Namib 2: Large wild animals, fences and farming (with good news about education)

James and Thibaud Aronson post the second of four blogposts on their recent field trip to Namibia and South Africa.

Africa is famous for its megafauna. Most foreign visitors, who only ever see them on safaris inside protected areas, may think that Africa has managed something every other continent has failed at: a harmonious relationship between people and entire trophic chains including large animals. In fact, many if not most interactions between humans and large animals in Africa, just as elsewhere, are conflictual and complex. Nothing illustrates the problem better than fences.

A legacy of European agricultural practices, long fences have become ubiquitous in Africa. They primarily serve to delineate property, control the movements of livestock, and in some cases limit the spread of epidemic diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bovine TB, and their spread to and from wild animals such a wildebeest and lions.


A typical small livestock herd in the Pro-Namib.

There are also the other kind of fences, the ones around protected areas, which often serve as effective protection for wildlife.  However, there is no doubt that livestock and veterinary fences have had and still have severe impacts on wild animal populations.

In particular, large mammals tend to range widely in search of food or water. Fences severely restrict their movements, with dramatic effects on populations in drought years. And mammals aren’t the only ones affected: large birds such as bustards suffer lethal collisions with power lines and fences, and tortoises are sometimes killed by electric fences.


The amazingly camouflaged Rüppell’s bustard (Eupodotis rueppellii), which is endemic to the Namib. Like other members of the bustard family, it occasionally collides with fences.

In Windhoek, we met with Dr. Chris Brown, chairperson of the Greater Fish River Canyon Landscape (GFRCL), a mosaic of diverse properties, from private reserves to working cattle farms united in an association, whose working motto is “What can we do better together?” It is one of five such associations in Namibia today that are part of the NAM-PLACE project, started by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and now supported by the United Nations Development Program.

Dr. Brown is also a director in a Namibian company, Gondwana Collection.  Chris told us “We have a triple bottom line approach to business, with both environment and social investment playing central roles.” The strategy is to buy land in marginal, overworked farming areas, “re-wild it” by taking off the livestock and taking down the fences, and then reintroduce indigenous mammals and reinforce populations that have dwindled. Next, they build lodges to attract medium- and high-end tourists interested in seeing wild nature. Their largest property to date – among 14 throughout the country – is a private, protected area of 130,000 ha on the east side of the Fish River Canyon, which is the largest canyon in Africa.

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The Fish River canyon. The river only flows like this after heavy rains.


An Aloe dichotoma (Kokerboom in Afrikaans, or Quiver tree), one of the few trees in the southern Namib. In the past, Bushmen fashioned quivers for their arrows from the soft branches, hence the tree’s common name.

We were fortunate enough to spend two nights at one GFRCL partner’s lodge, a 40,000 ha reserve on the western rim of the canyon. This remarkable landscape has been inhabited by humans for millennia, as illustrated by the tools and rock engravings still found throughout, but ill-adapted sheep farming, along with the eradication of many species by white settlers over the last 150 years, had a massive impact on the landscape, which is only now beginning to heal.


‘Pecked’ rock engraving and associated stone tools near the Fish River Lodge.

Through Chris Brown, we also met Nils Odendaal, CEO of the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which is part of the Greater Sossusvlei-Namib Landscape, another of the five current NAM-PLACE projects. Nils was upbeat, citing serious prospects for addressing conservation and human well-being issues simultaneously. This group focuses on the Pro-Namib, the transition zone between the arid Namib and the more mesic escarpments to the East. Much of the land there was given to white South Africans after World War II as a reward for fighting in the war and for voting for the South African National Party. However, after two generations of unsustainable sheep grazing on these already nutrient- and moisture-poor lands, the area became known as the ‘bankruptcy belt’, when farms began to fail one after the other in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, a Namibian businessman bought up a large tract of land and made it into a nature reserve. From this initiative, NamibRand has expanded and now includes 202,000 ha, comprising several properties linked by a common constitution that stipulates, among other things, the removal of internal fences. High-quality, low-impact tourism at ‘ecolodges’ built on concessions inside the reserve provide part of the funds for its conservation activities and “sustainable utilization of its resources”.


A typical NamibRand landscape. Like most of the country, it has suffered a 4-year drought, which may now finally be breaking.

During our journey, we were able to stay one night at the flagship ecolodge, whose revenues help support an environmental education and sustainable living center called NaDeet (Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust), which aims to contribute to the hugely important task of teaching and capacity-building.

The pro-Namib is of critical importance for animals moving out of the Namib proper during droughts. Therefore the reserve is working on an agreement to take down part of its fences on its border with the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park, allowing mammals such as gemsbok to reach the highlands in times of drought.


The gemsbok (Oryx gazella), is perhaps the most characteristic large mammal of the southern Namib, and one of the most supremely adapted ungulates to desert living. Despite the drought, about 2000 of them thrive on the reserve.

In sum, these are two remarkable initiatives in two of the driest parts of Namibia. Both focus on large wild animals and high-end tourism. Neither has any direct support from the government, and they both are in difficult, arid lands. On the other hand, the very low human populations limit the potential for social conflict so common around conservation areas elsewhere in Africa.

Unquestionably, one major priority for Namibia is more and better environmental education, in classrooms and, above all, outdoors. Both GFRCL and NamibRand undertake detailed monitoring of the wild animals for which they are the stewards and defenders. They are also stellar communicators for wildlife and nature conservation through all their activities and presence on the internet. But what about training in the science and practice of ecological restoration?

As mentioned in our previous post, we were able to visit the Gobabeb Research and Training Center, in the central Namib, as we noted in our previous post. This Center has been operating continuously for over 50 years, and has produced a large body of research on many facets of the Namib, including hydrology, geology, paleohistory and of course ecology. Since 2012, it houses the NEMRU (Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit), headed by Dr. Theo Wassenaar. This group has been doing research on restoration of arid lands in the country and training Namibian students, and lobbying for more research and training in restoration ecology at various universities in the country as well. The Gobabeb Training and Research Internship Programme (GTRIP) a five-month field course now in its seventh year. It is intended for young Namibian scientists interested in the fields of conservation, land and ecosystem management and ecological restoration. Under the guidance of researchers and staff, students have the opportunity to design and implement independent research projects that should “contribute to Namibia’s ability to manage and restore degraded ecosystems”. Posts from the GTRIP 2016 trainees are well worth looking at. Hopefully, this generation of Namibians will be the one to make the difference.

One obvious source of inspiration should be its neighbor, South Africa, which has been doing world-class restoration for over two decades. We spent three weeks on the other side of the border, meeting some of the key people and visiting cutting-edge restoration projects, as we’ll discuss and illustrate in our next two posts.


This year’s GTRIP students at the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre : Mathias Mwaetako, Fransiska Otto, Ailla-Tessa Iiyambula, and Kauna Kapitango, taken on the dunes south of the Kuiseb River. 15 February, 2016. Photo: Meg Schmitt.

Notes from the Namib 1. An ancient desert in transition

James and Thibaud Aronson post the first of four blogposts on their recent trip to Namibia and South Africa.

For the last trip for our book project on desert trees and restoration in arid regions, we started in Namibia, the only country in the world named after its desert! The Namib desert covers the entire coast of Namibia; it is more than 1500 km long and up to 200 km wide and extends north into Angola and south to South Africa. It is often said to be the oldest desert of the world, estimated by some to have continuously experienced arid or semi-arid conditions for the last 55- 80 million years. Certainly there is good evidence that it has been dry since the mid Miocene (11-16 million years ago). (The Atacama desert, from which we wrote last October, is also very old.  For comparison, the Sahara is less than than 7 million years old, and has experienced several much wetter periods since, some as recent as 10,000 years ago.


Some of the highest dunes in Africa are found at Sossusvlei, in central Namibia. The highest one, ‘Big Daddy’, is just a bit taller than the Eiffel Tower, reaching 325 meters.

The Namib is an exceptionally dry part of the Earth, with the coastal sections hardly receiving any rainfall at all. It does however receive coastal fogs, often for more than 100 days per year, which provide a significant source of moisture. Furthermore, the desert is traversed by 12 ephemeral rivers, which form striking linear oases, with lush riparian canopies. These canopies are dominated in most cases by very large Faidherbia albida trees, that remarkable tree known, among many other names, as Ana tree in southern Africa, and Gao in the Sahel.


Ana trees along the bed of the ephemeral Kuiseb river, central Namibia.

This tree – which until recently was classified as an Acacia, often shows a very unusual ‘reverse’ phenology compared to most woody plants in seasonally dry areas, as it keeps its leaves during the dry season and drops them in the wet season, when all the other deciduous trees and shrubs are growing new ones. Furthermore, its leaves as well as its pods – which it produces in copious numbers – are highly palatable to animals and high in protein. It is therefore an essential resource both for wild browsers and livestock. And there’s the shade it provides as well, which is a hugely important feature in all desert landscapes. In fact, Ana is one of the most important trees for herders throughout the continent, and is one of the few trees they deem more useful to them standing than cut down. As for the wildlife, these riparian canopies and the food they provide are very important. In fact, they enable some large mammal species, such as the kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), and even rhinoceros and giraffe in the northern Namib, to range into a desert otherwise too harsh to support them.


A springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) in the shade of giant Ana trees on the banks of the Kuiseb River. This animal is well-known for its pronking behavior: individuals like this can jump up to two meters straight into the air as a display of fitness to discourage predators from giving chase.

Unusual among deserts, and likely because of its age, the Namib is home to a large number of endemic animal species, mainly beetles, reptiles – such as the Wedge-snouted Sand Lizard (Meroles cuneirostris), and birds, including the Dune Lark (Calendulauda erythrochlamys), Namibia’s only endemic bird.

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The Wedge-snouted Sand Lizard. The shape of its nose is not just a funny accident of evolution: it actually allows this lizard to ‘dive’ into the sand to escape its predators. This lizard is also known to perform a ‘thermal dance’, lifting one foot at a time, or lie on its stomach with all four feet in the air, to reduce its contact with the sand that can reach a scorching 70 degrees C (158 F)!



A Dune Lark, in the Namib-Rand Nature Reserve, in the process of building its nest in a hummock of grass. Its name is misleading; this bird actually prefers to live in the swale of vegetated dunes where its cryptic coloring makes it seemingly vanish as soon as you blink.

However, the Namib’s most famous endemic is undoubtedly Namibia’s national plant, the bizarre Welwitschia mirabilis. This is the sole species of the one genus in the venerable – dare we say inimitable? – Welwitschiaceae. This ‘monster’ is the only living member of a lineage more than 100 million years old. At a distance in certain lights you’d think it’s a beached giant squid…. but in fact it’s an ‘underground tree that can live well over a thousand years. Welwitschia is a near-endemic in Namibia as it occurs in southern Angola as well, but its entire geographic range is limited to the Namib Desert.


Female adult Welwitschia in its habitat. Note how the ends of the leaves dry out over time.

According to Dr. Theo Wassenaar, researcher at the 54-year old Gobabeb Research and Training Centre, this remarkable plant survives for centuries in a hyper arid desert by finding pockets of slightly moist soil in rock fissures. Having excavated more than two dozen plants, and examined their root systems in detail, he says “essentially it appears as if they forage for water, using their roots as scouts and sending in the troops (fine roots) when they find a pocket of moisture. And the differences in moisture can be slight, a few percent at most.”

An additional anomaly is that, although it is very hard to tell at first glance, each plant only has two leaves, gradually torn to tatters by the desert winds and sun. These two gigantic leaves never stop growing during the tree’s lifetime. It also is under threat, sad to say, as we will describe briefly a bit later.


Adult male Welwitschia in flower.

We traveled through nearly half of Namibia, from Walvis Bay in the center of the country, south to the Orange River on the South African border. And it is a breath-taking drive, because of the geology of this truly ancient desert, and the fact that the area has low population density, and still reasonably healthy ecosystems (except for the livestock fences galore) and large amounts of wildlife.

This state of affairs partly traces back to an inspired Nature Conservation Ordinance promulgated by the government back in 1975, which gave landowners property rights over the game animals on their land, within certain enlightened limits. Before that date, all wild animals, and all profits derived from them, went back to the state. Transferring ownership and the associated profits – from game viewing, trophy-hunting, and meat – to the landowners changed their perspective of wild animals. No longer competitors and predators of their livestock, to be kept out or exterminated, wild mammals became a source of revenue to be ‘cultivated’ and protected. As a result, the populations of large mammal species have seen impressive increases in the country. However, in some cases, this commercial incentive has led to some serious mismanagement. Indeed, some landowners have taken the view there is no such thing as too much game, and some private game farms maintain populations at unsustainably high densities in relatively small areas. Ironically, this can lead to some of the worst cases of overgrazing in the country!

Overall, the good health and integrity of the country’s ecosystems is a fantastic asset, of tremendous value for the nation. And – on paper, at least – the situation is admirable, with nearly 20% of the country in protected areas; since 2011, the entire coastline is protected inside three national parks, something no other country in the world can boast.

Still, the Namib desert and its fauna and flora face various threats, with dams affecting the hydrology of several ephemeral rivers, and a powerful and growing mining sector. In particular, the Welwitschia plains, where the largest southern population occurs, sit on top of a large uranium deposit. Efforts have been made to preserve the Welwitschia populations, and so far only two mines have been operating. But a third is currently being developed, which will be one of the world’s largest, and several other mining licenses may well be awarded if the price of uranium goes up again.

However the relationship of mining to restoration, and the role of the mining sector, are complex here as everywhere. As Dr Gabi Schneider, of the Namibian Uranium Institute told us, uranium mining is very localised, and the mine ‘footprints’ therefore are limited. Mining companies in Namibia have contributed in no small way to advancing the technology and science of arid land rehabilitation in the Namib, and also to research. Among other things they co-fund the Namib Ecological Restoration and Monitoring Unit program at Gobabeb. Uranium activities are governed by a Strategic Environmental Management Plan as well.

Furthermore, feral horses from abandoned tourism initiatives also roam the desert and eat Welwitschia leaves much more aggressively than native browsers do. Theo Wassenaar is working on this, and negotiating with local communities; it is a slow process but the Ministry of Environment and Tourism is also now engaging rural communities on this issue.


Horse-browsed Welwitschia in Welwitschia wash, near Gobabeb. Photo: Meg Schmitt, Gobabeb Research and Training Centre.

Further south, near the South African border, under the coastal dunes and off-shore, is one of the largest diamond deposits in the world, which have been mined for over a century. While some laudable efforts are being made to restore mine sites on this harsh, windy coast, it is a very difficult task, in one of the driest regions of the world.

During our travels, we met some of the restoration and conservation pioneers in the country, who are taking these vital actions to the next level, and working on more intimately linking wildlife conservation, the policies of both mining and tourism sectors and, in general, environmental education and capacity building. In the next blog post, we will talk more of the prospects and constraint for these initiatives.

The Huarango and Algarrobo forests of coastal Peru: rays of hope

James and Thibaud Aronson report from coastal Peru, where they travelled in December, with Oliver Whaley, of RBG Kew.

Yesterday, at our local market here in France, we saw Peruvian avocados. We’d seen them there before, and we don’t buy them. But we’d never really given them more than a passing thought. Now, having come back from coastal Peru, where they are grown, we have a very different outlook.

Passing through much of Peru’s southern coast is perhaps more interesting to geologists than ecologists. The tenuous ecological balance, and its rather checkered history since humans arrived, needs time to reveal its secrets. But the earth’s surface here is simply naked and laid out as for a desert geomorphology text book. An extension of the famous Atacama desert of northern Chile, it is one of the driest places on Earth, with an average annual rainfall of 0.3 mm, or barely more than one tenth of an inch.

Here more than in nearly any other desert, life is almost entirely confined to areas with some amount of moisture. As a result, the few river valleys that come down from the Andes form spectacular green ribbons among the dunes. They carry some water down from the rainstorms high in the mountains but the critical driver here is El Niño. It brings down tremendous amounts of water and sediment once every 6 to 15 years, thereby rejuvenating the whole system, and generating extremely fertile alluvial soils.

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The last remaining stretch of Prosopis limensis riparian forest near Copara, Ica region, southern Peru.

500 years ago, the river valleys were occupied by dense woodlands or veritable forests of Prosopis limensis (local name – Huarango), which is often misidentified as Prosopis pallida, teeming with wildlife in the canopy and understories. Today, most of the Prosopis are gone, the excellent charcoal produced from their wood having been used up to fuel the stream engines of the now defunct coastal railway and, more recently, for fast food chicken restaurants ‘pollo a la brasa’ and millions of barbecue fires in cities and roadside restaurants. Instead, one now sees vast monocultures of asparagus, avocadoes, and table grapes, producing cash crops for the North American and European export markets.

This story of deforestation is in fact almost complete, with nearly 99% of the original vegetation having been removed.


There once were countless Prosopis trees such as this one, which has probably lived for a thousand years on this sand dune, near Copara.


Most of them fell to the charcoal burners’ axes, and even though it is now forbidden to harvest firewood from live trees, illegal cutting continues, as seen here, 20 meters from the tree pictured above.

Depressing? Yes, but as engaged ecologists, we were also encouraged that change is happening; there is cause for hope. There are program in community-based restoration led by Ecoan underway in the high Andes, near Cuzco and environs, and science and conservation efforts underway at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s station at Oxapampa.

We were lucky to spend 10 days with Oliver Whaley, from RBG Kew, who has been instrumental in many of the first initiatives attempting to reverse some of the damage done on this arid coast and to find a new path that explicitly includes restoration. Particularly noteworthy is a partnership he’s brokered with the large agroindustry supply chain, including a giant supermarket chain where almost half of the UK buys its vegetables, and which is the destination of a high percentage of the region’s produce.

The agro-industries overcome the lack of reliable rainwater by installing intensive irrigation systems, which although highly efficient, are driving unsustainable expansion even as they produce spectacular crop harvests.

However, the coast also experiences strong winds coming from the coast year-round, which require that rows of trees be planted as windbreaks to shield the valuable crops. Furthermore security hedging today is almost entirely composed of introduced water-guzzling African or Asian exotics. Under Whaley’s in-farm reforestation  program, some producers have begun planting native Prosopis, Parkinsonia, and Acacia trees yielding a mixed forest instead, which provides habitat for wildlife and also improves the neighboring soils through their capacity to fix atmospheric nitrogen in symbiosis with rhizobacteria. They require far less water than introduced trees, and will never become weeds. Agroindustry management has also donated land for restoration corridors, a vitally important undertaking at the landscape scale that has not yet been well-explored in coastal Peru or other drylands.

The Kew Peru team planted 7,000 trees and shrubs of 15 native species derived from the degraded tiny relicts. The results have been nothing short of astounding, with over 70 new native plant species, 45 bird species, various lizards, desert fox and wild guinea pigs recolonizing areas that were nothing but barren soil 9 years ago. (The full results of this work will be published in the spring). Whaley takes a practical and patient view – whereby to nurture back woodland and a cultural re engagement with what nature provides takes time and needs to show results.


A patch of restored land on the edge of an asparagus field, showing the difference 10 years make. Santiago de Ica, southern Peru.

Whaley and the local NGO, Conservamos por Naturaleza that he helped found and works closely with, is also committed to education and communication, working in Ica, Nasca, and elsewhere, to change people’s perception of the key desert plants such as Prosopis and Capparis, and their ecosystems, and of native biodiversity in general. Cultural reengagement, he argues, is about changing perception from symbols of a rural, backwards environment to be left behind in the wake of progress, to highly useful and valuable trees and woodlands that are part of the local heritage. These ecosystems clearly are worthy of pride, not only for their inherent value, but also because they offer the prospects of  sustainable, profitable agriculture that is also conservation-friendly.

The Huarango Festival in Ica, which focuses on the numerous products that can be extracted from the tree, such as algarrobina, a sweet spread, a sweet drink, high quality honey, ink, and more has been a large success, and is now in its eleventh year. Whaley also works with schools, working to restore small patches of native vegetation inside the school compounds and promoting ecological consciousness through small nurseries and gardening projects.


Seedlings in a native species nursery funded by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, at the Faculty of Agronomy at the University of Ica.


Middle school students in their school’s nursery, in a town near Ica, where they grow native species and food crops and have a great time doing it.

The other unique feature of the southern coast is an inland archipelago of sorts, made up of coastal fog oases, or lomas, in Spanish. Fed by the moisture provided by coastal fogs, they rise from the surrounding desert and harbor herbaceous vegetation and in some cases various kinds of trees, all of which show high rates of endemism. Most of the lomas are sadly threatened by mining and other uses today, but Whaley has already succeeded in helping protect the new national reserve of Lomas San Fernando. This and other efforts , such as drone surveys and modelling, are conducted with help from Kew GIS staff, and Whaley’s team in Peru that includes Alfonso Orellana, Consuelo Borda, Ana Juarez and other dedicated workers. They are currently doing the baseline research in two other lomas reserves to help strengthen the case for protected area status.


The amazing vegetation supported almost entirely by coastal fogs in the Lomas de Atiquipa, home to an endemic very endangered Myrtaceae:  Myrcianthes ferreyrae.



A female Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), in the Lomas de San Fernando reserve, the only place in Peru where this raptor roosts near sea level.

Whaley and his co-workers are also engaged in restoration efforts the tropical northern coast of Peru, where the circumstances are rather different. The north coast receives significantly more rainfall than the south, i.e., about 100 mm per year (!), that is 4 inches. This permits the vegetation to climb out of the river valleys, and in fact, the local Algarrobo (Prosopis pallida and in the extreme North only P. juliflora along with hybrids between the two), and Capparis species, among others, still form true woodlands. Traditionally, the trees were preserved by the local people as their leaves and in particular their pods are remarkably nutritive, and provide prime forage for free-ranging cattle, the peoples’ primary source of income.


The remarkable woodlands dominated by Prosopis pallida (Algarrobo), in the Pomac Forest Sanctuary, Lambayeque Region, northern Peru.

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The Algarrobo trees have been preserved in large part because they provide excellent forage for the local people’s cattle.

However, a still poorly understood plague, apparently resulting from the combination of a small fly and a fungus, are decimating the woodlands; in some areas over 80% of the Algarrobo have apparently died. Just like in the South, El Niño is paramount in keeping the system healthy and, in particular, no Prosopis seedlings have been seen germinating in the last 50 years, except during El Niño years. What’s more, the next El Niño event is overdue: the last one came in 1997/1998, and now the system appears exhausted. Clearly the system is waiting for the next El Niño, and the long wait appears to have increased the Algarrobo’s vulnerability to the plague.


Severe Prosopis pallida dieback, near Talara, Piura region.

However, El Niño is coming this year, and according to the climate experts, it’s going to be a big one. As a result, Whaley and his team are scrambling to prepare as many Prosopis seeds as possible, to be sown during or right after the heavy rains. As the trees slowly dying from the plague usually fail to set seed, Whaley and his collaborators fear that much of the soil seed bank is exhausted and this could truly be the last chance for this species in its wild state.


A seed-ball with 4 native species, including Algarrobo, being prepared at a community nursery, near Salas, Lambayeque region.

Now there is an additional layer to the issue, which asks of would-be restorationists exactly what it is that they are trying to do. There hasn’t been nearly as much deforestation in Peru’s North coast as in the South, so there are still reasonably large tracts of native vegetation left intact. Further, apart from Algarrobo, none of the other five dominant native tree species, including two species of Capparis,  appear to be affected in any way by the plague.  Domestic cattle will also eat the leaves of these other trees and shrubs, though they aren’t quite as good as the Prosopis.

Therefore, some might say that this is just a natural transition occurring within an ecosystem, and it would be foolish, or even a case of trying to play God, to attempt to save the Prosopis at all costs. However, Whaley thinks differently, and we agree with him. The Algarrobo, like the Huarango, is a remarkable tree, fantastically well adapted to its environment, capable of living 1000 years of more, and clearly the keystone species of the riparian and related ecosystems where it occurs.

It forms remarkable canopies, and in areas where it is absent, we did not see the other tree species present produce anything like it, rather forming a much more open low savanna. Further, it has been a pillar of the various civilizations that have existed in the area for the last 4000 years. Therefore, Whaley is not yet ready to just let it go…


A thousand-year old Prosopis pallida in the Pomac Forest Sanctuary, possibly the oldest of its kind still alive in northern Peru…


Dhofar: Oman’s vertical fog oasis on the edge of the unknown

James and Thibaud Aronson report from Dhofar, in southern Arabia. This remarkable region is a biogeographical and historical crossroads at a critical moment of change.

The Sultanate of Oman doesn’t figure on most people’s mental map. But once told that it sits on the southeastern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, between Yemen to the west, and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to the north, they may visualize an endless sea of sand with pack camels ambling towards an oasis dotted with date palms. A large part of the country – which is half the size of France – does look like this and is part of the fabled Empty Quarter of Arabia – Rub al Khali.  But we have come here to see Dhofar, the monsoon-affected and heavily wooded fog oasis that harbors some of the most unexpected and spectacular landscapes and ecosystems in arid lands worldwide.

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One of the beautiful landscapes of Dhofar, southern Oman, in the remote Wadi Ahjawt.

From mid-June to mid-September, every year, Dhofar is thoroughly drenched by the southwesterly monsoon – khareef in Arabic. Not what you expect in a desert region! The steady stream of drizzle and fog, aka “horizontal precipitation”, during this period recharges hundreds of springs and temporary rivers (wadis in Arabic), supporting dense, lush woodlands and forests on the south-facing slopes, dominated by large and varied trees more typical of east and north-east Africa. This constitutes a giant vertical oasis of sorts, but as the monsoon goes over the ridgetops, it is stopped by the hot desert winds coming from the interior and the vegetation transitions to a sparse desert scrub in a matter of meters, in one of the best illustrations of an ecotone – or ecological frontier – imaginable.

The stark contrast between the slopes which receive the monsoon fogs, and the plateaux beyond the escarpments, where the moisture is stopped by the desert wind. Djebel al Qamr, near the Yemeni border.

The stark contrast between the slopes which receive the monsoon fogs, and the plateau beyond the escarpments, where the moisture is stopped by the desert wind. Jebel al Qamr, near the Yemeni border.

It is there, right on the threshold of the desert, that are found the Boswellia sacra trees that produce the finest frankincense in the world. This tree resin was one of the most prized commodities in ancient times, throughout Asia, Europe, and Arabia, and it is still highly prized today for many uses, including incense, ritual ceremonies, bath oils, and perfumes.

A wild Boswellia sacra tree in Wadi Aful.

A wild Boswellia sacra tree in Wadi Aful.

Indeed, two thousand years ago, Oman was the meeting point for maritime traders and spice caravans, who traded between the Mediterranean region, east Africa, India, and China. They came to Dhofar to buy the Frankincense harvested by the Jibbali tribes of the escarpments, who to this day manage the Boswellia trees in a sophisticated agro-forestry system, where the ownership of each tree is carefully recorded. You can read about this in detail in Gary Nabhan’s excellent book, Camels, Cumin and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey.

Moreover, as one would expect in such a major historical crossroad, there are many intriguing questions here, for those with an interest in human ecology. For example, Wadi Hinna, connecting the coastal foothills east of Salalah and Jebel Qara, hosts a beautiful population of very old baobab trees, as well as equally ancient tamarind trees. Are they relicts, the last remnants of once much larger populations, or were they brought here as seeds or young transplants by traders and returning travelers hundreds of years ago? Together with our colleagues at the Oman Botanic Garden, we are working on a study of these and other enigmatic trees of Arabia, on which we will report more in due course.

Ancient baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) in Wadi Hinna, eastern Dhofar, the only population of the species found in Oman.

Ancient baobab trees (Adansonia digitata) in Wadi Hinna, eastern Dhofar, the only population of the species found in Oman.

Equally ancient Tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) in Wadi Hinna,

Equally old tamarind trees (Tamarindus indica) in Wadi Hinna,

and in Wadi Ahjawt. These are often the sign of ancient human settlements.

and in Wadi Ahjawt. Both these trees are often found near ancient human settlements.

Besides its value for traders, Oman’s geographic position also makes it a genuine biogeographical crossroad for fauna and flora. Indeed, thanks to the monsoon, the humid slopes and wadis of Dhofar may be home to one of the last remnants of a belt of seasonally dry tropical forest that once stretched from sub-Saharan Africa to India, but which was almost entirely severed as Arabia became drier. Indeed, among the 900 species of plants found there, Dhofar hosts quite a few species whose nearest relatives – or populations of the same species, are more than 1000 km away, across the Red Sea in Africa or otherwise found only in India, Pakistan and Iran. There is also quite a large number of plants that are unique to the region, with over sixty endemic species and 2 genera endemic to Dhofar.  For animals, it is also a haven for many species, such as the critically endangered Arabian leopard, and the fascinating Arabian chameleon.


The beautiful desert rose (Adenium obesum, Apocynaceae), which is in fact related to the common oleander.

The beautiful desert rose (Adenium obesum) which is related to the common oleander.

The Arabian chameleon (Chamaeleo arabicus), found only in Dhofar and southern Yemen.

The Arabian chameleon (Chamaeleo arabicus), found only in Dhofar and southern Yemen.

However, despite its lush appearance, Dhofar’s vegetation is not doing well, for many reasons. This – like much of the world – is a region in transition. Over-grazing is worse than ever. Throughout the Middle East – and Africa, it is a sign of status for a man to have a large herd of animals. However, many Omanis today actually hold sedentary jobs in the cities and simply employ shepherds – often from Bengal, Pakistan or Bangladesh – to look after their livestock for a very small wage. Further, they feed the animals fodder, which is subsidized by the government and which is of dubious value long-term. This enables them to maintain their herds at unsustainably large numbers, and as they roam over the slopes, the cattle, goats and camels graze the vegetation well past the threshold of sustainability. As a result, in many areas, you will see trees with no leaves under 3 m (the height camels can reach), with additional branches cut, bent and often broken to bring them within reach of the domestic animals, and an understory cropped to less than one cm above ground level.

The effect of large, essentially uncontrolled herds of camels and other browsers on an Omani landscape.

The effect of large, essentially uncontrolled herds of camels and other browsers on an Omani landscape.

Note the 3m high browse line, marking the limit of the camel’s reach into the tree canopy and the all but extinguished understory.

Note the 3m high browse line, marking the limit of the camel’s reach into the tree canopy and the all but extinguished understory.

Farmers then go further by breaking higher branches to bring them within reach of the animals. This technique, which can be applied with varying degrees of care, is illustrated here with a particularly unsustainable example.

Shepherds then go further by breaking higher branches of trees, in this case the dominant species Anogeissus dhofarica, to bring them within reach of domestic animals. This technique, which can be applied with varying degrees of care, is illustrated here with a particularly regrettable example.

When the animals are kept out, as we saw in a few fenced off plots maintained by the Department of Forestry, you see instead rapid regrowth of tall native grasses, often over a meter high, hopping with insects and birds, in amazing contrast to the silent, rocky moonscape outside the exclosure. This is actually an interesting problem, from a restoration perspective. Indeed, as recently as the 1980s, parts of Dhofar were dominated by tall grasslands, the easternmost extension of a habitat type more characteristic of East Africa. These are the ecosystems most affected by the increasing grazing pressure and today they are all but gone. However, according to Dr. Annette Patzelt, Director of the Oman Botanic Garden, it is likely that these grasslands were anthropogenic, and only arose following local clearing of woodland and forest. Therefore, did they exist for long enough to become an integral part of the Dhofari landscapes, which would make them a valid target for restoration, or should they instead be abandoned, to focus on the woodlands they replaced?

The only way to prove the effects of livestock on a landscape is to keep the animals out. The result speaks for itself.

The only way to prove the effects of overstocking livestock on a desert landscape is to keep the animals out. In Dhofar, the result speaks for itself.

Dhofar faces other problems as well, such as rampant road building and urbanization. But it is conceivable that better policies relating to further development could be implemented and accepted with relative ease.  This issue of livestock, however, is a systemic problem pertaining to people’s perception of themselves and their relationship to land, which is a lot more complex to address and change.

One ray of hope is the terrific work in education and outreach being done by the team at the Oman Botanic Garden, who are documenting the flora and vegetation of the whole country and tracking its changes over recent times. They are also learning how to propagate hundreds of native species that have never before been cultivated as they prepare a monumental desert park and garden that will demonstrate all the ecosystems found in the country and help Omanis to better understand the richness of their country’s natural heritage. It is a first step for desert ecosystem restoration, which is emerging not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world.

Post-Mine restoration, the Gondwana Link, and SER Australasia – helping Australia transition towards a restoration culture

In their fourth and last report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss promising approaches and programs squarely facing the conservation issues that threaten western Australian ecosystems.

Nothing is simple these days: everything is subject to trade-offs. For example, take Australia’s mining industry. The country has long drawn on its enormous mineral wealth, which sustains a significant part of its economic growth. But this takes a huge toll on biodiversity. Kingsley Dixon, with whom we spent a week in the field, helped us understand the situation, and noted that the miners do not have a very good track record of cleaning up after themselves. Today, there are around 50,000 abandoned mines in Australia – sad testimony to the boom and bust pattern that seems to characterize all too many extractive industries everywhere.  However, the pioneering work of Kingsley and his colleagues and students, in the areas of seed science, conservation biology, and restoration ecology, is helping advance the science and technology of restoration. This is difficult business under any circumstances, but especially so in a biodiversity hotspot. He is also extremely active in trying to persuade the mining industry and Australian government to do more and do it better in these areas.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

Dr. Kingsley Dixon with a Eucalyptus leucophloia. Pilbara region, Western Australia.

The Mt Whaleback mine has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

The Mt Whaleback mine, in Western Australia, has been producing iron ore for nearly fifty years. The pit is half a kilometer deep and 5 kilometers long, and growing. Kingsley Dixon and his team are now involved in a project to restore parts of the site.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars.

This photo, taken on the other side of the mine, shows the first step of restoration. This involves reshaping the slopes, from the steep ones seen on the right, to gentler ones on the left, which are suitable for planting. This has already cost 1 million dollars. (And, make no mistake, just about every plant growing on the slopes on the right are exotic invasives.)

Happily, despite the complexity and the obstacles, a few Australian conservation organizations are also engaged in ecological restoration – whether at the site level, or much broader scales.

Many people told us that Australians are truly proud of their unique natural heritage, and the “outback”; it only remains for the government to play a larger role, and support those who are already working towards sustainability and a restoration culture.

One of the largest players is the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), linked in a small way to the US-based organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The AWC is making significant investments not only in land acquisition for conservation but also conservation research and outreach to the public.

Another example of an outstanding initiative is the 13-year old Gondwana Link, a unique and inspiring venture in the southwest. Indeed, they aim to create a biodiversity corridor 1000 km long, spanning 8 different ecosystem types. We spent several days with Keith Bradby, Chief Executive Officer of Gondwana Link, as well as Mike Griffiths, recently posted to Kalgoorlie, and veteran consultant and restoration practitioner US- born Justin Jonson, learning about the wonderfully exciting work of this coalition. They work both by acquiring pristine fragments, as well as degraded land which they restore, to provide connections between patches of habitat protected in national parks. But even more than their goals, it is their approach that is unique. Instead of coming in and telling everyone who isn’t a conservationist they they’re wrong and evil, they work with the miners, and the farmers, and the various NGOS, to achieve a vision of the landscape where humans and biodiversity can co-exist. For more information, see the chapter on Gondwana Link in Paddy Woodworth’s book Our Once and Future Planet , the first book to present the world-wide scene of ecological restoration to the general public.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

The gorgeous Great Western Woodlands, near Norseman, Western Australia.

They also have a strong commitment to work with Aboriginal Traditional Owners, of both the Ngadju and Noongar peoples. Aboriginal Australians represent only 3% of the national population of 24,000,000, but finally, and bit by bit, justice is being done. Following the 1993 Native Title Act, and 18 years of shameful litigation, Aboriginal Australians are at last being granted “native title” in their own land, and control a growing percentage of Australian outback. On these recovered lands, some communities are trying to reconcile their truly ancient traditions with sound ecological management appropriate to the new lifestyles they have taken up, and the future they desire for themselves.

Another remarkable actor is the 400 – strong Australasian chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SERA), led by its chair Kingsley Dixon. The challenges they face are daunting, but important and encouraging steps forward are being taken and the network is successfully raising money and doing projects. If one’s government is not helping, after all – as is the case with the current administration in Australia, social networks – of people and institutions – are the key. As we noted in our blogpost from Jordan, last April, another source of hope is the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens.

To conclude, as Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest,

If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart.

What unnamed movement? He was referring to the thousands of independent non-governmental groups of people working for joint environmental and social change – not one or the other, but both.

As we discovered, in Australia there are plenty of clear-eyed people in conservation and restoration who do have a heart and who are working for what we would call a restoration culture for the 21st century. There: that’s a name then for the unnamed movement of this century that Hawkins referred to.

Conservation and restoration in arid Australia – an uphill battle.

In their third report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss some of the serious issues facing conservationists and restorationists.

Concerning the non-native animals in Australia, the general consensus today is that eradication is impossible: the only option that remains is control, in the form of fences or culling, or both. Yet, conflicts of opinion on the ethics of culling abound, even for the armies of feral cats that reportedly kill 75 million native animals every single night. Even fences have their pros and cons, in particular the interruption of the migration of thousands of emus.

Western Australia's State Barrier Fence, 1170 km long, meant to control dingoes, dogs, foxes and other feral animals, with more or less effectiveness….

Western Australia’s State Barrier Fence, 1170 km long, meant to control dingoes, dogs, foxes and other feral animals, with varying degrees of success.

Both feral cats and foxes are most lethal in areas with relatively little vegetation cover, that is, the massive dry interior of the continent. This is compounded by the monster fires that have plagued Australia since European settlement. A single such fire can burn down hundreds of thousands of hectares, leaving small mammals and other animals with nowhere to hide.

Even this rather small fire, which spared the trees, has almost entirely eliminated all low vegetation, thereby exposing small animals to predation by cats and foxes. West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory.

Even this rather small fire, which spared the trees (their dead appearance is deceptive; these trees will resprout), has almost entirely eliminated all low vegetation, leaving small animals vulnerable to cats and foxes. West MacDonnell National Park, Northern Territory.

What’s more, as mentioned in our previous blogpost, most land managers continue to burn on an annual basis without sufficient attention to the impact on animals and indeed many plants. Things are changing though.

In the seasonally dry, tropical Kimberley region, in the northwest, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, or AWC, is testing new methods, focusing on patchy prescribed burning in the early dry season, and controlling cattle grazing. They are having good results with this approach in preserving more plant cover for small native animals and thereby reducing the lethal impact of feral cats. The AWC has also shown that their fire management techniques are not only beneficial for native animals, but also for pasture quality, and would therefore benefit pastoralists, whom Australians call graziers. Since most landowners in the area are graziers, let’s hope they will follow suit and try new fire management regimes. It is in this region, by the way, that occurs the endemic baobab of Australia, known here as Boab. To our surprise there are thousands of them, in a wide range of habitats. Some are estimated to be well over 1000 years old. Survival of this tree, at least, is clearly not threatened by fire or foxes, even if other problems – such as climate change – do exist. Let’s hope they go on thriving for another 1000 years.

A typical landscape of the Kimberley, dominated by the majestic boabs (Adansonia gregorii). King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park.

A typical landscape of the Kimberley, dominated by the majestic boabs (Adansonia gregorii). King Leopold Ranges Conservation Park.

Another reason invoked for the proliferation of cats and foxes in Australia is the virtual absence of top predators to control them. This phenomenon, called meso-predator release, is also found in North America, where coyotes have greatly expanded following the extirpation of wolves throughout large portions of the continent. Therefore, some have suggested that allowing dingoes to maintain higher population numbers would have a significant effect on controlling cats and foxes. However, dingoes are still considered pests by pastoralists, and large amounts of money go into controlling them.

And that’s not the last of it. In the last 200 years, people have also introduced many exotic plant species, some of which have become terrible weeds, such as buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) (see our previous blog post), but also Tamarix, Kutch (aka Bermuda grass, Cynodon dactylon), Karroo thorn (Acacia horrida) and others. By 2009, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimated that introduced invasive plants were costing the country 4 billion Australian dollars a year in weed control and lost agricultural production, and causing “serious damage to the environment”. With climate change, it seems possible that numerous “lurking” or “sleeper” weeds such as the White weeping broom, Retama raetam, may increase their ranges and their negative impacts.

Buffel grass presents a particularly severe problem – and like the cats, and dingoes, it is controversial. It was one of dozens of African grasses intentionally introduced by Australian agricultural researchers to “improve” pasture for cattle. Indeed cattle do like it, but the problem is that the grass spreads with amazing tenacity and crowds out native grasses, and all other groundstory plants where it invades, and, it carries fire like few other plants. Control is possible, but it is tedious and expensive and is never 100% effective at a large-scale. Furthermore, the ranchers prefer it to the native grasses, and their ideas on when and how to burn are very different from those concerned with conservation. Indeed, only few of the people we met envision stopping prescribed fire altogether.

For example, Peter Latz,  a native of the Red Centre,  plant ecologist, and author we met in Alice Springs, has been conducting manual removal of buffel and Kutch on his own land. But his main focus has been on excluding fire altogether, and achieving thereby pretty impressive results.


Peter Latz in his garden, next to the hemi-parasitic quandong tree (Santalum acuminatum). Alice Springs.

Peter Latz in his garden, next to the hemi-parasitic quandong tree (Santalum acuminatum). Alice Springs.

For more on Peter Latz’s views and lifetime of experience in central Australia, see The Flaming Desert: Arid Australia – a Fire Shaped Landscape.

In our next blog post, we’ll talk about some of the other people and groups in arid and SW Australia undertaking serious steps towards restoration, while fully aware of the obstacles and the complexity of the challenge.

Australia’s amazing and vulnerable deserts – not as pristine as they look.

In this second report from arid Australia, James and Thibaud Aronson discuss the debated roles of fire, cattle and invasive mammals on the native fauna and flora.

To quote Gary Dinham, director of the Alice Springs Desert Park, “although the average annual rainfall in Alice Springs is just 270 mm, [9 in.], it’s erratic. For example, in 2009 the year’s total rainfall at Desert Park was 64 mm. In 2010, it was 990!”

Imagine, then, a vast region where almost no rain falls for several years, and then one year, a meter falls in two weeks, causing devastating floods. Despite the aridity, and the unpredictability, there are wooded areas in vast parts of inland Australia with annual rainfall comparable to that of Syria or Sudan! In fact,  there is such a remarkable diversity of trees and shrubs, and indeed such extensive savanna or woodland tree cover, that it makes perfect sense to speak of desert canopies occurring there. However, that stunning first impression does not reveal how much the ecosystems and landscapes have been disturbed, especially in the past two centuries. How? Through severely altered fire regimes, overgrazing by domestic and feral herbivores, open-pit mining, and outrageous numbers of intentional and accidental introductions of exotic species of all sorts that really shouldn’t be there.

Open Eucalypt woodland with spinifex grass (Triodia spp.) dominated undergrowth. Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

Open Eucalypt woodland with spinifex grass (Triodia spp.) dominated undergrowth. Karijini National Park, Western Australia.

Because of its inordinately high biomass, the Australian center burns – or gets burned – every year or every other year…. The 70 species of spinifex grasses present throughout the arid and semiarid areas are in fact some of the most flammable plants on the planet. But that’s just part of the story.

500 meters away from where the previous photo was taken, this spot had burned six months earlier. The Eucalypts display here  the unusual feature of branches resprouting high in a tree with a completely burnt trunk. What makes this possible in some trees – including the Mediterranean cork oak - is epicormic buds. Annuals are taking advantage of the nutrients released in the soil, and the spinifex will come back too, only that will take a little longer.

500 meters away from where the previous photo was taken, this spot had burned six months earlier. The Eucalypts display here the unusual feature of branches resprouting high in a tree with a completely burnt trunk. What makes this possible in some few trees – including the Mediterranean cork oak – is epicormic buds. Taking advantage of the pulse of nutrients released in the soil, annuals have germinated in profusion, and spinifex will come back too, a little slower.

Because European settlers stubbornly tried to import inappropriate farming and pastoral techniques into Australia’s arid center, with its poor soils and unpredictable rainfall, they overstocked and let their cattle roam essentially freely over vast areas. Under these conditions, certain grasses and shrubs are favored, and vegetation is much more fire-prone. this has led to a large increase in the frequency of monster fires, capable of burning vast areas within days or weeks.

Even today, most landowners with cattle in the outback burn their land every single year. Why? So as to reduce fuel load, as a matter of fact, in efforts – often unsuccessful, as we’ve just said – to reduce the risk of wildfires that might burn down their houses and other infrastructure. But they also are aiming to increase the amount of palatable grasses, including the introduced Buffel grass.

Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) by a river, showing the worst of its invasive capability, where it forms a blanket which crowns out all other understorey species under the canopy of red river gums (Euc. camaldulensis).

Buffel grass (Pennisetum cenchroides, more commonly known by its old name Cenchrus ciliaris) by a river, showing the worst of its invasive capability, crowding out all native understory species under the canopy of red river gums (Euc. camaldulensis). Hardey River, near Paraburdoo, Western Australia.

There is little doubt that this approach could be improved on, but the truly problematic point is whether or not the desert needs to burn. That debate ultimately is rooted in divergent interpretations of the past 100,000 years of Australia’s history.

It is generally agreed that humans arrived on the island continent approximately 50,000 years ago. What is unclear is what lasting impact the first immigrants had, and on what scale. The suggested date for their arrival roughly coincides with the extinction of all animal species weighing more than 100 kg, similar to what happened later in the Americas and even later in Madagascar. Therefore, some argue that humans must have driven the megafauna to extinction. Others say that Australia had been getting progressively hotter and drier for 20 to 50 thousand years prior to the arrival of humans, and that large animals could not cope with the new climate. If that’s true, at most the earliest Australians hunted out only tiny remnant populations of these large animals (including giant kangaroos, rhinoceros-sized wombats, a lizard twice the size of a Komodo dragon, giant turtles, marsupial lions, and some of the largest birds that ever lived on Earth).

Beaten only by the ostrich, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the second largest living bird, standing as tall as an average person. Among the now extinct Australian megafauna was the flightless mihurung or thunder bird (Dromornis stirtoni), that was nearly twice the size of an emu and weighed half a ton!

Beaten only by the ostrich, the emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) is the second largest living bird, standing as tall as an average person. However, it is small compared to the now extinct mihurung or thunder bird (Dromornis stirtoni), that was nearly twice its size and weighed half a ton!

Through the use of ‘fire-stick farming’ (the practice of setting fires in patches to stimulate new tender shoots on grasses and other plants, and thereby attract game), the Aborigines – according to some scholars – gradually transformed most of Australia’s landscapes from fire-sensitive thickets, woodlands, and forests, to spinifex grasslands and Eucalypt woodlands highly tolerant of this kind of fire regime.

Others counter that the earliest humans in Australia in fact stayed at low population densities until the arrival of Europeans and that their nomadic societies could not possibly have transformed landscapes at any meaningful scale. To date, no clear consensus has yet emerged.

What is beyond question is the enormous impact that Europeans have had since 1788, when the first English settlers drove in their tent pegs and set up corrals for their sheep and cattle.  The introduced livestock were the first animals with cloven hooves ever to walk on Australian soil. As a direct result, the biocrust, that is the beneficial communities of lichens, mosses, and bacteria which form on undisturbed soils in many arid lands, and indeed the top profiles of the soils themselves were quickly eliminated.

European settlers also cleared vast areas of land for grazing and crop lands, and introduced rabbits, cats, foxes, rats, mice, donkeys, camels, and other exotic animals  which have had horrific impact on small marsupials, birds, and reptiles of the island, not to mention the complex ecological networks and community dynamics in which those animals occurred. Sad to say, Australia has the worst record of any country for recent animal extinctions.

Cattle at a waterhole. Cockatoo Creek, Willare, Western Australia.

Unsupervised cattle at a waterhole. Cockatoo Creek, Willare, Western Australia.

Cleared and overgrazed land on a cattle station in Western Australia. The ribbon of woodland in the background provides a reference for what the whole area once looked like.

Cleared and overgrazed land on a cattle station in Western Australia. The ribbon of woodland in the background provides a reference for what the whole area once looked like.

Of the 60 mammal species that have gone extinct worldwide, in the last 200 years, 30 were Australian – and most inhabited the arid and semi-arid zone. Besides, a further 6 formerly widespread mammals are on the brink of extinction today, surviving only on handkerchief-sized, fenced off reserves or offshore islands inaccessible to feral cats and foxes.

While that is a terribly bleak legacy, promising steps are now being taken to limit the damage going forward, and ensure that the history of massive human-caused extinctions is not repeated. In our third and fourth blog posts from Australia we will discuss the obstacles to restoration, and then some of the encouraging endeavors underway.

Galápagos: A Restoration Reference for Arid Archipelagos?

Leighton Reid, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, reflects on tortoises, tree cacti, and ecological isolation.

The Galápagos is the world’s most pristine tropical archipelago, and it is utterly unique. Nearly the entire island group is a national park, and 200,000 visitors per year come to witness its ecological singularities ‒ things like penguins and iguanas swimming side-by-side through a mangrove lagoon. The archipelago consists of fourteen large, volcanic islands and over a hundred smaller rocks and islets. Most of the land surface is low and dry. The easternmost island is about 900 km from mainland Ecuador, which is a probable source for the organisms that first began to colonize Galápagos when its volcanic peaks surfaced above the Pacific five million years ago. Indeed, the islands’ ecology is characterized by their isolation. Each island contains a relatively low diversity of organisms, many of which are unafraid of large primates. The biotas’ ecological simplicity and naiveté have facilitated major scientific discoveries, such as that small, heritable variations can have life or death consequences for individuals and ultimately change populations.

One of the more bizarre life forms on Galápagos is the tree cactus. Prickly pear cacti (Opuntia species) are not particularly rare in the western hemisphere. In the United States, for instance, they occur in every state except Alaska. But over millions of years in Galápagos they have become quite varied. Some grow low to the ground, like the familiar continental forms, whereas others grow as trees, towering up to 15 m above the ground. The first botanist to speculate on this phenomenon was Alban Stewart (1911), a scientist-sailor with the California Academy of Science. He noted that erect, tree cacti tended to grow on islands that also housed another over-sized organism – the Galápagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra). Galápagos tortoises eat the fleshy cactus pads, which contain water – a limiting resource in arid environments. Stewart posited that the pressure from tortoises craning their long necks upward to munch cactus pads may have favored taller cacti.

Opuntia echios var. barringtonensis is one of the taller tree cacti, presumably made that way by pad depredation by giant tortoises over many generations.

Opuntia echios var. barringtonensis is one of the taller tree cacti, presumably made that way by pad depredation by giant tortoises over many generations.

A low-growing cactus (Opuntia echios var. zacona) growing on Seymour Norte, an island that historically had no tortoises or iguanas. Herbivore pressure is visible here; an introduced land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) has been taking bites from the lowest pads.

A low-growing cactus (Opuntia echios var. zacona) growing on Seymour Norte, an island that historically had no tortoises or iguanas. Herbivore pressure is visible here; an introduced land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) has been taking bites from the lowest pads.

The relationship between tortoises and cacti was thrown into disarray after the Galápagos were discovered (accidentally) by Panamanian Bishop Tomás de Berlanga in 1535. By the late 19th Century, pirates and whalers removed thousands of tortoises from the islands, stowing the living animals in their holds as fresh meat for their long Pacific voyages. Eventually, overharvesting extirpated tortoises from several of the islands, with rippling effects on the rest of the ecosystem. Even where tortoises survived, they were often unable to reproduce because their offspring were eaten by introduced, European rats. Tree cacti were among the hardest hit; tortoise decimation stripped these plants of their main seed disperser.

Reintroduced giant tortoise in the littoral zone on Isabela Island.

Reintroduced giant tortoise in the littoral zone on Isabela Island.

In response to tortoise declines, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park Service began a captive breeding program on Santa Cruz Island. Since 1965 they have raised and repatriated thousands of tortoises to several islands, waiting to release them until the tortoises have gotten big enough to be “rat proof”. By and large the reintroductions have been successful. On Española Island, for example, tortoise populations had crashed to fifteen individuals in 1960, but by 2007 more than 1500 individuals had been repatriated, and the population appeared stable. Moreover, these reintroduced tortoises reinitiated seed dispersal for an endangered tree cactus (Opuntia megasperma var. megasperma), increasing the number of juvenile plants.

In addition to species reintroductions, ecological restoration in Galápagos has often entailed species eradications. Isolation historically shaped Galápagos ecology; nine hundred miles is a long way for a snake or a lizard to float on a vegetation raft. But Galápagos’s isolation was compromised by seafaring humans, who facilitated island colonization by domesticated animals and hundreds of plant species. Goats have been among the worst invaders. Until recently, goats overgrazed the islands’ vegetation, converting it into habitat unsuitable for native species. One of the most ambitious restoration projects in Galápagos has been eradicating goats from the archipelago. On the largest island, Isabela, more than 140,000 goats were killed in 2004-2005 using unconventional restoration tools, including helicopters, AR15 rifles, and Mata Hari goats – sterilized female goats induced into long-term estrus and fitted with radio telemetry collars to root out the last hold-outs. Goat eradication has resulted in spontaneous vegetation recovery. In addition to goats, the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galápagos National Park Service have also eradicated eight exotic plant species. Other species will be harder to get rid of, like rats, guava, blackberry, and domestic cats.

Despite its one-of-a-kind nature, can the world’s most pristine tropical archipelago serve as a reference for other arid, tropical islands? That is, can we evaluate the success of other island restorations by comparing them to the relatively intact Galápagos’s ecosystem structure, function, and composition? Perhaps to some extent we can. Historical contingency leads to unique island assemblages (for example: giant tortoises in Galápagos, giant skinks in Cabo Verde, giant lizards in Komodo), but many islands may be characterized by their lack of functional redundancy. In other words, if you remove a species from an island, the ecosystem consequences may be greater than if you had removed a species from a more diverse mainland ecosystem. Additionally, plant restoration in the arid Galápagos suggests that when disturbances are removed, vegetation can recover rapidly. This may also be true of other oceanic archipelagos, whose plants and animals have already colonized difficult terrain from a long way away.

Land iguana and tree cacti (Opuntia echios var. echios) on Plaza Sur Island.

Land iguana and tree cacti (Opuntia echios var. echios) on Plaza Sur Island.

Jordan III. Black, blue, and green: Life near water in the desert of northeastern Jordan.

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.

A 'densely' vegetated (sic!) tract of Hammada near Shaumari Resreve, 100 km east of Amman.

A ‘densely’ vegetated (sic!) tract of Hammada near Shaumari Reserve, 100 km east of Amman.

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 Caliphate, (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 Caliphate’s capital in Damascus. Water was drawn from a hand-dug well 25 meters deep.

Qasr Amra

Bathhouse at Amra Palace, Wadi Butum, eastern Jordan. Building to the right contains the well and water wheel (nuria).

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.

Murals inside the bathhouse, Amra Palace, Wadi Butum. A hunting scene

Murals inside the bathhouse, Amra Palace, Wadi Butum. A hunting scene.

A bather.

A bather.

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.

And panels showing people cutting wood.

Panels showing people cutting wood, presumably harvested nearby.

Pistacia atlantica, in Wadi Butum, eastern Jordan.

Pistacia atlantica, in Wadi Butum, eastern Jordan.

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 Caliphate’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.

A photo of Azraq, a large wetland in the desert, as it was in the early 1960s.

A photo of Azraq, a large wetland in the desert, as it was in the early 1960s.

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 to promote the 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.

Restored permanent pools at Azraq reserve.

Permanent pools at the Azraq reserve, undergoing restoration and rehabilitation.

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.

Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) in breeding enclosures at Shaumari reserve.

Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) in breeding enclosures at Shaumari reserve.

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.

Jordan, II: Wadi Hasa to the Arava-Dead Sea-Jordan Rift valley.

From Wadi Hasa, we ascended a long road of switchbacks, up to 1000 m.a.s.l., while still travelling north, and from the town of Al Karak, we descended, for a mere 20 linear km, to the Dead Sea, lowest place on Earth and part of the Dead Sea Rift, a fault line between the Arabian and African tectonic plates. Here, just 80 kms from the montane forests where we started, in the so-called Feifa Forest, which more resembles a savanna, we admired Afro-tropical vegetation dominated by tree species commonly found in the Sahel region, south of the Sahara desert, but almost nowhere else in Jordan or Israel.

7 Maerua

Afro-tropical, or “Sudanian” vegetation near the Dead Sea, with Acacia tortilis, Acacia raddiana, Balanites aegyptiaca, and Maerua crassifolia.

Travelling north along the Dead Sea shore, we also saw shrubby forms of Salvadora persica, and date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, growing wild in the rocks…Finally at one site only, called Zara, 10 km north of the Mujib bridge, we were thrilled to see a dozen or more huge Moringa trees and a few tree-like Capparis decidua, in a small abandoned field surrounded by fields planted with vegetable crops.

8 Moringa

Moringa peregrina & JA. Zara, Jordan.

In all three segments of our Med-Dead transect, we observed canopies that were fragmented, but clearly visible and hosting mixed communities of trees in natural associations. These provide marvelous reference systems for those who would engage in restoration in this country or any of its neighbors where the same patterns and ecosystem types occur.

In many cases, we found tree species showing a remarkable degree of plasticity, or malleability, both in shape and in habitat, including Rhus tripartita, Retama raetam, Amygdalus arabica and Rhamnus palaestina. We also saw near ubiquitous signs of the ravages of goats and sheep. Only in a few places during our trip, and most notably at the Ajloun nature reserve, did we see places spared their impact.

11 Goats

12 Sheep

All over Jordan, domestic but unruly goats and sheep eat most of the herbaceous vegetation, and tips of trees and shrubs, leaving only the taller adult trees and unpalatable shrubs to grow and prosper.

Having recently been on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, where goats were eradicated a mere 7 years ago, and where vegetation is leaping back, we can’t help but wish it were possible to do large scale experiments here…

But just like Mexico, the socioeconomic situation is complex and conservation and restoration are challenging. Woodcutting for firewood is one major problem, because most people rely on wood as their sole source of energy for heating and cooking.

Haloxylon persicum in a wadi having suffered a bit of wood extraction.

Haloxylon persicum in a wadi having suffered a bit of wood extraction.

Invasive plants are another problem, such as the South American mesquite tree, intentionally introduced and now spreading widely, with help of sheep, goats, and camels that relish the fleshy pods.

Mesquite, Prosopis juliflora , well known as a noxious weed in Africa, Asia and Australia, it is worrisome to find it spreading rapidly and without control at low altitudes throughout western Jordan. Shown here in a wadi near the Dead Sea, sopping up much of the available moisture in the riverbed and crowding out native trees and shrubs.

Mesquite, Prosopis juliflora , well known as a noxious weed in Africa, Asia and Australia, it is worrisome to find it spreading rapidly and without control at low altitudes throughout western Jordan. Shown here in a wadi near the Dead Sea, sopping up much of the available moisture in the riverbed and crowding out native trees and shrubs.

Despite these obstacles, the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN), an NGO, and its Botanic Garden, are cause for hope, not only here, but throughout the Middle East. Here’s to Jordan, where all trees are protected by law, and to the RSPN and RBG Jordan, and here’s a tribute in particular to HRH Basma Bint Ali, the Garden’s founder. In the context of the Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens, there is indeed hope for the future.