Wildlife and Conversation in Eastern Yemen

by Michael. C. Jennings
[1 Warner's Farm, Warners Drove, Somersham, Cambridgeshire, PE 17 3HW, England]

Yemen Update 34(1994):20-22

(Editor's Note: This article was first published in Tribulus, Bulletin of the Emirates Natural History Group (Vol. 2.2, October, 1992, pp. 34-36. For more information on the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia, please contact Mr. Jennings at the above address.)

From the creation of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1967, to the time of its union with the Yemen Arab Republic in May 1990, it was generally very difficult for Western naturalists to visit the country. This country has been known colloquially as 'South Yemen,' but this is a misnomer, because on average, South Yemen was further north than North Yemen (YAR). Now that the two countries are joined I prefer to use the term ‘Eastern Yemen' to refer to the former South Yemen (PDRY). Although the country was barred to the west for so long a number of scientists from Eastern Europe did visit the region and have published their results. Notable among these was an important survey of the flora and fauna of the Socotra Island in the early 1980s by a combined East German and Aden University team, led by Dr. Wranik. In recent years a trickle of Western Scientists has been able to visit the country. Among the first of these was the ornithologist Dr. John Ash, who visited Aden and nearby areas in 1984 under UNEP sponsorship to study the serious pest status of the introduced INDIAN HOUSE CROWCorvus splendens (Ash, 1984; Ash, 1988). That study resulted in a control program, commencing in 1986, which by May 1989 had eliminated 241,000 crows in the Aden Governorate area alone(Jennings, in press). The crow has been greatly reduced in numbers but is still a serious pest. Other more recent visitors have included Dr. Anthony Miller of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, and Luigi Guarino, UNFAO, who studied the botany of Socotra and the extreme eastern part of Yemen, as well as collecting plant specimens for the FLORA OF ARABIA project.

I was fortunate to be able to visit eastern Yemen for three weeks in October and November 1989 for the purpose of a survey for the ATLAS OF THE BREEDING BIRDS OF ARABIA project. My subsidary tasks included a follow-up study to the Ash report on the Indian House Crow and local crow control programs, and to look into the possibility of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East mounting a full scale survey of the country.

Thanks to the assistance of the then Ministry of Agriculture in Aden I was able to travel widely within the country, including the full length of the coast from Aden to the border with Oman, and in the interior, to Wadi Hadramawt, Wadi Hajar,Laudar, and Al Dali. Although primarily interested in the breeding fauna, I collected as much information as I could on the environment generally and on conservation issues.

In comparison with many other parts of Arabia, where overgrazing, deforestation, erosion and pollution present serious problems, the environment of eastern Yemen was in relatively healthy state. One reason for this might have been that no financial encouragement was paid to Bedouin to increase the size of their flocks, nor any subsidy to pay for grain during periods when there was little grazing. This means that, unlike the situation in the more prosperous states of Arabia, the rangelands hold no more stock than they can naturally support. Where the Bedouin are given subsidised grain, the higher population of animals means, inevitably, that over-grazing occurs. With the fewer Bedouin in the desert as a result, secondary effects such as cutting down of trees for firewood is less pronounced. Native charcoal burning was noted in some areas but a much greater impact was made by commercial lime kilns which required large quantities of wood. Fortunately, most of the wood being burnt appeared to be the introduced MESQUITE Prosopisjuliflora.

In the latter years of the PDRY administration the authorities banned the use of persistent pest control agents such as aldrin and dieldrin, mainly as a result of World Bank pressure. Agricultural specialists told me that this results in a problem with some crop pests as alternative pesticides were not always effective. Physical pollution by domestic rubbish was much less apparent in eastern Yemen than elsewhere in Arabia. This was because the country was relatively poor and underdeveloped; the variety and quantity of imported foods (and their wrappings), and consumer goods were at much lower levels. The coast was noticably oil-free and largely clear of domestic refuse.

Large mammals, especially carnivores, are good indicators of the health of the environment. It is clear that the status of predators in eastern Yemen is at least as good as any other parts of Arabia, although there is still considerable cause for concern. In a short specialised survey such as my own I could not hope to survey carnivores, but reports and notes I collected are encouraging. WOLF Canis lupus and STRIPED HYAENA Hyaenahyaena were reported to be common, from the edge of the Empty Quarter to just outside Aden. CARACAL LYNX Caracal caracalhas been recorded recently from over a wide area from near the Dhofar border in the east, to the border with the former North Yemen in the west. The HONEY BADGER or RATEL Mellivora capensis and RED FOX Vulpes vulpes also occur widely. The ARABIANLEOPARD Panthera pardus survives and at least four individuals are known to have been shot in the last few years, indicating the species occurs quite widely. Much of eastern Yemen is remote and mountainous, very suited to the leopard. There have been no recent reports of the ASIATIC JACKAL Canis aureus, but I was informed of an intriguing, unconfirmed, reference to a possible CHEETAH Acinonix jubatus sighting in the mid1980s. (One of the last verified cheetah records came from eastern Yemen, 80km NW of Habarut, in March 1963, Harrison, 1972). Ungulates include the IDMI (MOUNTAIN GAZELLE) Gazella gazella and the RHEEM (ARABIAN GAZELLE) Gazella subgutturosa which were reported in1989 from several localities. I was able to establish that IBEXCapra ibex was still widespread in eastern Yemen, especially in the Wadi Hadramaut area, the eastern border near Oman and in the coastal mountains near Mukalla. However, everyone I questioned agreed that it was very much reduced in numbers over the last ten years. Like all large mammals in Arabia, the ibex is susceptible to hunting pressure and in a country where the Bedouin often have sub-machine guns, key species like this are badly in need of protection through the establishment of effective observation laws and reserves.

Other interesting large mammals include PORCUPINE Hystrix indica, which is widespread, and HAMADRYASBABOON Papio hamadryas, limited to the western mountains where, as elsewhere in south west Arabia, they are a serious crop pest.

The border area of eastern Yemen with Saudi Arabia and Oman was the last refuge of the southern population of the ARABIAN OSTRICH Struthio camelus syriacus. The last were probably hunted in this area as late as 1920-30 (Jennings,1986)although, even today whole eggs can be found in sand dunes in this area (Walker, 1981: Gallagher,1988). Important bird species in eastern Yemen, in terms of their rarity in Arabia, include the HOUBARA BUSTARD Chlamydotis undulata, which is likely to breed in some parts of the country, ABDIM'S STORK Ciconia abdimiiand BLACK-WINGED KITE Elanus caerulus. All ten Arabianendemic land bird species occur in the border area with the former YAR. It may be possible that the houbara has a healthier population in Eastern Yemen than anywhere else in Arabia, both as a breeding bird and as a winter visitor, because organised no-expense-spared hunting parties, which have existed elsewhere in Arabia, have been absent from eastern Yemen. The ARABIAN BUSTARD Ardeotis arabshas not been seen in the country in recent years. Despite suggestions by Meinertzhagen(1954) the BALD IBIS Geronticuseremita was probably never a breeding bird in southern Arabia and has not been seen in eastern Yemen since his own record at Laudar in1949. Vulture species are apparently on the decline in the area as elsewhere in Arabia (Jennings,1988). Surprisingly I did not see a single GRIFFON VULTURE Gyps fulvus, during my survey. The EGYPTIAN VULTURE was widespread, although apparently not so numerous as in former years. The LAPPET-FACED VULTURE, which is now known to breed over a large area of central Arabia, probably also occurs over much of eastern Yemen. I saw one on the edge of the Empty Quarter in November 1989, only the second record for the former DRY.

On the sandy coast near the border with Oman it was encouraging to see a large area completely covered by the nesting depressions of turtles (species not determined). I estimated that there were at least 500 turtle nesting depressions in this area, with no evidence of interference by local inhabitants. The sea yields an abundant fish crop to local fishermen. There appeared to be no infrastructure to freeze, process and transport fish crops, and fishing activities appeared mainly for sardines and whitebait for the local economy, to be used for fertilizers and animal fodders.

One part of the former PDRY where the flora and fauna are of special interest is Socotra island. Here, no less than five bird species are endemic, and all are poorly studied. These endemic birds are the SOCOTRA GRACKLE Onychognathusfrater, SOCOTRA ROCK BUNTING Emberiza socotrans, SOCOTRASUNBIRD Nectarinia balfouri, SOCTRA WARBLER Incana incanaand SOCOTRA CISTICOLA Cisticola haesitata. I was not able to visit Socotra myself but I will hopefully be included in the itnerary of the forthcoming OSME survey.

Plants which are of special interest include the endangered BANKOUALE PALM Livistona carinensis which is known to occur only in three widely scattered populations, in Djbouti, Somalia, and Wadi Hajar in eastern Yemen. Until very recently, this palm tree was highly sought after by the local inhabitants in Wadi Hajar for roof timbers, because it is regarded as termite resistant. The stands of this palm in Wadi Hajar were very much under attack from builders until my visit in1989, threatening to wipe out the total Arabian population of about 2,000 palms. When I visited the site there was no regeneration and suckers were burnt away to get to the main trunk. Fortunately the mamoor(village chief), following pleas and advice from visiting botanists, had agreed, early in1989, to place a ban on the felling and buring of this palm, and these measures appeared to have been remarkably effective by the time of my own visit.

In 1989 environment and conservation-oriented legislation in the former PDRY was rudimentary and limited to two laws, one concerned the protection of plants, which includes control of tree felling, and another which banned hunting of birds and animals and the keeping of wild animals privately. These laws were largely ignored as there were only limited resources available for enforcement. Unfortunately, gun ownership is widespread and the traditional Arab love of la chasse is as strong as ever. However, the government at the time did have plans for more gun control and there was an increasing and encouraging tendency for the Bedouin to adopt a settled existence. Since unification with North Yemen in May 1990, presumably the respective environment laws of the two countries would be rationalized but this will almost certainly be a low priority of the new government, which has many other pressing issues to rationalize.

In late 1989 there were no protected areas in eastern Yemen other than some small fenced experimental areas to study plant regeneration for rangeland use. Perhaps the Bankoualepalm grove of Wadi Hajar could be the first target for such are serve, especially as the surrounding area is known to hold ibex, leopard, wolves, and other large mammals. In addition a Wildlife Research unit has recently been set up at Al Kod, in the Abyan Governorate, as part of the Research and Extension Department of the then PDRY Ministry of Agriculture. This boded well for future wildlife work in eastern Yemen, but the present situation is unknown. Nabeel Obadi, the wildlife officer who was in post in November 1989,had just published what is probably PDRYs first (and last)environment-oriented book in Arabic, The Birds of South Yemen (Obadi, 1989).

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to express my sincere thanks to all those who made my visit to the former PDRY a success. Especially warm thanks go to Dr. Abdulwahad O. Mukred, Director of Research and Extension Department of the then Ministry of Agriculture, who provided much logistic assistance, and to Nabeel Obadi of the Wildlife Research Unit, who provided much information. Thanks are also extended to the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development, Riyadh, for sponsorship of the ABBA project and my air ticket to Aden, and to the Ornithological Society of the Middle East for a cash grant towards my expenses.

References

Ash, J. S. 1984
Report of the UNEP, Ornithologist/Ecologist on the Advice to the Government of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen on "Combating the Crow Menace' UNEP.

Ash, J. S. 1988
Some observations in South Yemen in 1984 and a selected bibliography of the region, Sandgrouse 10:85/90.

Gallaher, M.. D. 1988
The Ostrich in Oman, Sandgrouse 10:97-101

Harrison, D. L. 1972
Mammals of Arabia (Vol 3). Kent.

Jennings, M. C. 1986
The distribution of the extinct Arabian Ostrich Struthlo camelus syriacus Rothchild, 1919. Fauna of Saudi Arabia 8:447-461

Jennings, M. C. 1988
Where have all the vultures gone?

Jennings, M. C. (1992)
The House Crow Corvus splendens in Aden (Yemen) and an attempt at its control, Sandgrouse 14:27-33.

Meinertzagen, R. 1954
Birds of Arabia, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh and London.

Obadi, N. 1989
The Birds of South Yemen, Privately published

Walker, F.J. 1981
Notes on the birds of Dhofar, Oman, Sandgrouse 2:56-85

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