“Here in Neom, we are rebuilding the native ecosystem on a scale never attempted,” Neom nature reserve head Dr Paul Marshall, told The National.
In recent months, Neom locals have witnessed a baby boom in the reserve, a successful start to a rewilding programme that is still in its first breeding season.
The reserve has also witnessed births of 25 Arabian sand gazelle fawns and eight Nubian ibex offspring.
“Ultimately, nature conservation will be a principal objective in the management of approximately 25,000 square kilometres of Neom,” said Dr Marshall.
This innovative conservation mission includes regreening and rewilding the area's with native flora and fauna.
Neom is committed to preserving 95 per cent of its land for nature. By implementing these initiatives, Neom reserves are increasing in biodiversity, essential to a well-functioning ecosystem.
Before Neom nature reserve started releasing native species back into the wild and replanting native plants, the first step was to research and identify the best locations for our rewilding and regreening efforts.
Neom undertakes extensive modelling exercises to predict animal distribution, from assessing potential restraints to simulating dispersal over time.
“We work in conjunction with the regreening team to ascertain where our animals’ potential food sources will be, allowing us to model likely dispersal patterns and plot the regeneration of the reserve," said Director of Land Conservation Dr Christy Williams.
As the animals move through different areas of the reserve, they “pass seeds from the plants” they consume, which helps to ‘regreen’ the landscape.
Neom has four distinct ecologies – coastal, lower desert, mountains and the upper valley.
The nature reserve launched its rewilding programme in December 2022 “in our coastal desert zone along the Red Sea” with the release of herds of Nubian ibex, Arabian sand gazelle, mountain gazelle and Arabian oryx.
In the first breeding season, the reserve was transformed into a “nursery in the wild”.
“It’s wonderful to see how well our animals are doing – it gives us great confidence for the future. The fact we have this level of breeding and birthing within our first season is a very encouraging early indicator of success for our programmes,” Dr Marshall said.
By July 27, five Arabian oryx calves had been born, as well as 25 Arabian sand gazelle fawns and eight Nubian ibex kids.
“We released a total of 70 animals then, with a further 50 in March, with this second batch including 10 red-necked ostriches. We expect to release a further 150-plus animals in the coming months into our second rewilding site at Hisma, located in the kingdom's north-western region,” Dr Marshall added.
“The good news is that our native herds are thriving in their natural environment in Neom.”
What is regreening and rewilding?
Neom aims to plant 100 million shrubs, trees and other plants by 2030 as part of Vision 2030, laid out by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Regreening involves planting native vegetation to protect land and reverse its degradation, Dr Marshall explained.
This will help to decrease desertification, which is “a threat to a third of the world’s land”, he added.
Rewilding reintroduces animal species that were once indigenous to the area, “but which have since declined,” Dr Marshall said.
The animals are initially reintroduced to large, enclosed areas where they settle and become familiar with their environment at first.
“Over time, as the landscape recovers and animal numbers increase, protective fences are removed to enable herds to disperse over a wider area.”
The animals thrive in a landscape with more vegetation, “creating ever-multiplying herds, which in turn spread the plants’ seeds across Neom’s landscape as the animals roam”.
Currently, Dr Marshall is leading a diverse and “passionate team of subject matter experts from all over the world, including seven women and four men who are Saudi nationals,” he says.
They also recently employed a team of 10 Saudi rangers, who are highly trained and knowledgeable on local plant and animal species.
The Neom nature reserve's “flora objective” is to plant 100 million native trees, shrubs and grasses by 2030.
“The core objective is to restore a natural balance to deliver a vibrant, thriving and self-sustaining ecosystem,” Dr Marshall said.