Wildlife Travel To Azraq, Jordan

Going Eco in Jordan

There are not many good hotels in the world where you park your car 8 km away and then, before you even see the place let alone have a look at the rooms, squeeze into an ancient pickup truck for a half hour bumpy journey with a driver who speaks nothing but Arabic. But then, not many hotels are as unusual as the Feynan Ecolodge, around 50 km north of Petra in, Jordan. For a start it’s within the huge Dana Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of magnificent arid mountains, wind-roughed, pale sandstone cliffs, seasonal wadis brimming with red-flowered Oleander bushes, and some of the rarest plants and animals in the world. My wife and I had decided to stay there en route to Petra, that amazing rock-hewn city established possibly as early as 312 bc as the capital city of the Nabataeans.

We did as the hotel brochure suggested and found our way to the rendezvous carpark just off a metalled road where the hotel’s carpark attendant called in a local Bedouin driver complete with his shambolic, battered pickup. Suitcases in the back, we scrambled into the cab and I spent the next 20 minutes with my right leg competing with his gear lever as we lurched about on the hotel’s rough track.

Wildlife Travel To Azraq, Jordan Photo Gallery

It was a relief to see the place; a gorgeous sandy cream colour blending into its rock-scattered, mountainous desert surroundings. Designed by renowned architect Ammar Khammash in an arabesque style and built in 2005 it has no televisions, no phones (your mobile won’t get a signal!) and candles instead of electric lights. It’s a great switch-off kind of place. And if you are wondering if its sustainability ethic is rather like the pretence talked of by other hotels, get this: solar power generates electricity for the kitchens; food scraps are composted; candles are made locally and water is supplied from a nearby spring. The heating in the usually short winters, when these summertime bread oven-hot hills can get pretty cold, is provided by burning wastes from local olive processing.

We were there in spring and I think that’s the best time to savour the place in equitable temperatures and to make the most of its isolated location together with the plants and birds around. Bright and sunny, warm but not hot – it’s also ideal for a day’s walking up Wadi Dana, the main wadi running past the ecolodge. The day we did it, the wadi was dry until we got maybe 5 km ‘upstream’. Then, a growing trickle of water from the rugged slopes high above started to wet the gravel and sand between the gorgeous Oleanders and prickly acacias on the wadi riverbed.

We passed peat-coloured goat-hair tents of several Bedouin families, all of them living here so that they can graze their goats in this, the lower part of the 300 km2 Dana Reserve. Friendly waves from gorgeous, dark-haired children spurred us along. Further on we passed a local shepherd tending a herd of goats and a couple of Bedouin women leading donkeys laden with water jugs from a nearby spring. Much further up what gradually becomes a wide valley with 1,000-m-high rocky slopes at its furthest point, we came across a scatter of Mediterranean Cypresses, slow-growing trees with their bottle-green leaves, maybe 20 m tall and some of them reputedly over a thousand years old. Here they are apparently growing at their southernmost location in the world. Widely planted elsewhere, here they are thought to be native.

Phoenician Junipers were around too, growing mostly in the rockiest places and either fairly prostrate on the ground or growing as large shrubs. I wondered whether farmed goats had been nibbling them so that they couldn’t grow taller anyway. These arid mountains, not always as arid in the past, have apparently been inhabited from the Stone Age (there are remains of a 11,000-year-old Neolithic village) through to the Roman and Byzantine eras. So they have a long history of goat grazing and probably other uses too.

We kept scanning the high rocky slopes for a glimpse of a Nubian Ibex, a wild desert goat with long back-curved horns, now pretty rare. Pale brown in colour just like much of the rocky terrain they live in, it was a problem of small animal, vast mountains. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot one. One animal we did see, and effortlessly, was the Sinai Agama, a 25-cm-long lizard, the males of which are bright blue in the breeding season, the females duller brown with red spots. We spotted males – they are the only bit of blue colour in this arid, generally pinky cream coloured environment basking motionless in the warming sunshine on exposed rocks or scurrying into a crevice. They are a fantastic, almost surreal sight. Watching the males carefully through binoculars, I noticed them raising their heads and gaping, a threatening pose they adopt to frighten other males away. They also bob their heads, move their eyes from side to side and do push-ups with their front limbs. What a chap has to do these days to attract a mate. Considering that there are Short-toed Eagles – reptile-killing specialists – plus occasional Bonelli’s and Golden Eagles hereabouts, it seemed particularly odd to me that the Sinai Agama males adopt such a standout colour in the spring. With an eagle’s eyes they must be visible from at least a kilometre away. Presumably the speed of an Agama is their salvation. Or predators know that they are poisonous (which I don’t think they are). Whatever, the need to be seen by a female agama must outweigh the risk of being seen by an eagle.

Equally easy to spot, because they occasionally ran across the dry wadi in front of us, were Sand Partridges. The colour of – you guessed it – sand, they couldn’t be better camouflaged for where they live. Rotund little partridges, the females are very plain and best match their surroundings; the males, though, have lovely white and brown stripes on their flanks and a white eye-spot. Pretty birds, they are not found outside the Middle East. Equally intriguing were tiny but very noisy Palestine Sunbirds, no more than 10 cm long with little curved beaks, who busied themselves in flower-filled bushes extracting nectar out of the flowers, their dark blue and purple feathers glinting in the bright sunshine. They were common in the acacias around the hotel too.

Just as striking were the Sinai Rosefinches, the males mainly pink in colour, and found in the most inhospitable rocky dry places where you’d think it would be difficult for any living creature to survive. I must say, though, that they looked full of life, flitting about this way and that, examining what might be in the next rock crevice they liked the look of, a few seeds maybe from some dry-as-dust flower.

The bird I was really hoping to see was very much rarer but known to occur in the Dana Reserve; the Syrian Serin is a small finch related to the Canary, green and yellow in colour and slightly dishevelled in overall looks. Confined to arid mountainous country here in Jordan, Lebanon and parts of Syria and Israel, they are declining everywhere, likely the result of increasing drought (they need daily access to water) and – that perennial Middle East problem – overgrazing by goats. As seed eaters, these finches rely on flowering plants to set seed; if goats eat the plants before they set seed, the finches’ food supply dwindles. There are maybe just a few thousand pairs of Syrian Serins left in the world, at least for now.

On our morning walk up the wadi from the eco hotel I thought I might have seen a pair but it was a distant view of two small, greenish birds flying off. They looked like finches and I tried, but failed to find them. It wasn’t until well into the afternoon and we were on our way back that I heard a plaintive, Linnet-like call (there were Linnets around too!) from somewhere just ahead of us. Almost as suddenly, a male Syrian Serin landed literally a few metres away as if to show that he really was the bird I was hoping to see. Within a few seconds his mate joined him and we sat on a rock and watched entranced as they scurried about on the stony ground picking up seeds here and there. I stopped a couple of (I think) Dutch hikers walking past and pointed the delicate little pair out to them. They watched politely for a few seconds, smiled and hiked on.

With most of the day gone, we headed back down the valley passing a few more avid hikers who were doing the 14 km slog from the Dana Guesthouse at 1200 m above sea level to Feynan at 325 m. We spoke to a young American couple who had walked down from the guesthouse and were on their way back up, a climb up of nearly a 1,000 m. We envied their fitness. But such hikers, although they no doubt appreciate the wildness, the impressive landscapes and the relative solitude, almost certainly don’t notice most of the wildlife around them. A Syrian Serin wouldn’t register on their radar. And it seems to me that, in treating such hikes as something more akin to a gym routine, they miss an awful lot of what’s to be seen.

Soon we were back to Feynan Lodge for a shower, the water hot thanks to the sun heating up the solar panels. The nightlife here consists of good vegetarian food cooked by local Bedouin employed at the hotel and eaten by candle-light, usually outside in the delicate evening warmth where it’s as dark as pitch once the sun has set. It sounds, and is, rather romantic with the single proviso that eating near one small candle is not the best plan for knowing what you are putting into your mouth with each fork-full.

Along with a few others staying at the Lodge we followed the meal by lying back on pillows and floor mattresses on a nearby rooftop terrace to gaze up at astounding views of the Milky Way, shooting stars, and the planets. They even had a telescope and staff on hand who know their Cassiopeia from their Betelgeuse. The view of the night sky in this rocky desert with no city or highway lights to corrupt it is one of the delights of staying well off the beaten track; it’s how to appreciate a pointillist, heavenly light spectacle that’s awe inspiring. We were so relaxed after our day of walking and a hearty meal that we started to drift off to sleep as the rooftop talk turned to Mercury and Uranus …

A day later and we were in Petra, the fabled ‘Rose City’ hewn from the cliffs by the Nabateans as their capital. I had always wanted to see it and it lived up to every expectation I had. Visiting it, even at the equivalent of £45 per person per day (but little more for two or three days of visits) is an amazing experience; the sheer wonder at the first sight of the famous, iconic, pink-hued Treasury having walked a kilometre down the cliff-lined, narrow gorge – the Siq – to reach it is simply stunning. And there is very much more to see in Petra than the Treasury.

On the second day of our Petra visit I decided to get away from the crowds and climb up into the hills on its western side along some steep and narrow paths. Eventually I came to a plateau, arid and rocky with eroded stone pillars but with a scatter of juniper and wild olive trees. On the way up I’d seen the occasional group of Sinai Rosefinches, the males striking in crimson and pink; the females duller and plain brown. They were usually searching some clefts in the cliffs or hunting on the ground between boulders, picking up flower and grass seeds. Then, a wheezing, toy-trumpet type of call gave away a posse of aptly named little Trumpeter Finches. I saw several of them, the males with pink breasts (pink is the ‘in’ colour in Jordan) and orange-red, seed-cracking beaks. But the sound that took me off guard was some wolf whistling that echoed off the hard cliffs up here. I looked around, assuming someone else was walking nearby. But there was no one; in complete contrast to the tourists milling around the famous Petra archaeological sites way below me, I could see no-one. It was a magical experience.

It wasn’t until I saw some blackbird-sized birds, all black with orange wing flashes that I realised what was making the whistling calls; they were Tristram’s Grackles, a bird I had seen just once before in Saudi Arabia. There was a small party of them, flying from one set of berried bushes to another, wolf-whistling as they went. In this natural amphitheatre of rock, their calls echoed and amplified.

After they disappeared, off to find more berries to pluck perhaps, I could hear singing. And this really was a human voice. Again it echoed and I had no idea who the source was and where they were. After a while, a few goats came into view high above on a rocky ridge. Then a few more, bleating as they walked. And further behind a small figure dressed in long Bedouin clothes and a head scarf carrying a long stick and a bag. The singer waved; I waved back. The singing continued. I assumed that this shepherd and flock would simply walk past well above me. But no. They came my way; the goats dispersing to chew here and there on any manner of shrub they could get their teeth into; the shepherd, all smiles, came and sat next to me on a low rock. Only then did I realise. It was a Bedouin shepherd girl whose age I found it impossible to gauge. Maybe 12, maybe more. I felt uncomfortable. She showed me some of the things she was carrying but we could understand virtually nothing of each other. Her clothes were colourful, she wore soft shoes and herding the family’s goats by day was probably going to be her life’s work until she got married, maybe to one of her family’s cousins as tradition here often demands. She wanted me to walk with her, to her Bedouin home I assumed, but I insisted on going in the opposite direction and we parted with yet more smiles and, before we lost sight of each other, more waving too.

A few days later we had driven much further north out into what’s called the Eastern Jordanian desert, a vast stony dry-as-dust desert that occupies a large sector of this fascinating country. But here’s an odd, almost surreal thing: in the middle of all this I’m looking out over a shallow, freshwater lake about twice the size of an average swimming pool. Behind me is another similar pool, both of them fringed in places with tall growths of reed and bulrush, typical plants of the water’s edge. Some taller tamarisk bushes and other scrub nearby are alive with the calls of warblers like Chiffchaffs that have stopped off here on their arduous springtime journey from Sub-Saharan Africa north to their European breeding spots in woods and gardens. Barn Swallows on a similar trek are skimming low over the water, picking off tiny flying insects, their agile zooming and banking reminiscent of fighter jets, only very much quieter.

This is the Azraq wetland, the only area of water in this vast desert and a vital stopping-off place, a kind of transport cafe for the migrating bird world to take a break and stock up on food to fuel the journey ahead. Walking around these pools and the bits of marsh in between them, it’s easy to forget where I am and how incongruous this wetland oasis actually is. Less than 40 km to the south of where I’m standing is the Saudi Arabian border; go 70 km north and you cross into Syria. Azraq is Jordan’s only oasis and I particularly wanted to see it because its recent history arguably ranks among the most tragic cases of habitat degradation by humans anywhere in the world.

Until the 1980s it was considered one of the most spectacular areas of wetland anywhere, fed by two underground springs which resulted in the creation of a large, flat area of lush marshland supporting an abundance of diverse plant and animal life. It was reckoned to have covered an area of about 12,000 km2, greater than that of Lebanon today. The soils were moist; small lakes and marsh covered much of the land surface. The remains of lion, cheetah, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, elephant, ostrich and other large mammals have been found here and the site was home to hundreds of thousands of migrating birds each year, huge flocks of ducks, herons, egrets and wading birds as well as countless thousands of smaller birds such as warblers on migration.

In the past, the huge areas of freshwater attracted camel caravans carrying spices and herbs traveling between Arabia, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Syria. It had been home to human communities as long as 200,000 years ago. The damage started in the 1960s. Water began to be pumped from the Azraq oasis to provide drinking water to the city of Amman, Jordan’s growing capital and to Irbid, now the country’s second largest city. The resulting drop in the water level wasn’t really noticed at first. But, by 1967 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees flooded into Jordan after the Six Day War that all changed. They needed water urgently. Pumping increased enormously in the 1970s. And more and more people settled in that then fertile area to grow crops, sinking wells (illegally) deep underground to raise water to the soil surface to irrigate their crops, only a tiny fraction of which was ever paid back to the ground as rain.

Ironically, in 1977 as the wetland shrank and water disappeared from its surface, Azraq was added to the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance, the tiny (12 km2) Azraq Wetland Reserve was also established, managed today by the Jordanian Government’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). According to RSCN information, 347,000 birds were at the wetland on 2 February 1967. A count on the same day in 2000 totalled just 1,200 birds. That’s not surprising when you realise that the wetland at Azraq had shrunk to less than a thousandth of its original size.

As the wetland shrank, and pools of water dried up, an incredible discovery was made at the eleventh hour in 1983 by three German fish biologists: a fish whose existence at Azraq hadn’t even been noticed. It was a species of killifish but one found nowhere else in the world. Named the Sirhani Fish after Wadi Al Sirhan at Azraq, it was surviving in what was left of the disappearing pools. Growing to no more than 6 cm in length – the more colourful males pale brown with dark brown vertical stripes only a few could be found. The name ‘killifish’ is derived from the Dutch word kilde, meaning ‘small creek’ or ‘puddle’, the kind of place many of them live in. And because many of them prefer shallow lakes and ponds, the eggs of most killifish can survive periods of partial dehydration. That’s pretty useful for Azraq, in summer especially. But here the prospects for the Sirhani Fish to survive were almost non-existent. Their lifeblood – the freshwater they depended upon – was literally drying up. What is more, species of fish alien to Azraq that made a meal of small fish like the Sirhani, were found in what pools remained. Someone had introduced them there.

By 1992, with more water being pumped out of Azraq for human use, more farming wells dug and the springs feeding the former oasis dried up, the Azraq Killifish was presumed extinct. But this little fish proved to be a real survivor. In 2000, after artificial pumping of water back into the Azraq wetland began as a consequence of international pressure on the Jordanian Government to reinstate at least part of it, a pair of Austrian scientists rediscovered killifish in one of the small surviving lakes. They collected 45 of them and a captive breeding programme was started in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Vienna Zoo.

At Azraq I spoke to Ashraf Elhalah, a Jordanian ecologist working for RSCN on the fish’s reintroduction. ‘We built concrete lagoons within the reserve and started rearing the killifish in those where we could control the conditions,’ he told me. ‘Then we reintroduced them to the shallow ponds in the reserve. Sirhani Fish now constitute 70% of the fish living in the Azraq wetland. We have raised the number from a few scores to hundreds of thousands now.’

To help keep the pools as areas of open water for the fish and not naturally infilling with reeds and other water plants, the authorities have introduced Water Buffalo. They seem incongruous here; I encounter their huge black presence and intimidating horns as I wander along the short marsh trails. Changing direction to avoid a couple heading my way, they plunge into one of the main ponds, churning up the vegetation and the mud as they go. But in a Goliath helping David set-up, these lumbering buffalo are proving essential.

This once massive wetland in the desert will never again resemble more than a pale shadow of its former self. The 10 million m3 of water per year provided by the Jordanian Ministry of Water to maintain Azraq is only sufficient to restore the wetland to 10% of its original size. Even this target is unlikely ever to be reached; there are hundreds of illegal wells used to water crops by people who have long settled in the oasis, and furthermore the alternative pipeline carrying water from the south of Jordan to supply Amman will not be able to satisfy all of the city’s needs. Add to that the obvious issue that the location of the wetland in the middle of a desert where shade summer temperatures can reach 40°C causes an enormous loss of water by evaporation from such shallow lakes.

Azraq will never again become a wildlife haven but the small population of Sirhani Fish surviving here might yet get further recognition. I’d heard that the Head of Nature Conservation at the Ministry of Environment, Hussein Shahin, commented that the Ministry is considering a proposal to make it Jordan’s national fish. So I asked him, by email, for a comment. ‘The Black Iris is our national flower and the pink Sinai Rosefinch is our national bird,’ he told me. ‘But we want the Sirhani Fish to be our national fish.’ Japan has the Carp; South Africa the Galjoen; why shouldn’t Jordan’s Sirhani Fish be the third national fish in the world?

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