Monday, 23 February 2004

Arabian Nights

Out of the blue last week, I was asked if I could go to Sharja in the United Arab Emirates to a workshop on the Endangered Wildlife of the Arabian Peninsula. This was not in my World Land Trust capacity, but as someone who had a lot of first hand knowledge of European Brown Hares -- I was being asked to participate in a workshop about the Desert Hare in Arabia. So less than a week later, there I was, at the Arabian Wildlife Breeding Centre. Probably the best managed collection of captive animals I have ever visited. Huge paddocks, with herds of Arabian Oryx, Sand Gazelles, and Mountain gazelles. Magnificent displays of local reptiles, rodents fish and other wildlife. And not on public display are the extensive breeding areas for the rare wildlife of the region. In particular the cats -- there were Arabian Leopards, Sand Cats, Gordon's Cat and Cheetahs.

It was a fascinating meeting, with the workshop conducted in tents in the desert. And one evening I was driven to Abu Dhabi for a spotlighting session in the desert where we saw Desert Hares as well as a Desert Eagle Owl at close range. It was a very encouraging meeting -- to find representatives of the various Arabian states all not only knowledgable about their indigenous willdife, but also keen to conserve it. Undoubtedly there are still many problems, with many negative attitudes to predators, for example. But, there is certainly a growing conciousness of the need to protect and conserve wildlife in the region.

The results of the meeting were very wide ranging, but of particular interest to the group I was working with was the report on the Desert Hare. It emerged that no one really knew what species occurs in Arabia. Hare classification is fairly confusing -- at one time all the Hares from Europe to the tip of South Africa were classified as one species -- Lepus capensis. More recently they have been divided into several species, with Lepus capensis occurring in Arabia and Africa. But the Desert Hares I saw were very different to any others I have seen -- most like some of the Jack Rabbits of North America.

To start with the Desert Hare is very small -- often less than a kilogramme -- whereas the European Brown Hare (now Lepus europaeus can be over 4kgs. And the Desert Hare has huge ears, as well as different patterning and colouring. Where it is protected, it is often very abundant, but elsewhere it appears to be very scarce. One of the reasons for this is almost certainly hunting. It is a popular prey for falconers, and also probably for hunting with Salukis. But our workshop was hampered by a lack of knowledge, not only on the taxonomic identity of the species -- a problem that can be solved by DNA sampling -- but also by lack of knowledge of its ditribution. Consequently we decided to appeal to ornithologists for information. Since it is a relatively visible mammal, it is very likely that visiting birdwatchers willl have seen them, and kept records in their notebooks -- so if any readers of this blog have seen Desert Hare (or Rock Hyrax) anywhere in the Arabian Peninsula, please let me have the details and I will pass them on.

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