New Book on Arabian Mammals

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 33 (1993):28-29

Since the dawn of the oil age on the Arabian Peninsula, biologists have trekked over the sands, through the wadibeds, and up steep mountain trails looking for the diversity of plants and animals that had been virtually unknown before. To be sure, there was plenty of folklore on the local fauna, but it would take somewhat fanatic collectors going out in the midday sun to place the knowledge of Arabia's animal heritage on a scientific footing. Unfortunately, most of the information collected thus far has been difficult to locate.

As a graduate student trying to better understand the range of animals in Yemen, where I first carried out ethnographic fieldwork about 15 years ago, I remember the great satisfaction at finding the original three volumes of David L.Harrison's comprehensive study of the mammals of Arabia; these were published between 1964 and 1972. Of course, much has been added to the sum of knowledge in the past two decades. Thus, it is with even greater satisfaction that I have now come across a revision of these volumes by Harrison and Paul J. J. Bates. This is The Mammals of Arabia, published in 1991 by the Harrison Zoological Museum, Bowerwood House, St. Botolphs Rd., Seven oaks, Kent, TN13 3AQ, England(ISBN 0 9517313 0 0).

First, a word about the authors. David Harrison, a physician by trade, has been a lifelong student of mammals around the world. His introduction to the Middle East came in 1953, when he joined the RAF and served in Iraq. During the 1970she led the Fauna and Flora Survey of Jabal Akhdar in northern Oman. He recently received the Stamford Raffles Award from the Zoological Society of London for his contributions in the field of mammal studies. Dr. Bates has been the Scientific Assistant at the Harrison Zoological Museum since 1982. His doctoral thesis at London University was on the zoogeography and taxonomy of African and Asiatic gerbils.

The present volume updates the information in the three original volumes, especially regarding changes in taxonomic terminology. It is also condensed, with less measurement data and less treatment of subspecies. The goal of the authors is practical. They note: "The Arabian Peninsula is a vast region with habitats of many types, including some of the most harsh and exacting on our planet. Much basic research still needs to be done on its mammalian life, which is of unique interest, including Eurasian and African elements as well as local endemic species. Successful conservation of this fascinating fauna can only be achieved by detailed scientific analysis of the component species and their habitat requirements. This book has been designed to assist in achieving this important and increasingly urgent objective." While I would not want to carry this hefty volume (some 354 large format pages) around in a backpack, it does indeed provide a ready source for practical field study.

The volume is conveniently organized and easy to use with a glossary of technical terms, gazetteer with map coordinates, and indices of both common and scientific names. Virtually every species is illustrated and distribution maps are provided. In addition, the authors give a brief key to the distinct features of Arabian specimens for the major species. While the focus of the study is Oman and Saudi Arabia, specimens are included from around the peninsula, including Yemen.

Among the species noted for Yemen are the following: African Small-spotted Genet, Arabian White-toothed shrew, Asiatic jackel, various bats, Cape hare, Caracal Lynx, Ethiopian hedgehog, Gazelle, gerbils, Hamadryas baboon, Honey badger, House shrew, Hyrax, Ibex, Indian Crested Porcupine, Leopard, Lesser Jerboa, Lesser Kudu, Lesser White-toothed shrew, various mice and rats, Redfox, Sand cat, Savi's Pygmy shrew, Striped Hyaena, White-tailed mongoose, Wild cat, and wolf.

One of the most interesting sections of the text, although it is also one of the shortest, is that covering the baboon (Papio hamadryas). The Arabian specimens, from southeastern Saudi Arabia and Yemen, are generally denoted as subspecies arabicus and appear to be smaller than the East African varieties. While there has been some study of baboons from the 'Asirregion of Saudi Arabia, there has been no scientific field investigation of those in Yemen. This will hopefully be rectified soon, since Clifford Jolly (NYU) and Jane Phillips-Conroy (Washington University in St. Louis) have received an AIYS grant to conduct a preliminary field study of baboons in Yemen this coming year. My own limited observations of several small foraging bands of baboons in Jabal Bura' in 1989 indicates that the Yemeni varieties are indeed on the small side. They are also somewhat fearless, as several raided the banana plantation alongside the wadi road early in the morning on one of the nights we slept there. I question the comment in the text (p. 110) that baboons have recently become abundant in the foothills of Yemen. While it is true that natural predators, such as the leopard, have been greatly reduced; I should think that humans with their prolific stock of rifles have more than compensated for this. Phil by wrote in 1938 that there were "enormous troops of baboons, which move about the mountains in military formation" in the Saudi area. Similarly, Hoogstraal mentioned large troops of baboons in the Yemeni highlands when he visited in the 1950s. In 1979 I saw a troop of about 35-40 individuals on the rugged and somewhat barren slopes west of Husn al-'Arus, about 3000 meters above sea level. The farmers in nearby al-Ahjur said they used to be quite abundant and were major pests of crops, but that they were rarely encountered in the wadi anymore. It is my impression that the population of baboons has in fact been decreasing, although this will need field study and analysis of existing information in order to get a clearer picture.

If you are at all connected with a university library, pass the information on this volume to your librarian. Anyone who is serious about studying the fauna of Arabia must have this volume on his or her bookshelf. I hope that similar volumes will appear in the future on other animal species, but this is a good start and will be a standard reference for years to come.

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