The Refuge in the Desert

At the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve, oryxes and onagers are making a rally

By / April 2018

“I should have been a hunter like my grandparents,” Jaffer said. We were watching a small group of Arabian oryxes moving through the bushes of Jordan’s Shaumari Wildlife Reserve. Jaffer has been leading Safaris at Shaumari since it opened to the public in January 2017. The twenty-year-old descendant of Chechen immigrants stands well over six feet tall. He has broad shoulders, a buzzed haircut, and a short cropped beard. His camouflage fatigues belie his passion for conservation. “I love nature and the outdoors like my ancestors but instead of hunting animals I want to help preserve them for future generations,” he said.

The Shaumari Wildlife Reserve, located 81 miles east of Amman, was established in 1975 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The 13.5 square-mile park was the first of seven nature reserves in Jordan. The desert ecosystem is home to 193 varieties of flora and 108 species of animals, including many on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) endangered species list.

Jaffer and our other guide, Abdullah, chauffeured the group of twelve over rutted roads in two brown Toyota Land Cruisers that had been refitted with elevated bench seats for viewing and canvas tarps for protection from the bright desert sunlight. Whenever we topped sandy knolls they stomped the accelerator on the diesel-powered 4X4s causing them to go slightly airborne. Our youth cheered like it was an amusement park ride and urged the drivers to go faster while the more cautious adults clutched our cameras and hung on to the hand rails. Our guides slowed when we spied another curious Arabian oryx peering at us through leafless brown brushes. The animal seemed at ease with our presence and didn’t spook when we approached on foot to take pictures.

Jaffer and Abdullah in Jordan’s Shaumari Wildlife Reserve.

The Arabian oryx has been revered as the national animal of Jordan for generations. It is a beautiful white antelope with dark chocolaty brown legs and straight black horns that stretch up to 35 inches. Males lock horns when they fight but they don’t puncture one another. A full-grown Arabian oryx strands close to three feet at its withers and weighs 150-180 pounds. Its face is uniquely decorated with dark-brown-patches on its forehead, in the middle of its nose, and along its jowl line beneath the eyes. The white fur surrounding the brown patches makes it look like the animal is wearing an elongated tribal mask.

Jaffer said the white coat reflects sunlight, enabling the Arabian oryx to endure hot desert summers. Under its white fur it has dark skin. In winter, the oryx can straighten its fur to allow the dark skin to absorb warmth from the sun’s rays. Its wide hooves, splayed and shovel-like, enable the animal to walk easily over sandy surfaces. A herd may have more than one male but there is usually only one male leader with a harem of 15 females.

Unfortunately, hunters eradicated the species from the wild by the early 1970s and the only remnants were found in zoos and with private collectors. In 1963, the Phoenix Zoo and the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society of London set out to save the Arabian oryx by breeding those in captivity and sharing their offspring with wildlife preserves.

In 2007 Shaumari brought in eight Arabian oryxes from Arizona, three from Qatar, and thirty from Saudi Arabia for breeding and repopulation. Jaffer said the genetic diversity of the three herds enabled them to successfully raise 256 healthy oryxes. Because Shaumari isn’t large enough to support more than 100 oryxes, they sent twenty to Jordan’s nature reserve in Wadi Rum and shared the rest with game reserves in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are about a thousand Arabian oryxes now living in the wild and another 6,000-7,000 living in zoos and parks. The IUCN, which has six classifications for endangered species, has elevated the status of the Arabian oryx to the level of “vulnerable,” which is four levels above extinction. It’s considered one of the most impressive recoveries on record for a species that was once exterminated from the wild.

Perhaps the most elegant and graceful animal we saw at the park was another endangered species, the Arabian sand gazelle. The slim-bodied, sandy-colored creature stands only about two feet tall and weighs less than 50 pounds. It has two sharp horns about 12-18 inches long. The curvy horns bend away from the back of the head and turn slightly inward at the tips. The sand gazelle makes its home around sand dunes and on flat rocky landscapes. There are about 2,000 Arabian sand gazelles still in existence. Their greatest threats are private collectors who keep them for pets and trophy hunters who kill them for the skins and horns.

Arabian oryxes were once extinct in the wild. The reserve now has several herds.

Abdullah left an airport job to work at Shaumari. “I preferred being outdoors,” he said.

At one point, Jaffer and Abdullah slammed on the brakes and pointed to a distant, dusty cloud that had been kicked up by a fleeing herd of onagers, the largest species of the wild Asiatic ass. Three-quarters of a mile away a lone onager stood on the flat barren field, silhouetted against a hazy sky, watching us as the rest of the herd kept running. Jaffer said it was probably the male staying behind to protect the females against a perceived threat. Wild onagers rarely allow humans to get close.

Onagers have sandy-red fur with a dark brown stripe down the backbone. They stand 4.5 to 5 feet tall, weigh over 450 pounds, and can run more than 40 mph, nearly the same speed as a thoroughbred racing horse. A healthy onager can live 25-40 years. Male onagers are ferocious fighters when protecting their herd from predators or competing for leadership of the females. “The competition between male onagers always ends in death,” Jaffer said. “The winner has to kill the other males so it can control the females.”

Shaumari has one of the three onager herds still in existence. Their greatest threats are poachers and farmers who allow their livestock to overgraze the desert plant life. The onager is the only equid that has never been domesticated.

There are few carnivores in the park large enough to take on a healthy oryx or onager. Hyenas, gray wolves, jackals and red foxes live on the reserve but they usually feed on small animals like mice and rabbits. Occasionally, when a large animal dies, the carnivores will eat the carcass. Jaffer said when they find an injured predator they treat its injuries and release it into the wild.

The park has an aviary for injured or confiscated raptors like eagles, owls, and falcons. For centuries people in the Middle East used raptors like hunting dogs, but the practice has been outlawed in Jordan. “When we rescue a hunting bird we cover its face so it can’t see us and we don’t talk around so it won’t get used to our voices,” Jaffer said. “After it is healed we try our best to reintroduce it to the wild. We tie a pigeon on a rope and release the raptor outside and leave the fence door open. If the raptor can’t catch something in the wild it will return to the fence and eat the pigeon. If the raptor catches something in the wild it won’t return to the cage and we know it has returned to the wild. Those that can’t make in the wild are used for educational purposes in falconry shows.”

In addition to animals, Jaffer and Abdullah showed off Shaumari’s indigenous plants. At one stop we picked and tasted leaves from the tall orach, also known as the saltbush. Jaffer claims the salty pumpkin-seed flavored leaves are great in salads. The tall orach is one of the few plants that can survive in areas affected by soil salination. Many wild desert animals rely on the tall orach for survival because it stores large amounts of water. Sometimes their only source of water comes from eating leaves of the tall orach.

Since the park opened last year, more than 10,000 guests have visited.

The park has two watering holes for the animals which is very useful in the dry season because it helps the park managers keep a head count when they come to the pools to drink. By following tracks leading away from the pools park managers can also discover where the animals are staying.

At the halfway point of our tour Jaffer and Abdullah brewed us a pot of tea made from wild sage that grew in the park. As he sipped his tea, Jaffer told us that he didn’t have formal training but he enjoys reading journals about wildlife and nature preservation. He prepared for his tour guide job by reading reports about the reserve and studying files about the plants and animals that live in park. He said the most enjoyable parts of his job are meeting new people and learning from them. “Some of the people who have taken our tour have also been in places like Africa and the US where these animals also live and a lot of times they share useful information that I have not heard before,” he said.

When the park was established, the Royal Society for Conservation of Nature stipulated that only locals could be employed at the park. Every one of the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve’s employees live in Azaraq, a nearby town with a population of about 10,000. The park employs four tour guides, three rangers, and four animal caretakers. Abdullah, who is Kurdish-Jordanian, said he left a good job at the airport when heard the park was hiring. “I preferred being outdoors and I love the desert,” he said.

It took ten years and $4.2 million to fence in the park and build an information center for guests. The visitors center contains historical information about the park and brief descriptions of the animals and plants that live in the reserve. The park has become a place of scientific research for Jordanian universities and an excellent educational opportunity for school-aged children. Since the park opened last year Jaffer said they have had over 10,500 guests.


Danny and Sherry Wright live and write in Amman.