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Volume 40, Number 4July/August 1989

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Arabian Forests

Written and photographed by A. R. Pittaway

What is your mental image of Saudi Arabia? Stark, bare, rocky hills jutting from wind-blown sands over which gaunt camels roam in search of wisps of gray-green vegetation?

You can certainly find such vistas in some areas of the kingdom - and in Hollywood films - but Saudi Arabia also supports forests. And in the forests are not only cool, cascading waterfalls, but also populations of plants and animals that, in many cases, can be duplicated no closer than Greece, 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) to the northwest.

These forests are not the familiar oases with their serried ranks of date palms and their carefully maintained watercourses. These are real forests, complete with trees, shrubs, climbers and wild beasts. They can be found amid the peaks of Saudi Arabia's southwesterly 'Asir Mountains.

For those living in Jiddah, the first hint of such arboreal splendor can be glimpsed on a drive to Taif. As one nears the sheer, 1,500-meter (4,900-foot) 'Asir escarpment, the first thickets appear. The road slithers its way up this cliff face through stands of mimosa, then willow-leaved fig and, finally, tops out amid junipers (Juniperus procera) at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). Here the sun is noticeably brighter, the air cooler, the winds fresher. Fan-tailed ravens and griffon vultures cavort on updrafts and thermals among stark peaks, but there, along the valleys and slopes, are the beginnings of a forest. Admittedly, much of the flat land has been cleared for agriculture, but here and there some fine stands of mimosa and jujube trees testify to a splendor that once existed.

In season, blossoming almond and apricot trees herald the arrival of spring and the coming harvest of damask roses, but junipers - often called cedars in the United States - still dominate the surrounding hillsides. On the escarpment edge their growth is luxuriant, and individual trees more than 10 meters tall (33 feet) are not uncommon. Splashes of pale green in this sea of needles signify the presence of sumac, Palestine pistacia, hopseed bush or per-foliate honeysuckle, and a question begins to dawn in the traveler's mind: Many of these plants have their main center of distribution in the Mediterranean area - so why are they here?

During the last Ice Age, Saudi Arabia was wetter and cooler. A Mediterranean climate prevailed from Palestine to Yemen and across into the highlands of Ethiopia and Somalia. As the weather changed to its present, far warmer, condition, whole plant communities retreated to areas climatically capable of supporting them - to "islands" of cooler, wetter weather found at higher altitudes and separated by warmer, dryer valleys. Thus, honeysuckle and pistacia are no longer found anywhere between Taif and Palestine. That juniper species now has three distinct populations, isolated from each other - one in the 'Asir, one in the highlands of northern Oman, and the other confined to the mountains of Somalia and Ethiopia. Even in the 'Asir, juniper cannot be found below 1,800 meters altitude (5,900 feet), or more than five kilometers (three miles) inland.

Indeed, this highland forest is rarely more than three kilometers (10,000 feet) wide at any point in Saudi Arabia. Here it is nourished by a long summer rainy season. Moisture-laden southwesterly winds, sweeping in off the Red Sea, are forced rocketing skyward as they collide with the steep escarpment. As they meet colder air aloft, they give rise to billowing thunderclouds, and during April and May the resulting storms can be savage. Bolts of lightning flash from peak to peak or plunge into the forest, exploding trees on impact. Although some rain percolates into the rocky ground, most runs off in flash floods of up to 30 meters depth (100 feet).

During August and September, the monsoon-induced rains are gentler. Then, clouds often envelop the entire upland forest zone for days on end. Visibility plummets to near zero and, more importantly, temperatures may drop to 20 degrees Celsius (68°F) or lower. Little rain comes in the winter, but what does sometimes falls as snow.

Among the juniper, a sharp-eyed observer may spot a grayish, small-leaved shrub interspersed with the dark conifers - an olive tree. It is not the producer of that important Mediterranean fruit, but a nearly identical relative whose berries are an important food source for birds during midsummer. Where soils are richer and the climate not so harsh, this tree may entirely replace juniper, and where it does, it is a strange sight to see picturesque cuboid villages nestling amid hillsides covered with its evenly spaced balls of gray foilage: The scene so resembles parts of Greece.

Indeed, in some areas like Al Foqa, the presence of trickling streams - with fish - of green Caucasian tree-frogs and further relict populations of Mediterranean plants can quite easily delude the observer into believing that he is in Greece. Here is a white flowering clematis or jasmine, there a field of buttercups and Saint-John's-wort with a sprinkling of pink cranesbill. Higher up, splashes of white among the dark junipers reveal cascades of porcelain-white Abyssinian rose or the dead flowerheads of tree heather. Between the conifers themselves beds of lavender and salvia add splashes of purple. Swathes of pink willowherb, yellow trefoils and blue mints jostle for position with Buddleia and willow bushes along any watercourse, and every so often streams cascade from ferny rock ledges into deep green, frog-infested pools, as can be found at Al Dahna.

Such floral abundance attracts and supports a varied wildlife. Troops of hamadryas baboons are a common sight, but unfortunately their main predator, the leopard, is nowadays rarely seen; only a few remain among the wildest peaks. Persecution by local shepherds has also, understandably, severely reduced the numbers of wolves, common jackal, characal lynx and striped hyaenas. Their carcasses are occasionally seen hanging from road signs, mute testimony to their diminishing presence. Thus, birds are the most obvious highland "big game." Few sights are more impressive than 40 or more griffon and Egyptian vultures riding updrafts on a 1,000-meter (3,300-foot) scarp face, or a flock of Tristram's grackles hurtling down some sheer ravine in full cry.

And in the forest itself are blue tits, Yemen thrush and common magpies, the latter almost indistinguishable from European magpie populations until they call. Not for these birds the harsh chatter of their northern relative: They squeak instead.

There is ample smaller game, too. Certain treeless slopes support colonies of the rare Saharan swallowtail butterfly or of Pittaway's giant cupid - an endemic in the region. Also confined to the Saudi highlands is a large hawkmoth (Macropoliana asirensis) whose caterpillar dines on olive-tree leaves. Countless other insects buzz and hum their way among the trees, providing food for reptiles and amphibians alike.

And, of course, there is man.

Villages dot the highlands where water occurs or where flat valley-bottoms allow farming. Here, one does not find the large fields common in Europe or North America, but small, terraced plots which often march in a series of narrow stone-walled steps up the sides of gullies. Wheat and corn are the main crops, with patches of tomato and potato here and there, but - as in most Middle Eastern semi-arid regions - it is the raising of sheep and goats which predominates.

Unfortunately, the sheer number of these grazers has seriously denuded certain areas, leaving only isolated, mature trees as lone sentinels. Along with the missing plants above ground, the sponge-like web of their interlaced underground roots, capable of retaining and gradually releasing considerable amounts of water, has also disappeared; as a result, erosion has become a local problem, and so has the supply of fresh water. Fewer plants mean less usable water anci more dangerous flash floods, as heavy rains, instead of soaking into the ground, run off at high speed. Tree felling for firewood has exacerbated this problem; it is not uncommon to see one pickup truck after another, all piled high with branches, speeding inland to supply fuel to wood-starved desert communities.

Luckily, action is now being taken to preserve this unique forest before serious damage takes place. Near Abha, the 'Asir National Park (See Aramco World, September-October 1980) now preserves some of the finest stands of juniper as well as the few remaining Arabian leopards. Some villages, such as Al Foqa, have their own preserves in which grazing and tree felling are banned; these areas are particularly rich in herbaceous plants. Some campsites have also been established to cater to the growing numbers of lowland city dwellers who have discovered the cool delights of this highland area. Here and there experimental plots of trees testify to the government's desire to reverse the general trend of deforestation. But what of the future?

Forestry? Maybe. Initial trials with exotic species have proved promising. Olive production? Olives already grow wild in these mountains and could quite easily be cultivated. Then there are almonds, apricots and pomegranates - all potentially valuable crops. Whatever commercial ventures are introduced, the present work in conservation is likely to continue and expand, so that the next generation of Saudi citizens will also be able to enjoy the wonder of the Arabian forests.

A. R. Pittaway has worked many years in the Middle East as an entomologist and landscaper.

This article appeared on pages 38-40 of the July/August 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1989 images.