Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary

Promoting biodiversity

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

Ecological stewardship

Chapter 1

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

Saudi Aramco has turned back the clock. The completion of the first stage of the Shaybah Wildlife Sanctuary, inaugurated in December 2016, has given these three species a new lease of life.

The culmination of years of hard work and determination, the sanctuary represents our drive to protect ecologically sensitive areas and the biodiversity that inhabits them. Located adjacent to our mega-facilities in the area, the fenced sanctuary now protects dozens of native plant and animal species.

Hunted to near extinction

Chapter 2

The Arabian oryx is the stuff of legends; it is from the oryx that the myth of the unicorn was born. Its revered status did little to protect it from modern hunters and as the use of 4x4 vehicles increased, poachers outpaced their desert prey.

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

The ostrich suffered its fate even earlier than the oryx. Excessive hunting caused it 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.

It was against this backdrop that Saudi Aramco decided to intervene. The company planned the return of these species through a highly ambitious environmental project.

The challenge is set

Chapter 3

In 2011, Saudi Aramco management committed to new environmental protection initiatives across all our operational areas.

We recognized there was an opportunity to not only protect the environment near our Shaybah mega-facility, but take a step further by actually improving the existing biodiversity landscape and setting up 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.

The Shaybah team agreed to meet four primary goals:

Restore key native species to the Rub’ al-Khali
Set aside and protect a significant portion of pristine wilderness to meet our environmental stewardship goals
Support academic research in the field of ecology and the environment, particularly to benefit desert conservation projects worldwide
To provide a high quality environmental education and visitor experience.

Construction begins

Chapter 4

With our team in place and with our goals clearly set, construction began in 2014.

A location was identified, 637 km square 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.

Roads leading to Shaybah

“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.”

Wayne Sweeting, wildlife scientist at Saudi Aramco

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.

By 2016, everything was in place for the animal’s historic return to the Rub’ al-Khali. The Saudi Wildlife Authority, which had worked diligently over the past few decades breeding gazelle, oryx, and ostrich, brought the ostrich by truck from Taif, and the gazelle and oryx from their breeding centers near Riyadh.

In line with international animal welfare and conservation standards, a three-stage reintroduction process was implemented:

Global conservation significance

Chapter 5

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

The results have been remarkable. There are now a total of 76 oryx, 96 gazelle and 13 ostrich within the sanctuary. 

“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.”

Christopher Boland, terrestrial ecologist at Saudi Aramco

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.

Phase 2 of the project, to be completed over the next couple of years, will see further delivery of animals until the optimal numbers are achieved within the sanctuary. Additionally, a research station, and operations building will be constructed.

This phase will enhance academic partnerships between Saudi Aramco and other academic institutes such as the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, paving the way for future environmental-based research in the area.