The nature reserves making Oman one of the best in the world

Lying along the cerulean waters of the Arabian Gulf, Oman is one of the most beautiful countries in the Arabian Peninsula. Geographically diverse, its natural beauty is wonderfully unspoilt and includes swaths of sandy deserts, green oasis, rugged mountains and a unique monsoon catchment in the far south. Oman’s coastal waters are a haven for dolphins, whales and birds. Close to the coast, coral reefs teem with colourful fishes; sheltered coves act as breeding grounds for endangered marine turtles while its mountains and deserts are home to rare land mammals.
Emanating from the late His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’s interest in environmental conservation, the Sultanate has taken several steps to ensure that its natural resources are protected and people are actively engaged in protecting Oman’s remarkable natural treasures. Indeed, awareness of the fragility of the ecosystem along with ways to ensure its protection have been in place for almost four decades now. Oman’s many nature reserves represent some examples of the country’s varied bio-diversity.

The story of the Arabian Oryx is one of miraculous survival. Once extinct in the wild, this rare member of the antelope family, has been dragged back from the precipice in a reserve, which for decades, was fenced off from the public. Established by a royal decree, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary at Al Wusta is now the only home for these graceful animals that are sometimes also referred to as the Arabian “unicorn” due to their distinctively shaped horns. Hunted prolifically, the last wild member of the species was killed in Oman by suspected poachers in 1972. The species only clung to existence thanks to a special breeding in captivity programme, and in the early 1980s a batch of 10 was released into the Al Wusta Sanctuary for the Arabian Oryx. Happily, since then their numbers have grown from just 100 about two decades ago to almost 650 today. The sanctuary supports a unique desert ecosystem whose diverse flora includes several endemic plants. Apart from the Oryx, other animals that can be found here are the Nubian Ibex, Arabian Wolves, Honey Badgers, Caracals and the Arabian Gazelle. The Al Wusta Arabian Oryx Sanctuary is also the only wild breeding site in Arabia of the endangered Houbara Bustard.

The Sultanate of Oman is blessed with the longest coastline in the Arabian region, stretching 1,700km from the UAE in the north to Yemen in the south. The waters around Oman are home to four of the world’s seven species of sea turtles — these are the Loggerhead, Greenback, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley Turtles. While there are around 275 turtle nesting beaches along Oman’s coastline, most of them have been closed off from the public to protect the turtle’s habitat. One of the official places to see these amazing creatures laying their eggs is at Ras Al Hadd. Once a small fishing village, today it is a protected reserve where vigilant rangers escort groups of people to the beaches at night to witness the extraordinary sight. Oman has the highest Loggerhead Turtle population in the world and is also recognised as one of the few spots where the engendered Green Turtles still come to nest.

Located in the Wilayat of Seeb in the Muscat Governorate and the Wilayat of Barka in Al Batinah South Governorate, is the breathtakingly beautiful Dimaniyat Islands. Made up of nine low, rocky little islets, strung out in a line from east to west and bunched together in quite widely separated groups, the Dimaniyat Islands have been recognised as a UNESCO protected site.
Given the abundance of marine life and the annual visit of migratory birds, the islands are considered an important ecological area and has been the focus of national and regional conservation efforts for some years now. The Islands have the highest density of nesting seabirds and is the only known Osprey nesting site in the region. They also shelter the largest nesting population of Hawksbill Turtles in the country. With its beautiful white sands and clear azure waters, the Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve is home to several species of coral reefs, a number of which are extremely fragile and rare.

Dhofar Khawr/ Lagoons
Oman is home to more than 480 varieties of birds, plus 100 other migrating species who use the Sultanate as a resting point on their onward journey to nesting grounds. One such popular spot for migratory birds is the Khawrs or lagoons of Dhofar. For bird watchers, Dhofar is a veritable paradise with frequent sightings of winged beauties from African, Oriental, and Palaearctic species, to large numbers of sea birds. The Khawrs which lie along the coast of Oman are also a sanctuary for several species of wildlife, fish and plants making a visit to the Dhofar Lagoons a truly memorable experience
Realising their importance, the Government has declared the Dhofar Khawrs a protected reserve area. Dhofar has eight lagoons that vary in size, the largest and most popular one being Khawr Ruri. The lagoon is strategically placed near the sea and holds the Khawr Ruri port — more famously known in ancient times as the busy port of Samharam. The port found frequent mention in Greek, Hellenic and Arabic historical scrolls, being the main port for the export of frankincense from Dhofar. Nearby, there are ancient ruins that date back to prehistoric times. Given its unique position of being both an ecological hotspot and a place of historical significance, Khawr Ruri has been given special status, and has been included in the World Heritage List.

The Al Jabal Al Akhdhar range is one of Oman’s most admired geological feature: an huge plateau, lying at an altitude of around 2,000m and surrounded by the rugged peaks of the Al Hajar mountains in the north and the deep gorge of Wadi al Ayn to the south. The rugged mountains are home to about one-quarter of Oman’s flora and roughly 437 faunal species, excluding birds.
A popular part of the Al Jabal Al Akhdhar range is Jabal Shams, which literally translates to mean “the Mountain of the Sun”. It is the highest point of the Al Hajar Mountain Range and the largest peak in the Arabian Peninsula, soaring to over 9,000 feet in height. Believed to be the first spot that the rays of the rising sun touch in Oman, it is ranked as the second-largest Grand Canyon and cave in the world. Popularly known as the Grand Canyon of Arabia Al Jabal Al Akhdhar attracts a large number of visitors every year. Literally meaning “Green Mountain”, Al Jabal Al Akhdhar has an almost Mediterranean climate and has been cultivated for at least a thousand years. Fruits like pomegranates, apricots, peaches, figs, cherries and walnuts that cannot survive the searing heat of the lowlands flourish here. In 2011, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos issued a royal decree designating Al Jabal Al Akhdhar a nature reserve in a bid to conserve its unique yet fragile bio-diversity.

Jabal Samhan
Jabal Samhan is one of the major mountain ranges in the Dhofar Governorate in southern Oman. Riddled with limestone caves and sinkholes the unspoilt flat top of Jabal Samhan is home to the elusive Arabian leopard. Critically endangered, with only a few remaining in the wild, this majestic creature is carefully monitored and protected within the nature reserve which is one of the last known homes of the Arabian leopard. The reserve is also home to a number of other animal species too, including the Arabian Gazelle, Fox, Indian Crested Porcupine, Cape Hare, Rock Hyrax, Nubian Goat, Desert Hedgehog, Arabian Wolf, and several bird species.
While visitors are not allowed within the sanctuary, they can drive to the panoramic viewpoint at the edge of the reserve, perched at a height of 1,300 metres, for a birds-eye view of the rugged mountains traversed by deep and narrow gorges, some of which are thousands of metres deep. The Jabal Samhan reserve is also home to the largest group of Frankincense trees in the area. Growing in the Hawjer oasis that crown the central plateau, the Frankincense tree is the most valuable plant in the reserve which has a wide variety of local plants and shrubs too. The northern parts of the reserve, where the climate is hot and arid has Acacia trees, wild palms and desert plants.

As Saleel Sanctuary
Located in the Wilayat of Al Kamil W’al Wafi in Al Sharqiyah Governorate in eastern Oman is the As Saleel Nature Park. Protected under a royal decree, the sanctuary lies between Bidiya and Sur. Extending over an area of roughly 220 square kilometres, the nature park is predominantly covered by forests of acacia trees and provides sanctuary to a number of rare species of wildlife especially the endangered Arabian Leopard, Arabian Gazelle, Omani Wildcat, Red Fox and the Egyptian Eagle. In addition to this varied fauna, 8 types of reptiles and hundreds of species of insects have been spotted in the reserve.