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Conservation in conflict: Advancement and the Arabian wolf

While little is known about the animal, expert estimates suggest there are between 1,000 and 2,000 wolves left roaming the Middle East
Like its international cousins, the Arabian wolf has suffered endangerment and nearly extinction (MEE/Reza Khan)

There’s the lone wolf, the werewolf, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. And don’t forget the boy who cried wolf.

English idioms are littered with references to the great predator that has long inspired equal measures of fear and respect in the hearts of men. But one day these idioms may have people reaching for the dictionary (or modern-day equivalent).

Wolves worldwide are under threat. All three species of wolf – red, grey and Ethiopian – are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) threatened species list, including a majority of the sub-species within that. But conservation of wolves has long been and still remains a controversial topic.

Last December, a US federal court judge overturned a decision by President Barack Obama’s administration to remove the grey wolf from America’s endangered species list and thereby its protection from hunters in 2012. US District Judge Beryl Howell labelled it an “arbitrary and capricious” violation.

If not even the US president recognises the wolf’s right to survival, it has little chance against the farmers, loggers and developers whose actions are largely responsible for its demise.

In the Middle East, the Arabian wolf has suffered a similar fate to its international cousins. But the conflict-ridden region where conservation has typically lagged behind the West has additional challenges.

While little is definitively known about the animal, expert estimates suggest there are between 1,000 and 2,000 wolves left roaming countries like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. Explicit legal protection only exists in Israel and Oman and the wolf has become extinct in several countries.

Some time before the 1970s, the Arabian wolf was a common sight along the sandy dunes of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But it died out. If anyone had twigged, this news would have been greeted not with hand-wringing but jubilation.

“In the olden days most of the wolves have been killed by people who lived in the desert or were passing through [protecting] cattle, sheep and goats,” says Reza Khan, the UAE’s premier zoologist who doubles as the Dubai Zoo Director.

There is no exact record of when the wolf died out, but Khan says the founder of Dubai Zoo, Otto Bulart, told him the wolf existed in the UAE “prior to the 1970s”.

“Wolf, caracal, leopard, hyena, these are the four major predators in the Arabian Peninsula. Still these are being killed despite all the efforts of governments … local people hunt down these big carnivores.”

Reza Khan pictured in Hatta Hill Park in Dubai (MEE/Zarin Shah)

Conservationists inside and outside government are hopeful that conservation reserves teamed with the rebounding wolf population in Oman may see the great hunters re-established in the country. But the concern is not everyone would be happy about it.

“From the public perception there’s a lot of negativity around predators. It would be difficult to do but in the long run it’s something that’s necessary,” says Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve conservation manager Greg Simkins.

He’s talking about introducing wolves into the 225-square-kilometre reserve he runs 45 kilometres outside the centre of Dubai in order to establish ecological order. The reserve is currently home to flourishing populations of gazelles and oryx that are not used to, well, being eaten.

“Wolf reintroduction is not definite as yet, but we’re looking at what would be required and what we’d need to put in place in order to do it successfully. There isn’t a top order predator in the resort and we want to get the ecological processes working.”

Aside from controlling gazelle and oryx populations, the wolves would also put pressure on the red fox which is in turn undermining the sand fox and Gordon’s wildcat populations, which compete for the same food sources. But trying to emulate the hand of nature is not easy.

“None of this is guaranteed if we go ahead with the reintroduction; these will all be things we need to monitor.”

And the fact is the reserve is not nature. It is fenced and migration cannot take place – something that would be unusual for the rambling Arabian wolf that can travel more than 100 kilometres per day.

One of the big questions is where Simkins and his team would source the wolves from; both wild and captive populations have drawbacks.

“Wild populations will obviously have certain skills that a pack would benefit from [but] the disadvantages of having wild wolves is they’re more likely to try and roam and get out of the reserve.”

This could cause huge tensions with farmers or the remaining Bedouin populations.

Simkins says wherever large predators exist in the world there are centuries of accumulated human mistrust.

Tel Aviv University behavioural ecology professor Dr. Eli Geffen agrees.

He has been studying wolves for more than 20 years and in that time he has encountered a range of prejudices, including from Jordanian authorities after wolves they were tracking roamed across the border and the secret services claimed the GPS collars out of spying concerns. A meeting was held, with Geffen aiming to retrieve the collars.

“The general told me every wolf you should put a bullet in its head, not a collar.”

But Israel has a different problem; the wolf population is doing reasonably well, numbering around 500 and benefiting from protection introduced after poisoning campaigns that brought many carnivores to the brink of extinction were abolished in the 1970s. But the rejuvenated population has been adversely affected by something else: they’ve become lazy.

“They’re dependent on human waste as food because that’s their main diet now, they hardly hunt anything. This is really a bad situation.”

He says there are government programmes now aimed at controlling waste and limiting access.

“We want all the natural populations of carnivores to feed off the land, off their prey base, and not from extra food. That will reduce the numbers but it will also give a chance to other prey species [lower down the food chain] to increase in numbers.”

Another issue is habitat destruction, common to many Middle Eastern countries as a result of often breakneck development.

Israel is densely populated and it is very difficult to emulate historic conditions that would allow some kind of natural order to resume. It’s also hard to make people care.

“People will not go out in the street for wolves,” Geffen says.

“I think that wolves are especially hated because they are very efficient predators, they live in groups, they are very organised, they are capable of easily outsmarting people. Most people in the past were farmers and had chickens and cows and goats. When they come in the morning and see slaughtered livestock, they treat it like their daughters and sons being slaughtered.”

But a healthy population of wolves signals everything else is in check.

“If you save wolves you save the whole eco-system, because the wolf is a top predator.”

So what more can be done? Education is key, according to Simkins.

“It’s not something obviously that’s unique to this part of the world … if it’s a threat to their livelihood, [people] are not going to allow it to share the space with them. You need to get the message out and grow appreciation – it’s a long process.”

Educating the next generation is what he is hoping one of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve’s main functions will be. Tourism is also important, and tourist dollars talk.

“If a lot of eco-tourists come they will start to protect wildlife because they protect their livelihood and salaries. But you need an initiative to promote wildlife as something you sell as a country to tourists,” Geffen says.

This is certainly a growing idea in the UAE, with Simkins’ reserve and the Noah’s Ark-esque Sir Bani Yas Island.

But Khan says what would have the biggest impact is offering compensation to farmers who lose animals to wolves.

“Two things should be done - first is a blanket protection for all wild cats and large carnivores and second is compensation. These things should go hand in hand.”

Things like conservation prizes would also encourage the right mentality.

If all this happens, is it likely the Arabian wolf will regain a foothold, particularly in countries where it became extinct?

Geffen says that comes down to a matter of environment.

“They will get to places where they have prey and get themselves established … wolves from Israel go deep into Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They can repopulate if they have something to feed on.”

That means sufficient populations of wild prey must exist and stop being hunted.

Khan says modernity presents a huge issue for any reintroduction.

“In the wilderness we don’t have that amount of wild prey that could support the Arabian wolves [and] certain areas have been taken for other purposes - developments like parks and things where there will be people movement.”

Desert countries like the UAE are rapidly turning virgin land into multi-million dollar developments.

“That is the reason that although we are making developments raising wild animals in nature we will not be able to go back to the pre-70s conditions, especially for carnivorous animals.”

Countries without hills offer little shelter or protection for animals – “In Saudi, Yemen, Oman more animals could hide … in the open desert mostly they’ve all died.”

Khan says if Oman’s number of wolves outgrows what the country can sustain, they may come down to the UAE, but then border control fences present an obstacle.

Conservation needs to occur across borders, but in a perennially politically tense region, cooperation can be a big ask. And there are often bigger fish to fry in these blood-stained lands.

As Geffen says: “If you can see what’s going on around us with ISIS [the Islamic State group] for example … they have respect for nothing. If this will grow and [countries] become more unstable, all the wildlife will be killed. Who knows? It doesn’t look good. It’s all a matter of politics, basically.”

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