Wildlife conservation initiatives in Yemen


Dr Derek Harvey served for several years as medical officer with Petroleum Development (Oman) and later ran a clinic for a consortium of companies in Yemen. His interests include the ornithology of the Middle East and Africa, and environmental conservation. He gave the following talk to the British Yemeni Society on 21 January 1999.

We are meeting today as Yemen is much in the news — for all the wrong reasons — and those of us who love Yemen and its people must earnestly hope that the vagaries of extremist politics do not now set back the real progress which Yemen has been making in so many different contexts: political, social, and environmental.

My own personal involvement has been chiefly with the latter, and what I want to try and do tonight, very briefly, is to update you on what has been, and is, happening in the sphere of wildlife protection and environmental conservation in Yemen. Not least among the special and precious elements of Yemen’s culture, is its rich and varied wildlife. This is no accident: Yemen is at the hub of a vast wheel, the spokes of which radiate out to Europe and Western Asia in the north, and to Africa and India in the west, south and east. Huge migrant flyways, from breeding grounds in Europe and Russia to wintering grounds in the Middle East, Africa and India, bring millions of birds across and through Yemen every spring and autumn. Additionally, Yemen holds a vast range of plants and animals unique to the region, despite the ravages of recent population increases and the illegal trade in mammals to other Arab countries.

Until 20 years ago, the very idea that this rich heritage of wildlife should need protecting in any way was totally alien to Arab culture, and almost incomprehensible to the average Arab, whether he be farmer, bedu, or townsman. Traditional Arab culture regarded anything that walked, flew or grew, as potential food, to be killed and eaten as required, and Allah had thoughtfully provided trees and shrubs as firewood, to be cut and burned when needed. That was fine when human populations were small, and wildlife populations were vast and self-perpetuating. For thousands of years man and nature had remained in balance, and each was sustained by the other. This situation obtained until the middle of the 20th century, but then the outside world began to impact on Yemen, and the human population began to rise rapidly. Suddenly materialism, wealth, and different expectations took hold, and the age-long balance between nature and human demands was fatally disturbed. You could make much more profit by digging up your coffee trees and planting qat; alternative fuels for stoves and cooking were expensive and being increasingly taxed, so cutting for firewood increased dramatically in a country with small and diminishing timber resources; mechanical aids to agriculture, tractors, and generators driving water pumps, meant the breakdown of the traditional terraces erosion and the destruction of natural plant habitats; increasing numbers of goats and poultry led to the hunting out of leopard and lynx, and vast areas of bird habitat were threatened by unplanned and uncontrolled land development and water deprivation. Furthermore, cars and 4-wheel drive vehicles became the norm, and suddenly the population was able to travel quickly and freely all over the country. All this put unsustainable pressures on natural resources — a crisis sadly ignored for a long time by the authorities — and many corrupt and unscrupulous men in positions of power made large personal fortunes at the expense of the environment. Suddenly there was huge pressure on resources: water, land, trees — all were inadequate for the demands of a rising population with rising expectations.

Alongside these threats, came, slowly, an awareness that all would be lost unless the environment could be protected. Initially the impetus for conservation came from outside: visitors drew attention to the threats and the dangers, and slowly the government began to listen, and to realise that unsustainable predation of resources would, in a generation, make large tracts of the country into uninhabitable desert. The water resources on which Sana’a, for example, depends, are rapidly being exhausted, and a visiting consultant hydrologist told me, five years ago, that water exploitation had already ‘ceased to be a drilling operation, and had become a mining project which was destroying the aquifers’.

So awareness grew, and the right questions started to be asked: Why was it necessary to preserve? What needed to be preserved? How could it be preserved? More importantly, how was the message to be communicated, to Government and to the population, before it was too late?

In the last ten years a lot has changed and a lot has happened:

(i) a number of dedicated N.G.O’s have sprung up which have acted as focus groups to educate people and bring pressure on the authorities. These are largely composed of Yemenis, from many walks of life, but chiefly academics, who believe passionately that there is an urgent need to conserve the natural environment;

(ii) a number of international initiatives have focused on aspects of the problem, and have presented reports to the Government which have been welcomed and have formed the basis for action This is ongoing. Richard Porter has talked to you in the past about the two important bird surveys carried out by the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, with government support, which first identified the status of all the birds of Yemen.

It is widely recognised internationally that bird populations, and variations to them, are a very good indicator of environmental health, and it became clear, as a result of the two surveys, of north and south Yemen, that here was a unique and rich natural heritage under increasing threat. There are 13 species endemic to Yemen, and a further seven on Soqotra, all of which can be seen nowhere else in the world. Similarly, Leopard, Lynx, Hyena, Porcupine and Wolf are still present in the wild in Yemen, albeit in tiny and decreasing numbers.

The survey reports led to the identification, by Bird Life International, the world’s principal ornithological conservation body, of a number of 'Important Bird Areas’, worldwide, and in particular, in Arabia. Fifty-seven of these are in Yemen. A report was published which has become the basis for official policy and action to conserve wildlife in Arabia. At the same time, a 10-year project to establish proper data on the breeding birds of Arabia came to fruition in the publication of an atlas containing detailed data on all known breeding birds of the Peninsula. Thus were proper scientific data produced, without which no government action could be expected to work.

The Government responded by establishing an Environmental Protection Council, with a ministerial chairman and a technical staff of trained scientists, whose remit was wide, and included responsibility for environmental conservation, input into town planning considerations, water and land resource development, and wildlife protection. The Council had a huge task and small resources, and took a long time to establish itself and make any impact. But it is now running better, and contributes a great deal to the increasingly forward thinking and planning that is now taking place.

There has been a number of initiatives in the realm of educating the ordinary people of Yemen. It was realised some five years ago that the impact of new ideas on adult Yemenis with established outlooks was likely to be small, and that the need to change attitudes was urgent. So a deliberate decision was made to concentrate on school age children. A book was prepared and published, in Arabic, outlining some of the problems and the need for conservation, and illustrating and identifying 100 of the commonest Yemen birds. 10,000 copies were printed and introduced to the schools via a series of lectures and field trips led by Yemeni scientists and teachers. A chart was produced of the endemic and threatened special birds of Yemen, and this too was introduced in the schools. This project is ongoing, and has met with enthusiasm and a lot of positive response from both pupils and staff.

There has been a great deal of support from the Yemen Times whose editor willingly ran a series of full page articles on aspects of conservation, outlining the threats and possible solutions, and this generated a correspondence for weeks which was spirited and positive. To date, the Times continues to give high profile support to all sorts of conservation projects.

At an international level, the World Bank, the International Heritage Trust, UNDP and the Darwin Initiative have committed substantial funding to conservation projects in Yemen. Currently, £150,000 has been made available for a two-year in-depth survey of the flora and fauna of Soqotra, and to training Yemeni wildlife wardens to control and supervise the development of Soqotra as a World Biosphere project. The government wishes to develop Soqotra for the benefit of its population, and there are now grounds for real optimism that a multidisciplinary management plan will be implemented which will maintain a sustainable balance between the need for port, airfield, and possible tourist development, with the proper conservation of one of the world’s most valuable and unique biospheres. As part of the education process now gathering pace, a book for schools, in Arabic, wholly dedicated to the Soqotra project, is in preparation.

Similarly, pressure, funds and advice have borne fruit in Aden, where the Free Port development threatened to drain the huge areas of lagoons and marshes in which millions of waterbirds spend the winter. It is now entirely likely that these will be preserved, without detriment to the port, and to the benefit of the environment and the local community.

To sum up: in the last 10 years Yemen has been caught in a rapid downward spiral of uncontrolled development, rising population and diminishing natural resources. Unchecked, this combination would inevitably and rapidly lead to degradation, desertification and economic disaster. Fortunately the penny has dropped, and the tide is turning. There are, I believe, grounds for optimism, and these include the increasing commitment of government to conservation; the Yemenification of the conservation movement, with senior Yemeni scientists now leading the education initiatives; the acceptance by the international community that the danger is real, and their financial and logistic support for major projects such as Soqotra, and the continuing and increasing support in the schools.

It is profoundly to be hoped that the political implications of the recent troubles in the south do not stop these initiatives in their tracks. Richard Porter was due in Soqotra this week for a five week stay to guide the training programme: his visit has been postponed. Other scientists, and the tourists who add international support to conservation programmes, are being advised to stay away. The work will continue in Yemen hands, and that is right, as it is their country, their heritage, and their future which is at stake, and until we can return to help, we must offer all the support we can, in providing resources, advice, data and encouragement. I honestly believe that nothing is more important to Yemen’s survival and prosperity than getting its priorities right on these issues, and educating the next generation to recognise and cherish its natural heritage.

December 1999