"Conserve Oman Environment"
BIODIVERSITY< OMAN ENVIRONMENT

Biodiversity Conservation in Oman*

Current Status and Future Options

  Professor Reginald Victor 

Department of Biology, College of Science, Sultan Qaboos University

 

Prof. Reginald Victor was the Chairman of the Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Committee and a key member of the Drafting Committee responsible for the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for the Sultanate of Oman (NBSAPOman). In this article, he presents a study of the current status of biodiversity in Oman, the importance of biodiversity conservation and discusses various options for the future.

 

 

Biodiversity is one of the vital treasures of any nation. A healthy biological diversity can contribute immensely to the economy of a nation-albeit indirectly. Each country has a unique biodiversity of its own and protecting this natural heritage is very important for many reasons. Unfortunately, lack of awareness, increasing economic activity on and around the bioreserves etc, threaten the very existence of the flora and fauna of many countries today.

 The Convention on Biological Diversity opened for signatures at the fabled “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.  This convention was one of the outcomes of the world community’s commitment to sustainable development.  Its major objective is to develop national strategies for the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components and the sharing of benefits arising from the use of genetic resources. The countries that signed the convention when it entered into force in 1993 are committed to produce national biodiversity strategies and action plans.The Sultanate of Oman being one of the signatories, commissioned relevant agencies to come up with appropriate strategies and action plans. With the help of all government ministries and Sultan Qaboos University, the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Environment (MRME) has recently concluded the exercise of producing the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan for the Sultanate of Oman (NBSAP Oman). The implementation of NBSAP Oman is expected to be the basis of all future biodiversity conservation in the Sultanate.  Terminology Any discussion on biodiversity conservation requires the explanation of certain basic terms. Biological diversity or biodiversity refers to the variability among living organisms from all ecosystems and their associated ecological complexes including variability within species, between species and of ecosystems.  Ecosystem is a complex functional unit of  interacting plant , animal and microbial communities and their non-living environment. Habitat is a place or site where an organism or population occurs naturally.  Conservation is of two types: in situ conservation refers to the conservation of ecosystems and habitats in their natural surroundings, while ex-situ conservation means conservation of biodiversity outside natural habitats as in zoos and botanical gardens. Endangered species are those facing extinction, while endemic species are those restricted to a particular area.  Protected area is a geographically defined area where specific conservation objectives are regulated and managed.  Sustainable use means the prudent use of biodiversity to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs. This implies that the rate of use of biodiversity components at present should not lead to their long term decline.    

Current status               

The analysis of biodiversity in Oman should relate to three major issues, the flora,  the fauna and their conservation. Despite the publication of several checklists, the flora of Oman is still under investigation.  So far, 1204 species of vascular plants are known.  In addition, there are 14 species of liverworts, 30 species of mosses, 35 species of lichens and 55 species of marine macroalgae.  The freshwater and marine phytoplankton are also poorly known.  Based on available data, the threatened flora form 4.6% of the total number of species and 80% of these occur in southern Oman.  Critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable categories respectively are 0.7, 0.2 and 2% of the total number of species, while 1.5% belong to low risk category.  Data are not available for 0.3%.  A rough estimate suggests that 136 plant taxa should be placed on a critical list.     

Calotropis procera, a plant of the milkweed family in the empty quarter near Shisr in the Dhofar region. Locally known as shakr, it is a good indicator of overgrazing, a threat to plant biodiversity.   (photograph by Prof. Reginald Victor, SQU)

In all, there are 100 endemic and regionally endemic species.  Of these, 63 are in Dhofar, 12 in Central Oman and 25 in the northern mountains.  These exclude 22 yet to be described species that are also likely to be endemic to Oman.  Endemism is high in the southern region and 46% of these endemics here are also endangered.  The major centres of endemism are (i) Northern Oman mountains including Musandam region, (ii) Limestone plateau of central Oman and (iii) the escarpment woodlands of Dhofar.  All these regions support unique flora and are of extreme conservation importance.   Data on terrestrial, marine and freshwater invertebrates are incomplete.  There is an urgent need to compile data from scattered literature and acquisitions in various local and international museums.  Some groups (e.g. marine and freshwater mollusks; dragonflies) are better known than others.  Certain groups of invertebrates exhibit a high degree of endemism.  Endangered statuses of many species are not known.  Likely centers of endemism for invertebrates are (i) Al Hajar Mountains, (ii) Batinah coastal plain, (iii) Central coast, plains or steppes and (iv) Dhofar region. Among vertebrates, marine and freshwater fish fauna of Oman are well known.  The blind variety of Garra barreimiae, a freshwater fish in the cave systems of northern Oman and coral reef fish communities are of special conservation interest.

Reptiles are represented by 86 species, while there are three known species of amphibians.  Lizards form the largest group with 53 species.  There are 28 species of snakes and nine of these are sea snakes.  Five species of sea turtles are known from Oman waters.  Overall, 37 of Oman’s species are endemic at regional level, of which six, all lizards are national endemics.  The centers of endemism are northern Oman Mountains, the Dhofar Mountains and the Central Desert Plains.  Conservation of nationally endemic reptiles is of considerable importance.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals has four species of nesting sea turtles only and therefore, requires revision.   Birds are probably the best-studied group and 454 species of birds have been recorded to date.  Of  these, about 85 are considered residents and others are visitors for only a part of the year.  There are no endemic species. Oman is an extremely important stopover place or wintering area for countless birds.  Millions of birds pass through Oman during spring and autumn migration.  About 125 species of birds either breed or probably breed in Oman.  The endangered species that visit Oman on a regular basis need protection. Threats are land use and the establishment of alien species such as common mynah.   

 

European Bee-eater. Migratory species wintering in Africa. Arrives in Oman around March and returns in September- October. Most birds pass through, but some stay to breed on the Batinah, especially around Sohar (Photograph by Hanne & Jens Eriksen, SQU).

Common mynah. Established from escaped caged birds in the 1980s. Now very common in the capital area and has spread all along the Batinah. (photograph by Hanne & Jens Eriksen, SQU).

The status of the terrestrial mammals in Oman has been well documented.  Apart from the known IUCN status for these species, a preliminary red list showing Oman status is also available. There are 58 extant species and subspecies.  Of  these, three are critically endangered, and six are endangered.  Lower risk – least concern status has been assigned to 17 taxa and 31 taxa with insufficient information are considered data deficient.  One taxon is assigned the status of lower risk – conservation dependent.  Four taxa are regional endemics and one taxon is endemic to Oman.  Threats are human development, habitat destruction, illegal hunting, poaching and trapping.   The current status of in situ conservation measures in Oman is commendable. 

There are 14 designated conservation areas and 12 of these also have management plans.  Considerable protection of habitats has been achieved through the environmental permit system under Royal Decree 10/82. Expansion of ranger units has improved the protection of conservation areas and wildlife. However, biodiversity conservation is severely threatened by economic development in various forms.  The promulgation, funding and implementation of management plans for conservation is at present considered as an urgent priority.   The major proposals submitted for the conservation of the nature reserves are, (i) 1987 - IUCN proposals for a system of Nature Conservation Areas (NCA), (ii) 1988 - The Coastal Zone Management Plan (IUCN), (iii) 1990 – Subregional Land Use Plan for the Southern Region and (iv) 1991 – Study for Wildlife and Conservation Areas master plan for the Coastal Areas of Barr Al-Hikman and Masirah Island.   Legislation for wildlife protection and nature conservation is mainly in the form of three Royal Decrees (6/79, 75/98, 10/82) and two Ministerial Decisions (4/76, 128/93).  The proclamation of protected areas are by six Royal Decrees (4/94, 23/96, 25/96, 48/97, 49/97, 50/97).  The management and action plans for all these protected areas will soon be implemented.   The main objective of  ex situ conservation is to help endangered and threatened wildlife avoid extinction . 

This effort is internationally guided by the ‘World Zoo Conservation Strategy’ drawn up by the World Zoo Organization and the Captive Breeding Specialist Group of the IUCN-SSC (International Union for the Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission).  In the Sultanate, ex situ measures for the large mammal species are practiced at Ja’luni Arabian Oryx Sanctuary and at Oman Mammal Breeding Centre, Bait Al Barakah.  These two places should also be considered as repositories for genetic material.  Six species of large mammals, Arabian oryx, Arabian tahr, Arabian gazelle, Arabian wolf, White-tailed mangoose, Striped hyaena and Gordon’s wild cat  are currently breeding in captivity. Two species, Arabian oryx and Arabian gazelle bred have been reintroduced in the wild.   Ex situ conservation of flora is a neglected area in the Sultanate.  Threats to plant species are from introduced exotics for agriculture, ornamental horticulture, rangeland management, including overgrazing by livestock and desertification.  Strategies for ex situ conservation include the establishment of Botanical gardens and repositories for germplasm collections.  Qurm Nature Park and the Botanical garden at Sultan Qaboos University support the ex situ conservation of plants to some extent. These facilities, however, require expansion.  

Future Options   The future of biodiversity conservation in Oman should follow the options proposed by the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan.  Scientifically, these include the following key issues: (a ) the establishment of a national database for the flora and the fauna, (b) upgrades and proposals for  national red-lists using IUCN criteria, (c) appraisal of identified threats and proposals for protection under conservation framework and legislation, (d) identification of specific protection areas at centres of endemism, (e) commissioning of  biodiversity projects for acquisition of data on poorly known flora and fauna, (f) proposals for the protection of habitat diversity, (g) studies on alien and invasive species to evaluate effects on biodiversity,  (h) the use of scenic reserve concept as a measure of economic development, (i) studies to evaluate traditional conservation systems, (j) promotion of environmental education at all levels to improve awareness and (k) the sustainable development of natural resources.

    

Dynosia mira (Primulaceae) A rare species. Found in some localities in the high altitudes of the Jabal Akhdar range in Northern Oman. (Photograph by Amina Al Farsi, SQU)

From the administration perspective, the future of  biodiversity conservation  depends on (a) the strict implementation of legislation for wildlife protection, nature conservation and protected areas as stipulated by Royal Decrees and Ministerial decisions, (b) promulgation, funding and implementation of management plans for all proposed protected areas, (c) official implementation (not voluntary cooperation) of environmental permit system under Royal Decree 10/82, (d) ranger unit expansion to link capacity building with knowledge base by providing training programs, (e) improvement of inter-personnel relationship among participating government organizations and private sector (f) the use of international expertise to resolve environmental problem solving, (g) expansion of infrastructure and provision of funding for uninterrupted scientific support and (h) prioritization of biodiversity initiatives and  allocation of responsibilities to various institutions based on available manpower and expertise.   It is often argued that existing knowledge on Oman biodiversity is poor and therefore, strategies and plans produced at present are rather premature.  However, there is an overwhelming national and international support for the conservation of animals and plants that are ‘prominent’ and ‘popular’. Some examples are the Arabian oryx, the Arabian tahr, sea turtles, whales, juniper trees and Prosopis woodlands. Conservation of biodiversity is by no means limited to specific groups of animals and plants. It is also true that biodiversity data in Oman are incomplete and it is likely to remain so in the near future. Therefore, the conventional use of taxa numbers, conservation status and percentage of endangered species in biodiversity conservation is of little value at present.  Instead, conservation strategies should immediately aim to protect habitat diversity and integrity.  Simultaneous  acquisition of  biodiversity data and sustainable utilization of biodiversity components are other priorities.  

Evaluation of biodiversity in terms of absolute economic values is neither possible nor necessary. Even the most sophisticated cost-benefit analysis in favor of economic development over conservation is not adequate to justify the lack of commitment to our natural heritage.  Strategies for biodiversity conservation should rely on heuristic values and value judgments.  Conservationists are often accused of raising “false alarms” when in fact there are no real threats to biodiversity. The history of global decline in biodiversity suggests that “false” alarms are better than “no alarms” at all. The “precautionary principle” of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) strongly recommends that scientific uncertainty should not be a reason for postponing urgent measures to prevent environmental degradation. Awareness of impending threats to biodiversity is the first step in the development of descriptive and empirical models for biodiversity conservation.           ___________________________________

The author wishes to acknowledge the following for their contribution to the compilation of biodiversity data  in Oman: Drs. A. Patzelt, J. Eriksen, M. D. Robinson, D.M. Roberts, D. A. Clayton , Miss A. A. Al-Farsi, and Prof. A. McLachlan (all from SQU), Drs A. S. Gardner, M. Fisher and S.A. Ghazanfar (formerly of SQU), Dr A. Spalton (Diwan of Royal Court), Messrs M.D. Gallagher (formerly of ONHM), A. A. Al Kiyumi, D. Insall, M. Grobler, S. Al-Saady ( all from MRME), and R. J. Wood (OMCBC).

* Adapted from SQU Bulletin. All rights reserved to the author. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.