard work and determination, the sanctuary symbolizes Saudi Aramco delivering on its promise to put environmental protection at the heart of its operations.

The Arabian oryx is the only animal species that was once formally classified as 'extinct in the wild' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature that has subsequently recovered to a stable and sustainable population size.

Hunted to near extinction

The Arabian oryx is the stuff of legends; it is from this majestic creature that the myth of the unicorn was born. But its revered status did little to protect it from the deadly gaze of hunters. In modern times as the use of 4x4 vehicles increased, poachers outpaced and hunted their desert prey with impunity.

By 1972, only four Arabian oryx remained alive in the wild. The world conservation community undertook a last gasp rescue effort to save the species, and the last lone survivors were captured not far from Shaybah and sent to U.S. zoological facilities for safekeeping and to commence a captive breeding program.

The ostrich suffered its fate even earlier than the oryx. Excessive hunting caused this beautiful creature to disappear from the Rub’ al-Khali about 120 years ago, with the last wild ostrich recorded in the Arabian Peninsula about 1939. Sand gazelles have also seen their numbers dwindle to alarmingly low levels across Arabia for the same reasons. With the loss of these iconic animals, the Rub’ al-Khali suffered a tragic and what most considered to be an irreversible loss.

It was against this backdrop that Saudi Aramco decided to intervene. An unlikely player in some people’s minds, the company plotted the return of these species through a highly ambitious environmental project.

Although the last wild ostrich in the Arabian Peninsula was recorded nearly 80 years ago, Saudi Aramco has reintroduced the massive birds to the Rub' al-Khali as part of its preservation efforts at the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary.

Christopher Boland, Faleh Subaiei and Wayne Sweeting played crucial roles in the development of the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary.

A new challenge is set

The efforts generated global media attention. In 1999, with royalty in attendance, Saudi Aramco inaugurated its Shaybah mega-facility — an engineering feat with fully functional oil and gas operations in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

In 2011, Saudi Aramco management committed to new environmental protection initiatives across all operation areas. Shaybah was on the front line once again, but this time not for its hydrocarbon reserves. A new challenge had been set — to restore and safeguard the unique biodiversity and ecosystem in the area by establishing an internationally significant wildlife sanctuary. 

Work began immediately. Surveys revealed that the Shaybah area was more than just sand dunes and sabkhas (salt flats). Although some key species were missing, it still contained a unique, important, and functioning eco-system, including at least 11 highly specialized desert plant species.

In 2013, Faleh Subaiei, an Operations Engineering supervisor at SyPD, joined the team to lead the project. “Someone was needed to oversee the project, and I had project management experience — but it was in oil expansion,” said Subaiei with a smile. “I was excited but knew nothing about the subject. The specialists were using terms like biodiversity and floral genetics — it was like learning a new language, a new technical vocabulary.”

Subaiei had to learn fast, but he had some of the the best subject matter experts in support. Within EPD, terrestrial ecologist Christopher Boland brought 20 years of research on endangered species and conservation experience in his native Australia. Meanwhile, Wayne Sweeting, a wildlife scientist with 15 years of experience directing the development and operational management of nature reserves in both the U.K. and the Arabian Peninsula, joined the team.

“We agreed to meet four primary goals. The first was to restore key native species in the Rub’ al-Khali — back to the way it had been for thousands of years,” said Subaiei. “The second was to set aside and protect a significant portion of pristine Rub’ al-Khali wilderness to meet the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship.

“The third was to support academic research in the field of ecology and the environment, particularly in areas that will inform and optimize management of the sanctuary but also to advise and benefit desert conservation projects worldwide. And finally, the fourth was to provide a high quality environmental education and visitor experience."

The project team formed an invaluable partnership with the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA), which had worked diligently over the past few decades breeding gazelle, oryx, and ostrich, and which could provide the initial animals to stock the sanctuary.

The Rub’ al-Khali is an iconic landscape but a challenging environment for even the most simple of tasks. Sand dunes in the area can reach up to 300 meters high, some of the largest in the world, and temperatures reach 55 degrees Celsius in the summer.

No shortcuts

Construction began in 2014. “The Rub’ al-Khali is an iconic landscape, but to date, none of it was formally or physically protected, so we knew creating the sanctuary would be of national and international conservation significance,” said Boland.

A location was identified, no less than 637 km2 in size, making it one of the largest fenced nature reserves in the world.

Even the simplest of tasks can be challenging in Shaybah. For example, the building of the new 106 km perimeter road that surrounds the sanctuary would be a relatively straight forward task in most locations. Not in the Rub’ al-Khali.

With sand dunes in the area reaching up to 300 meters high, some of the largest in the world, and the temperature rising to 55 degrees Celsius in the summer, the installation of the road network required extensive resources, including the use of heavy vehicles and a fleet of bulldozers.

“Before we installed the roads, it took half a day just to travel the 12 kilometers to the sanctuary entrance. Now, with the roads in place, we can patrol the whole 106 kilometer perimeter in three hours. Only Saudi Aramco, with its deep desert construction expertise, could have pulled this off,” said Sweeting.

The sanctuary is enclosed by security fencing made from a specially designed material that uses a large gauge wired mesh that minimizes the buildup of the shifting Rub’ al-Khali sands along its length. It also allows small animals to pass in and out of the sanctuary — an important aspect of supporting the wider ecosystem in the area.

After arriving at the sanctuary, animals are first released into the fenced sabkha flatland area of about 1km2. Once acclimatized, they are released into the wider sanctuary.

Coming home

By 2016, everything was in place for the animal’s historic return to the Rub’ al-Khali. The SWA brought the ostrich by truck from Taif, and the gazelle and oryx from the SWA breeding centers near Riyadh. In line with international animal welfare and conservation standards, a three-stage reintroduction procedure was implemented:

Stage one

When the animals arrived, they were quarantined in 50 m x 50 m enclosures for one month. Here, veterinarians monitored the animals closely to ensure they recuperated from their long journey and were healthy. Medications or vaccinations were administered where required, and numbered ear tags were fitted to track the age, parentage, medical history, and population size of the animals in the future.

Stage two

Once healthy, strong, and settled, the animals are released into a pre-release area consisting of a fenced sabkha flatland area of about 1 km2, with water holes, sun shades, and feeding stations provided. Here the animals begin to explore and acclimatize to their new surroundings.

Stage three

In the last stage, the animals were released into the wider 637 km2 sanctuary, roaming free with limited human assistance but under the watchful eye of the sanctuary security rangers.

The 11 ostriches at the sanctuary have laid a total of 70 eggs.

Success

For the first time in decades, Arabian oryx, Arabian sand gazelles and ostrich are roaming around in the eastern Rub’ al-Khali. But there was always a worry — having been away for so long, would they reacclimatize?

The results have been spectacular. Of the 68 sand gazelles today, 14 are newborns conceived within the sanctuary. The Arabian oryx has seen its numbers reach 39, including 13 newborns. The 11 ostriches at the sanctuary have also laid dozens of eggs.

“To successfully re-establish any large bodied species is a rare conservation achievement globally. To establish three species into a desert — the harshest of environments — is just extraordinary. It’s incredibly rewarding — one of the highlights of my career,” said Boland. “Seeing the iconic oryx once again standing proud among the awesome sand dunes of the Rub’ al-Khali is spectacular.”

But the sanctuary is more than just a safe haven for the three species. A detailed scientific survey to catalog and map the entire biodiversity present inside the sanctuary is underway. Already, the results have revealed three plant species only found within the Rub’ al-Khali and nowhere else on the planet.

The international research community is beginning to take notice. Recently, professors from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Tottori University in Japan, and Kings Park Botanic Gardens Authority in Australia, have visited the sanctuary with interest in initiating academic projects.

Coming full circle

In Hail, hundreds of miles northwest of the Rub’ al-Khali, ancient rock art dating back thousands of years clearly depict ostrich, gazelle and oryx, highlighting the long and special relationship between humans and these animals. Their history in the peninsula is literally etched in stone.

Now, due in no small part to the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary, these animals seem sure to remain a part of the landscape for many years to come, their future secure under the custodianship of Saudi Aramco.

The sanctuary epitomizes Saudi Aramco’s unique approach to its operations and its care for the Kingdom. We are more than an energy company — we are stewards of our environment and strive to leave a lasting environmental benefit wherever we operate.

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