Oman: Environment and Ecology; Omani Conservation Laws Protect Flora, Fauna, and Even Architecture

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Oman: Environment and Ecology; Omani Conservation Laws Protect Flora, Fauna, and Even Architecture

"Turtle permits" reads a trail of English-language signs guiding visitors through the corridors of Oman's Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Environment. It doesn't mean, however, that residents of Oman have to obtain a license for a pet tortoise, or can buy a license to fish for the giant sea turtles that swim off Oman's hundreds of miles of Indian Ocean coast. In fact, turtles are strictly protected in this land of carefully written and strictly enforced environmental laws covering everything from a broad array of endangered plants and animals to the distance that must separate septic tanks from water wells (60 meters, or 195 feet).

The "turtle permits" represent one means by which the Sultanate strikes a balance between protecting an endangered species--the green turtles which range tropical and sub-tropical seas and nest on at least six protected Omani beaches--and providing residents an opportunity to observe these giant creatures as they come ashore at night to dig their nests and lay their eggs.

Five of the nesting areas on Oman's Masira Island and Ras al-Hadd area are off-limits to anyone but the rangers who drive off predators and the scientists who count and tag some of the emerging hatchlings. Turtles from among the 25,000 tagged on Oman's beaches over the past 12 years have been found as far away as the African coasts of Ethiopia and Somalia and the Asian coasts of Pakistan. The turtles are believed to reproduce until they are 70 to 100 years old. During their nesting cycles, which occur every two to four years, they mate in the water and then lay up to three clutches of eggs spaced two weeks apart.

It is for the sixth nesting beach at Ras al-Hadd that "turtle permits" are issued, allowing a strictly limited number of visitors to camp so long as they abide by rules prohibiting lights, flash cameras or camp fires visible from the beach--all of which would frighten off the nesting turtles and disorient the hatchlings as they seek their way to the sea. But the permits allow visitors to camp out of sight on the inland side of the dune line and to watch from the dunes the beginning of the nightly cycle at sunset, and the end of it at dawn.

Turtles are only one of the unique species strictly protected in Oman. Even rarer are the leopards present in the rugged Musandam area where the Arabian gulf meets the Arabian sea and at the opposite end of Oman in Dhofar province, which borders Yemen.

Another unique animal just coming back from the brink of extinction since a hunting ban was initiated by Oman's Sultan Qaboos in the sixth year of his reign in 1976, is the Arabian tahr, a kind of mountain goat related to the ibex. Although the population has more than doubled since 1976 and now is believed to have reached 2,000, it remains the rarest large mammal in the world. There are two related but separate species of tahrs in southern India and in Nepal, but the Arabian tahr's range is limited to Oman and a portion of the United Arab Emirates.

Other mammals included in Oman's protection program include the Arabian oryx, distant sightings of which may have given rise to European legends of the mythological unicorn; mountain gazelles, which have been increased by a captive breeding program; ibex, which also are large mountain goats; and two kinds of cats, the large Caracal lynx and the sandcat or Gordon's wildcat, a small, shy animal that dwells among sand dunes and looks like a domestic cat with a long, extra-bushy tail.

All of these land animals and the unique eco-systems in which they live are relics of the repeated glacial periods in northern latitudes, when the Arabian peninsula was a well-watered savannah. As the last glacial epoch ended and desert replaced the grasslands some 12,000 years ago, the high mountains and Alpine valleys of Oman and adjacent Yemen became the last refuge of flora and fauna that have vanished completely from other parts of Arabia. …