Hunting poachers, protecting the last of Oman's wild oryx

Hunting poachers, protecting the last of Oman's wild oryx
While armed poachers prowl the desert, 600 Arabian oryxes are watched over by rangers, who have protected these animals for generations on land that is now Al Wusta's Wildlife Reserve.
6 min read
03 April, 2017
Ahmed al-Harsusi hunts poachers to protect the last remaining wild Oryx in Oman [Sebastian Castelier]

The wind blows on Thany al-Harsusi's dishdasha. Military jacket slung over his shoulders, he jumps up on the hood of his pick-up truck to gain a better view at the horizon.

Pebbles, sands and small shrubs make up all that can be seen from here of the nearly 3,000 square kilometres of Al Wusta's Wildlife Reserve.

Thany al-Harsusi, 21, and his colleague, 25-year-old Ahmed al-Harsusi, 25, cross these vast lands every day to defend the last wild oryxes from poachers.

More than 600 oryxes live on this reserve, though most are kept in enclosures. Just 20 live in the wild.

There are about twenty rangers patrolling the reserve, 24 hours a day. The reserve hires rangers from the Harsusi tribe, ancient guardian of the oryxes through history. Thany and Ahmed start their patrol at 9am and keep watch under the heat of the sun until 4pm. They have seven hours to try to find the tracks of the poachers.

To ease their task, the Omani government built a fence all around the wildlife reserve in 2009. It has, however, been vandalised by nomads and poachers numerous times.

At least this gives them a starting point. The patrol's pick-up stops next to the broken fence. Thany and Ahmed go out and squat silently in front of the tyre tracks nearby.

"We know how to recognise the diameters of our own patrol vehicle's tyres. And this track is one of ours. Nothing to report," curtly asserts Ahmed. He is the driver and is also in charge of observing suspicious tracks.

Thany observes the horizon. He sits back-to-front to watch the rear.

Thany al-Harsusi, 21, scans the horizon for poachers [Sebastian Castelier]

After visiting the broken fence, they head for the northeast of the reserve. Here, mountainous cliffs come to break the smooth and rectilinear appearance of this hostile vast desert.

Surrounded rangers

This mountainous side of the reserve doesn't have fences. It is completely possible for a man to climb and enter. Ahmed parks the vehicle at the edge of one of an abyss and watches.

No music, no background noise, no useless discussion, every effort is made to hear the slightest sound of an engine, or a rifle shooting. Thany checks for thrown-away cigarette butts; any proof of recent human presence. Nothing to report.

Suddenly, the duo notices a tyre track that doesn't match any of their patrol trucks. They follow the faint imprints drawn in the sand. Propped up between the handbrake, the clutch and both front seats, an M16 assault rifle is carefully packed in a bag, in case they find armed poachers.

However, these marks on the ground lead towards a small caravan, where an Indian camel breeder hired by Omanis lives legimitately. Thany and Ahmed take the opportunity to drink a bowl of fresh camel milk and question him about intruders' possible routes in the area.

Dozens of kilometres away, in the reserve's base camp, where 71 biologists, veterinarians, cooks and others work, Haithem al-Amri, the reserve's manager, has his morning coffee.

It has been almost six years since this Omani ecologist, who graduated in wildlife conservation from a Scottish university, began managing the Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve.

Yesterday, he spent the day in Nizwa court. Another case of vandalism of the reserve's fence.

One of the last free-roaming wild oryx surviving in Oman [Sebastian Castelier]

But what worries him the most are poachers. "Some camel breeders have cooperated with poachers in exchange for money," he told The New Arab. "Poachers carry rifles and it is risky to deal with people who can be dangerous and threatening. This year, we had two cases which could have end up dramatic. One day, poachers surrounded two of my rangers. I did not reveal it to [the rest of] my men, for fear of frightening them," says Amri.

The next morning, a meeting is held by the Harsusi tribe elders, at the camp's Majles - where only men gather. Sheik Salem Chamli al-Harsusi, with a long beard, lays down on a carpet. He peacefully listens to the conversations livened up by the youngers.

Mohammed Haziz, aged 70 and the leader of the ranger patrols from 1980 to 2007 speaks of the fence built in 2009 around most of the reserve.

"If there is no barrier, oryx are going to go towards new houses and on roads. And we already have a big problem of poaching. How do you want to bound a zone of protection against hunters without fence? And this oil company which took up all the room!"

In 2007, Oman reduced the size of the reserve, registered on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1994, by 90 percent, to conduct oil exploration. It was the first UNESCO site to be removed from the heritage list.

But as oil prices tanked, Oman has realised it needs to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons, and towards tourism and other sectors.

But the flaw in this plan is clear. Despite Oman hosting 2.1 million visitors in 2015, its slashing of protection for this ancient oryx breeding ground has led to plummeting tourism revenues.

Today, the reserve is lucky to attract 20 tourists a month.

Just 20 rangers patrol the huge reserve [Sebastian Castelier]

Back out on the dusty plain, Ahmed and Thany have never ended up face-to-face with poachers. But at the end of their patrol, they discover strange plastic bags, hidden in the shade of a bush. Inside, some furniture and a sheath filled with 7mm bullets - often used for hunting.

They keep the bullets and a bag with invoices as proof. All this evidence will go to the small police station located inside the base camp.

'We have the right to shoot'

Suddenly, far off, a vehicle raises a thick cloud of dust. Ahmed chases it and blocks the path. The man is a camel driver known to the rangers. However, Ahmed orders him to open the car door, to check the passenger compartment.

"My work is dangerous," says Ahmed. "This is why I have an M16 assault rifle. If we are too much far from the base camp without phone network; if our walkie-talkies do not have signal and if poachers show aggression, we have the right to fire in the air. Then, if they do not cooperate, to shoot to neutralise them.

"I had three months training with the army, after that I must be able to manage such situations. My uncle was leading the rangers - it is a family tradition to protect these oryxes. The protection of these animals is reserved to our clan, the Harsusi," Ahmed says with pride.

According to the Arabian Oryx Regional Conservation Strategy and Action Plan, published by the General Secretariat for the preservation of Arabian Oryx, the symbolic animal "is long appreciated by local hunters for its meat, its skin and the pre-supposed medicinal value of its blood".

Hunting, the report concludes, would be "the main reason for the extinction of the Arabian oryx".

Quentin Muller is an Oman-focused French journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @MllerQuentin