The Empty Quarter & Wadi Sayq, Oman, 2012

“No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match”

Wilfred Thesiger

sands 7When I was given the opportunity to work as a science leader on a British Exploring Society (BES) expedition to Oman, I was never going to turn it down. So in January 2012 I prepared for a 6 week expedition to the Empty Quarter and Wadi Sayq, Dhofar. I managed to get some early flights to meet up with my good friends Hadi al Hikmani and Duncan Parker who gave me a grand tour of the epic coastal mountain ranges in Southern Dhofar. Hadi is the world expert on the critically endangered Arabian Leopard Panthera pardus nimr, with more than 10 years experience in the field and Duncan is a wildlife filmmaker at BBC Natural History Unit who was filming for the new series; Wild Arabia.

Even before joining the expedition proper, I had fallen in love with the Sultanate of Oman; it is a truly magical country.
On the 22nd January I met the expedition at their desert base camp, nestled amongst the great golden dunes of the Rub al Khali. The objective here was to identify any biodiversity present; of which Ruppel’s Fox Vulpes rueppellii and Cape Hare Lepus capensis were caught on camera trap and a selection of birds and reptiles were positively identified. Life in the desert is odd to say the least; coping with 30+ degree heat during the day to 0 degrees at night and the constant bombardment from dust and sand isn’t easy but the expedition made great progress in penetrating the surrounding sandscape.

The second phase of the expedition was based within Wadi Sayq, a vast dry valley cut into the landscape by raging rivers that flow for a few months each year during the summer monsoon (Khareef). The highlands of Dhofar are uniquely classified as subtropical, brought to life by the annual monsoon, which provides conditions suitable for dense woodland to cloak the valley slopes; this is the land of the leopard, hyena and wolf. We spent four weeks exploring the Wadi, undertaking bird, reptile, butterfly and dragonfly surveys, as well as setting 19 camera traps for large mammals, of which the critically endangered Arabian Leopard was our main target. The Wadi was dominated by a boulder strewn river bed with steep wooded sides reaching their plateau at several hundred metres above sea level.  An epic landscape, with a wealth of biodiversity. We obtained meaningful data which is currently being compiled in to a report to be published. Our aim is to make available the data from Wadi Sayq in order to highlight the importance of this region and to lobby for the legal protection of the valley. Key findings include the confirmed presence of the Arabian Leopard, a new dragonfly record for the Arabian Peninsula, the potential presence of a rare serpent species as well as records of several IUCN Red Listed species. Thank you to BES and the Oman Office of Conservation of the Environment (OCE) for enabling us to undertake this valuable research.

oman09.30pm: My head hits the camping pillow, it’s a warm one this evening so I sleep with a leg out. What seems like 5 minutes later im awake again, its 3.56am. I can hear movement from across the gravel plain, I prop myself up on one elbow squinting through my mosquito net into the blackness. I swear I can see a black shape moving; I blink a few times, could it just be my sleepy eyes imagining shapes, dare I reach for my head torch, breathing and moving slowly I silently settle my head back down..
07.00am: “tracks, tracks over here, looks like Hyena”.

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