Wildlife Conservation for North Yemen

by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 24(1988):1,6

Given the many development priorities of the Yemen Arab Republic, it is not surprising that little attention has been paid to conservation of the country's wildlife. The scientific study of animal species in Yemen is scant, confined for the most part to analysis of specimens brought back by Western travelers. Yet the range of tropical species&emdash;birds, mammals, fish, insects and the like&emdash;may be the widest and most unique on the Arabian Peninsula. The fauna here not only has links to other parts of the Peninsula, but also has affinities with many species from East Africa. Thus, Yemen's wildlife is a fertile field for future study.

In November, 1987 I traveled to Yemen on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Washington, D.C. for a project funded through the Biological Diversity Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The primary purpose of the trip was to look into the issue of rhinoceros conservation, since Yemen is one of the major consumers of rhino horn. However, it was apparent to me from the start that rhino conservation would mean little in a country that in fact has no rhinos. The ultimate issue of ending the trade, now illegal, in rhino horn must be seen as a conservation problem related to the conservation of Yemen's own endangered and rare species.

The rhino, unfortunately, is facing the same fate as the dinosaurs. In the past two decades 85 percent of the world's rhino population has been decimated through poaching. Today only some 10,000-11,000 rhinos exist, mostly in Africa, with one Asian species down to its last 50 survivors. Rhinos are valued for only one thing&emdash;a horn that looks rather unattractive in real life but commands exorbitant prices for those who use it. Half of the horn probably goes to Asia, where it is used in a variety of mendicants, while the other half ends up as dagger hilts in Yemen. Today far less rhino horn is entering North Yemen, due to government restrictions and the skyrocketing costs of the banned commodity. A kilogram of rhino horn is now worth $1500 in Yemen.

The irony is that there is nothing in particular about the rhino that makes the horn attractive in Yemen. Rather, it appears to be the characteristics of the horn as it ages that appeal to the tastes of dagger wearers. The horn is said to improve with handling and skin contact; it also gains a translucent quality and yellowish color not unlike amber in time. The fact that it has been a prestige item in the region since even before the Islamic period adds, of course, to its value. Other horn materials, as well as silver, wood, and even plastic, have been used, but nothing now approaches the value of rhino horn. Inexpensive water buffalo hilts are readily found in the Sanaa suq, but these are not in the same league with the rhino horn. The problem, then, becomes one of finding an acceptable alternative for luxury hilts. Is there a species of animal which is not endangered yet has a horn with similar qualities? It is certainly worth a future project to provide samples of other materials to the dagger makers.

In the long run interest in rhino horn for daggers will not slacken unless wildlife conservation is promoted to the people of Yemen. Few people who would like to buy rhino daggers know the full extent of the danger facing rhinos. It is also hard to relate to a problem not within the country's borders. The best, and probably the only, approach to increasing demand for rhino horn is to promote awareness of the threat of extinction facing some of Yemen's own species. There are in fact a number of rare and endangered species, most notably the gazelle and the ibex.

Both the gazelle and the ibex figure prominently in Yemeni literature and folklore. A walk through the new National Museum in Sanaa will show the importance of the ibex, with its curved horns, in the iconography of pre-Islamic South Arabia. In 1977 the government passed a law forbidding anyone to hunt gazelles in Yemen for a span of ten years. Now that this law has expired, there is an urgent need to pass pending legislation to protect the full range of endangered species in the country. The problem is that such legislation easily gets lost amidst the priorities that the government understandably must address. Even the Department of Wildlife and Zoos in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries does not yet have the staff or funding to press the issue and initiate projects.

Despite the current financial problems, now is the time to begin protecting wildlife in Yemen before it is too late for several species and certain habitats. The priority of my project was to design a strategy to start the ball rolling on wildlife conservation. There are a number of present initiatives within Sanaa University which should be supported, particularly surveys of the flora and fauna of the country. One needs to know what is there before deciding which species are in greatest danger. It is also important for international conservation organizations to become involved in the country and help build up the capabilities of the government and the university to deal with conservation. Finally, it is important to reach the people with news about their rich animal heritage and the importance in saving it. Television documentaries, articles in the paper, and coverage of existing conservation efforts will all help. And as Yemen grapples with preserving its own unique wildlife heritage, the future for the rhino will look brighter.

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