Saudi Arabia’s extensive program to preserve the environment and protect indigenous wildlife has saved many species, including the gazelle and the houbara bustard  from extinction.

The desert environment is a fragile one. Small plants, struggling to survive, can be crushed by a footstep or a car tire. When human populations grow, they compete with animal populations for scarce water and land that will grow food.

Committed as it has been since the outset of its development plans some three decades ago, Saudi Arabia has sought to preserve wildlife and limit risks to the local environment inherent in social and industrial development. The Kingdom has taken major steps toward realizing these goals. First, it established 15 protected areas covering thousands of square miles of pristine wilderness, both on land and offshore in its coastal regions. It then launched a major program to protect wildlife and the environment, and to increase the stock of threatened species through captive breeding and reintroduction in the wild.

The houbara bustard 

With these programs in place, Saudi Arabia has entered another phase of its conservation program by establishing a center for training rangers and wildlife protection officers to patrol protected areas, monitor the environment and wildlife, and collect valuable data that could be used by environmental conservation scientists.

Set up in Riyadh in 1998 by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Training Center for Natural Resources Conservation has already graduated its first group of rangers, who now work in protected areas across the Kingdom.

Students enrolled in the wildlife training program run by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development receive field training as well as classroom instruction.

Headed by Dr. Musallam Al-Shaman, who is a military general and an environmental engineer, the program focuses on both the practical and the theoretical. It trains rangers to carry out at the field level tasks related to enforcing regulations, monitoring the wildlife population, establishing dialogue with the community and raising environmental awareness.

Although located in Riyadh, the center serves the entire Middle East region, enhancing the capabilities of many countries to successfully manage their natural resources. Rangers from other Arab countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Sudan and Syria are enrolled at the center..

One unusual aspect of the program is paramilitary and survival training offered in conjunction with the Saudi Arabian Coast Guard. Rangers have to be physically fit; while tracking animal populations they may conceivably become lost and forced to live off the land for days at a time.

Ibex raised in captivity and released at the Hawtat Bani Tamim preserve have increased in number in recent years.

The training program has a local education component, teaching rangers how to approach local area inhabitants and invite their cooperation in conservation programs. Such cooperation is essential to the success of conservation programs. In order to enforce conservation and hunting legislation effectively, trainees also study how the protected areas were established and specific laws pertaining to them.

Rangers often work in the field to support the research role of wildlife managers, hence the importance of practical field training. They learn to operate and maintain research equipment and to engage in some wildlife management practices, such as capturing and placing identification rings on birds. Long-distance observation methods help them monitor wildlife populations and vegetation growth. Rangers are front-line conservation workers and may be the first to notice a change in the feeding or movement patterns of an animal population. These changes may be an early warning signal of impending danger, such as drought or an increase of natural predators, or they may be a sign that a population has grown and needs a larger range.

Prospective rangers from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries attend a class (below) at the center in Riyadh.

Rangers are also taught how to use Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation. The first rangers in Saudi Arabia came from the desert tribes and were skilled in navigation using stellar and solar positioning. Now technology makes it easy for rangers of all backgrounds to return to exactly the same spot, perhaps to check on the health of a newborn or to determine the cause of death of a particular animal.

Because rangers are often the first point of contact for visitors to the protected areas, they play a unique role in heightening public awareness of conservation issues. Consequently, the training program also defines the ranger's role in raising public awareness and acquainting the public with the types of scientific research taking place in the protected areas.

In addition to general training for rangers who will work in the protected areas, the training center also provides specific programs for special purposes. For example, an Omani and a Saudi veterinarian worked together in a program on conserving genetic biodiversity, particularly within small endangered animal populations. Two Syrian conservationists have received focused training at the center for specific purposes. One studied methods of capturing large mammal herbivores, such as the oryx, and provisions for their daily care. Another learned how to supervise the general conservation activities of wildlife managers.

Saudi Arabia’s environmental conservation program extends beyond its coastline to include the marine ecosystems along its Arabian Gulf and Red Sea shores, where coral reefs and mangrove swamps harbor a vast array of lifeforms and are susceptible to growing pressures from industrial and urban development.

The selection of Riyadh as the site of the first such center in the region was a superb choice, according to UNDP specialist Abdul Majeed Haddad, because the NCWCD located there has “excellent links to local, national, regional, and international government and non-governmental institutions with very good communications facilities and infrastructure." Furthermore, the experience drawn from managing the 15 protected areas and three wildlife research centers in the Kingdom is invaluable.

In order to ensure the success of the training center and its mission, the NCWCD has identified outstanding programs elsewhere and sought to draw on their knowledge. The U.S. National Park Service, for example, has shared its curriculum and training guides and has facilitated institutional visits for the center’s staff.

In addition to training rangers, the center also plays an important role in the government’s campaign to raise public awareness about the need to protect the environment. It does so by teaching conservation principles to educators who will pass on this awareness to their young students and by showing teachers how to bring environmental exercizes into the science classroom and into extracurricular activities, including some that involve volunteer work.

A clownfish finds shelter and protection in a sea anemone on a coral reef at one of Saudi Arabia’s marine preserves in the Red Sea.

Recently in Huraymila, some 28 miles from Riyadh, 700 students gathered to remove tons of trash from a local wadi (dry water course). As Dr. Al-Shaman pointed out, "The desert shrubs were wearing plastic bags like hats. There was no way for them to grow." The students who helped to remove the plastic now understand the importance of keeping trash out of the desert, allowing local vegetation to grow freely and tie down the desert sand.

Programs targeted toward women who are raising the next generation are particularly important, according to Dr. Al-Shaman. Women who are aware of environmental issues also become more educated consumers, mindful of the "use and reuse" concept, thus decreasing the need for waste disposal. They also choose purchases that tend toward a healthy environment rather than those that cause damage.

The center is rightly praised for attracting trainers and trainees from the GCC and other Arab countries, becoming known by government institutions around the Arab world, and offering environmental education to the general public. Dr. Al-Shaman is justly proud of the center's efforts in training young people of both genders to conserve natural resources.

Through its many programs, the center makes conservation a priority for Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.{short description of image}

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