James and Thibaud Aronson post their third report from Jordan, as they continue to study prospects for ecological restoration in deserts, with special focus on trees and the animals that use them.
Trees never lie. Michael Zohary.
As you travel east from Amman, Jordan’s capital, you quickly leave behind cultivated landscapes and enter the hammada, a desert of black basalt gravel with very little rainfall. Large tracts are devoid of any vegetation at all; in the few places where water occurs, the abundance of life is remarkable.
The first place we visit is Wadi Butum, 26 km east of Amman. This is an ephemeral river, or wash (Wadi or Oued in Arabic). It is lined along 30 km by a gallery forest of magnificent Pistacia atlantica trees (Butum in Arabic). Judging by the trees, and the ancient architectural remains at this site, this entire region looked vastly different a mere millennium or so ago. Back then, clearly, it was inhabited by many people, at least along some rivers, and there were many wild animals, such as gazelles, ibex, probably lions and much more. In addition to the trees, one can visit the bath house associated with the Amra Palace, Qasr Amra, in Arabic, built during the reign of the Umayyad Caliphat, (661-750 CE). Archeological and historical records show that 1300 years ago, this site was maintained with a large staff and regularly used as a hunting lodge and pleasure palace for nobles who traveled 200 km south from the Caliphat’s capital in Damascus. Water was drawn from a hand-dug well 25 meters deep.
Its ornately decorated bath house shows scenes of daytime and nocturnal hunts, as well as dancing women, musicians, and much more that contrast starkly with the environment here today.
Dead wood from nearby trees and abundant shrubs, including branches from the Butum trees, surely provided most of the wood necessary for heating the water for the bathhouse.
If it is true that trees never lie, as quoted above from Michael Zohary, these multi-secular trees strongly suggest there was once a much more extensive gallery forest along this Wadi – and the others – than we can easily imagine… Without them, one could easily assume that the frescoes in the bathhouse represent scenes from elsewhere in the Omayyad Caliphat’s dominion. Yet because of the Butum trees, we suppose these scenes depicted what the visiting nobles saw and hoped to experience in the immediate environs.
Twenty kilometers further east is Azraq, and a much sadder tale of human water use. “Azraq” means “blue” in Arabic, and was named after a large oasis, which was once 26 km2. A beacon in the desert, it attracted up to 350,000 migrating birds, who stopped there on their long journey between their breeding grounds in northern Europe and their wintering areas south of the Sahara.
However, the abundant water also came to be viewed as a resource for human use. In the 1960s, water began being extracted to feed the growing cities of Amman and Irbid, the two largest cities in the country. By 1975, water was extracted twice as fast as it could replenish itself, and hundreds of illegal private wells were taking an additional toll on the oasis. By 1991, it had entirely dried up. The Azraq killifish (Aphanius sirhani) – Jordan’s only endemic vertebrate – almost disappeared, and only survived ex-situ. Still, pumping continued, directly from the aquifer. It was only in 1994 that the Jordanian government took steps to stop water extraction. Yet, it only finally stopped because of brackish water infiltration, which rendered the water unsuitable for human consumption or irrigation. What once was a lush oasis is now a dry husk. In 2000, a census counted 1200 birds in the entire migrating season, a third of one percent of what there once was.
Then, in 2011, the sad and sorry site was designated a nature reserve, to be administered by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature or RSCN. They began a restoration and rehabilitation project, with a goal of recovering 10% of the original wetland, including both permanent and seasonal areas. An agreement was signed with the Jordanian Ministry of Water, and each year since then, between 1.5 and 2.5 million cubic meters of water are pumped back into the oasis to provide habitat for birds and allow observations of spontaneous recovery of native plants.
In April 2015, at the time of our visit, there were 5 permanent pools, covering 3 ha, and a total of 170 ha of wetlands which are seasonally flooded. The system is very far from being stable, and if water stopped being pumped, the wetlands would surely dry out, as there are still many illegal wells in the area. However, even without any plantings, Tamarisk trees and reeds have recolonized the area, and bird numbers are increasing each year.
A few kilometers to the south is Shaumari, another RSCN reserve, which tackles another problem. Due to heavy hunting, Jordan’s ungulate populations have been severely depleted; several species disappeared altogether in the 20th century. The reserve now serves as a breeding center for Arabian oryx, onager, and Dorcas gazelle. The first two are already breeding freely in the reserve, and a few oryx have also been introduced to Wadi Rum, in the south of the country.
Clearly, the RSCN, the RBG Jordan, and other NGOs working for conservation in Jordan have a long way to go in their valiant efforts to protect and restore this country’s marvelous landscapes and preserve its biological richness. As in so many other countries, a paradigm shift towards sustainable resource use and nature conservation is needed. Still, a few pilot projects such as those described here, and a growing interest in ecological restoration, led by the RBG Jordan, are harbingers of change.