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Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area

Mahazat as-Sayd protected area in Makkah province of about 2200 km2 of area with fairly level, sandy plain.   The substrate at Mahazat may be sand, gravel, or alluvial clays, and is usually loose, but not shifting, forming an even surface.  Mahazat as-Sayd is one of the world’s largest fenced protected areas. Lying in central Saudi Arabia Mahazat as-Sayd is a vast undulating plain. Protection from livestock grazing has allowed a spectacular recovery of native vegetation – the grasslands of the reserve are a reminder of what much of central Saudi Arabia must have once looked like. The vegetation recovery allowed the re-introduction of Arabian oryx and sand gazelles; the first releases of captive bred ungulates in the history of the NCWCD. Houbara bustards have also been released into Mahazat as-Sayd, and a healthy self-sustaining population now resides in the area. Along with the reintroduced populations of Arabian oryx, reem gazelle, houbara bustard and red­-necked ostrich, the reserve holds large natural populations of red and Ruppell's fox and significant numbers of sand cat, wild cat and ratel, and the spiny-tailed lizard Uromastyx sp. It is a major breeding area for the threatened lappet-faced vulture Torgos tracheliotus and an important stopover site for migrating birds.

Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area is a gently undulating plain 180 km northeast of At-Ta’if on the Riyadh to Makkah road. 2244 sq. km. in area, it is the second largest fenced reserve in the world. Here the NCWCD has established a pre-release enclosure for oryx, houbara, idmi and reem gazelle and ostrich, and has studied these animals and the reserve for years.

Mahazat as-Sayd was selected as a representative portion of the western edge of the Najd Pediplain, in an area known to have once supported populations of gazelle, most notably reem Gazella subgutturosa, but also reportedly idmi G. gazella and ‘afri G. dorcas (Vesey-Fitzgerald 1952). With the potential to support high biological diversity following the recovery of vegetation from overgrazing, Mahazat as-Sayd was intended to be the first reintroduction site for Arabian oryx Oryx leucoryx, and other native species such as houbara bustard Chlamydotis [undulata] macqueenii, reem gazelle, and wildlife substitutes such as red-necked ostrich Struthio camelus. As a reintroduction site for Oryx, Reem, Idmi, Ostrich and Houbara.

The entire 220 km perimeter is fenced with 2 m high chain-link fencing, topped with 3 strands of barbed wire, with 0.9 m of chicken mesh buried in the ground, and lying behind a large earth embankment. Posts are set in concrete. There are seven gates, all of which are kept closed with padlocks. Padlock keys are issued to all rangers and research staff.

The reserve is bounded to the north-west and south-west by public sealed roads outside the perimeter fence, the Taif/Riyadh highway and the Al-Khurmah roads, respectively. There is an approximately 6 km stretch of sealed road running from the main gate to the Mammal Camp. An unsealed, graded perimeter track runs around the reserve inside the fence, and an unsealed track runs from the Mammal Camp, through the Bird Camp, to the Al-Khurmah gate on the eastern boundary. There is a network of unsealed tracks throughout the reserve, including the overgrown remnants of large tracks that joined the towns of Al Muwayh and Al-Khurmah before the reserve was created.

The Bird Camp and Al Muwayh have an unsealed, graded runway and windsock for use by the NCWCD Aviation Department’s Maule single-engine aircraft. The sealed road from the main gate to the Mammal Camp may be used for landings, but predominant cross-winds make this unsafe. The NCWCD Aviation Department maintains hangar facilities at the NWRC.

Mahazat as-Sayd lies on an open plain of sand and gravel on the eastern edge of the Najd Pediplain, in the Arabian Hinterland physiographic province. The area is gently undulating with elevations ranging from about 900 m above sea level in wadis and depressions, to 1,100 meters asl on the high ground to the north-west of the reserve. There is a 9% slope from north to south. Two small jabals, Sha‘af ash-Shamali / White Jabal, and Sha‘af al-Janubi / Black Jabal, rise from the relatively flat eastern portion of the reserve. Sandy soils, including gravel, cover 96.3% of the reserve's area. Basaltic relief comprises 3.65% of the surface area and is of pre-Cambrian origin, consisting of crystalline, highly metamorphosed rock. Quartz-like rock covers the remaining 0.05% of the area.

Climate

Climate of the area is tropical and arid. Between April 1991 and April 1996, mean monthly minimum and maximum ambient temperatures measured at the Bird Camp ranged from 6 to 25°C and 19 to 42°C, respectively. During the same period, mean monthly humidity ranged from approximately 18 to 72%. The data from last 10 years shows considerable inter-annual variation in the amount (range 150-240 mm) and timing of rainfall. Substantial rainfall typically occurs between March and May each year.

The reserve has recovered rapidly, with extensive though still patchy vegetation cover, which includes Maerua crassifolia and dwarf shrubland with emergent small trees of Acacia tortilis and other Acacia spp. Robust perennial grasses, including Panicum turgidum, Lasiurus scindicus and Octhochloa compressa are abundant on deeper sand and on low lying ground while Stipagrostis spp. are more abundant in rocky areas. In the spring there are also bulbs of two species of Dipcadi. Many perennial shrubs and forbs grow among the perennial grasses. Haloxylon salicornicum dominates on alkaline soils.

Plant list: The number of plant species recorded in the reserve has increased from 56 at the time of fence completion in 1989, to 112 in 1990 and 173 in 1998.

In 2007, researchers have started vegetation surveys on ground and also acquired SPOT data of 5m resolution to classify the vegetation types in the protected area.

Mammals

Apparently Arabian oryx, reem gazelle, and possibly two other species of gazelle (idmi and ‘afri) historically occurred in the region of Mahazat as-Sayd (Vesey-Fitzgerald 1952). It is likely that large predators of these ungulates, possibly cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, certainly wolf Canis lupus arabs and probably striped hyaena Hyaena hyaena occurred also (Harrison and Bates 1991). When Mahazat as-Sayd was fenced wolf tracks were seen along the perimeter, and in June 1993 a very old wolf skull was found in the reserve. There is no evidence that wolves remain in the area. Hares Lepus capensis apparently also once occurred in the area, but are no longer present.

The following mammals have been identified in Mahazat as-Sayd: re-introduced Arabian oryx and reem gazelle, Ruppell's fox Vulpes rueppelli, red fox Vulpes vulpes, sand cat Felis margarita, wild cat F. silvestris, feral cat F. domesticus, ratel Mellivora capensis, Ethiopian hedgehog Paraechinus aethiopicus, Cheesman’s gerbil Gerbillus cheesmani, Baluchistan gerbil G. nanus, pygmy gerbil G. henleyi, large Aden gerbil G. poecilops, Sundervall’s jird Meriones crassus, desert jerboa Jaculus blanfordi, and a single species of bat Rhinopoma hardwickii represented by one dead specimen found at the Bird Camp in 1995.

Re-introduction of Arabian oryx into Mahazat as-Sayd began in 1988 with the arrival at the NWRC of nine oryx from San Diego, followed by six animals from Shaumari, Jordan, in March 1989. A total of 76 oryx has been released into the reserve between March 1990 and May 1994. The Mahazat as-Sayd oryx population is currently estimated to be around 300 animals.

The re-introduction of reem into Mahazat as-Sayd has paralleled that of oryx. A total of 164 reem was released into Mahazat as-Sayd between 1991 and 1994. The current population is estimated to around 1,200 animals.

Avifauna

The current bird list for Mahazat as-Sayd contains 160 species, including a large diversity of migrants, notably raptors, but also waterbirds which utilize ephemeral water pools after heavy rainfall. Mahazat as-Sayd is a winter refuge for migrant houbara bustards, and an important breeding area for the lappet-faced vulture Torgos tracheliotus.

Re-introduction of houbara bustards into Mahazat as-Sayd began in 1991 with the hard release of five birds. As of December 1999 there are estimated to be around 110 houbara free-flying in the reserve; some of these birds are now two or three years old. The first breeding by reintroduced houbara was recorded in 1995 (Seddon and Gellnaud 1995).

Mahazat as-Sayd is listed as an Important Bird Area on the basis of criterion 1 (regularly holds a significant number of a globally threatened species: black vulture Aegypius monachus, imperial eagle – one recorded, January, Aquila heliaca – winter visitor; Falco naumanni – passage migrant, corncrake Crex crex – passage migrant, and houbara bustard Chlamydotis (undulata) macqueenii) – reintroduced (a few wild birds winter); criterion 3 (regularly holds a significant number of a species that is threatened or declining in the Middle East: Neophron percnopterus – non-breeding visitor (max. 51, October) Gyps fulvus –  non-breeding visitor (max. 8, October)and Torgos tracheliotus resident (min. 15 pairs); 162 birds have been recorded in October); criterion 4 (regularly holds a significant number of a species whose world population is wholly or largely restricted to the Middle East – grey hypocolius –  winter visitor in small numbers, white-throated robin passage migrant in small numbers, Finsch’s wheatear, red-tailed wheatear winter visitor in small numbers, Upcher’s warbler passage migrant in small numbers, Menetrie’s warbler – abundant winter visitor, small whitethroat Sylvia minula – abundant winter visitor, Arabian babbler Turdoides squamiceps – common resident, and pale rock sparrow Carpospiza brachydactyla – passage migrant (max. 25); criterion 5i (representative example of a habitat associated with a characteristic assemblage of bird species); and criterion 6 (site important for bird conservation through education / research / tourism).

The site also regularly holds more than 1% of the flyway population of the collared pratincole (300 birds).

Conservation threats

Mineral exploration (for gold) is underway in the northeastern part of the protected area, and the main potential irreversible and major threat is mineral extraction and associated pollution and construction activities. Minor threats include overgrazing, disturbance and littering associated with tourism / visitation, invasive species (Argemone spp.). There is intermittent and illegal small-scale harvesting of grasses. Because the area is fenced, drought conditions have the potential to affect seriously the reserve’s wildlife, and large die-offs of reem have occurred. There are indications of changes in the range ecology of the protected area, which could lead to loss of grasses and of rangeland productivity.

International agreements

  • Mahazat as-Sayd is listed as an Important Bird Area
  • Convention on Migratory Species
  • MAB
  • WESCANA
  • Convention to Combat Desertification

Reference

Gillet, H. (1990) Vegetation studies, Mahazat As Said Reserve. National Wildlife Research Center, Saudi Arabia.

Vesey-Fitzgerald, L. D. E. F. (1952) Wildlife in Arabia. Oryx, 1, 232-5.