Did you know that as recently as the first half of the 19th century, the Gulf was home to populations of cheetahs, Asiatic lions and wild horses? These majestic creatures played a vital role in shaping a vibrant ecosystem filled with diverse wildlife. That so few people are aware of facts such as this is a reminder of the challenges we face globally in preserving our natural heritage.
Looking back even further to a few thousand years ago – a mere blink of an eye in terms of natural history – parts of the Gulf landscape probably resembled the lush plains of East African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, with abundant vegetation and green coverage. And even further back, up until around 10,000 years ago, cheetahs were spread across the African continent and into Asia via the Arabian Peninsula to eastern India.
Today, cheetahs are found in only 9 per cent of their historic range.
In the Gulf ecosystem of the past, cheetahs played a vital role as apex predators, keeping herbivorous populations in check. This delicate balance maintained the rich flora that once covered the desert, ensuring soil fertility and providing a habitat for creatures including insects, reptiles, arachnids, mammals and birds. However, the removal of apex predators disrupts this natural pyramid, leaving compromised environments in their wake.
Despite their importance, the global population of wild cheetahs continues to decline and currently stands at fewer than 7,500 across their historical territories, putting the species at risk of extinction by 2040 if no action is taken. Those living in the UAE can play an important role in helping cheetahs come back from the brink of extinction by helping the government implement the laws designed to keep wildlife in the wild. The UAE is also working with other countries in the Middle East, and programmes are being implemented to bring awareness to the importance of helping protect wildlife in their range countries.
Cheetahs have also been selected as a candidate for reintroduction in Saudi Arabia, and even have a dedicated conference. The 2024 Global Cheetah Summit, which took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month, was an important gathering of conservation scientists with specialised knowledge, interests and aims. But – much like the species being discussed – it will hopefully have an outsized impact on the wider region’s ecology and economy. The event was especially pertinent, with governments and ecologists in Africa, the Middle East and Asia developing and strengthening initiatives to protect and reintroduce cheetahs in their historic territories.
The plans in process across the region are exciting: Saudi Arabia has reintroduced more than 200 endangered animal species, including Reem and Idmi gazelle, Arabian oryx, and Nubian ibex to the wild in Saudi royal reserves during the past three years – species that will eventually need natural predators to keep their grazing patterns and populations in check. Last May, Saudi Arabia’s National Centre for Wildlife officially launched its programme to reintroduce the Arabian cheetah to the wild.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, the Abu Dhabi Marine Restoration project will restore about 12,000 hectares of coastal areas, safeguarding the world’s second-largest dugong population and reviving some 500 species of fish in the process. On land, the UAE’s conservation programme dedicated to the Arabian oryx is an encouraging example of rewilding; in the 1970s, the species was declared extinct in the wild. Today, the UAE is home to the largest Arabian oryx population in the world – with more than 6,900 oryx across the country.
In a world that is increasingly focusing on the fight against climate change, initiatives such as this are also a recognition of the enormous cumulative benefits that stem from rewilding, and particularly the introduction of apex predators, which have been well documented globally.
One effective example is the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the US in 1995. The 890,000-hectare park, covering connected areas in three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, saw enormous changes – sometimes referred to as a trophic cascade – after wolves were reintroduced.
The wolves preyed on deer, which had begun to damage vegetation and prevent new growth due to the fact that they lacked a predator. But the wolves changed the behaviour of the deer, stopping them from frequenting the wider open spaces, enabling local flora to flourish. Forest cover quickly returned, which in turn attracted greater numbers of beavers and bears and prevented riverbank erosion.
These types of changes go beyond the local ecosystem and have deeper, positive repercussions, including economic and societal benefits. It is well known that denser coverage of native plant life in any given area increases the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed. This is important for nations such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have set ambitious targets for achieving carbon neutrality.
It is also feasible that in the future, reintroduced species, and the many ecological changes they bring, could help boost the market for domestic and international ecotourism such as wildlife safaris – a global market that was estimated to be valued at $34.6 billion in 2023, according to Grand View Research.
Just as the cheetah is the fastest animal on land, capable of accelerating from 0 to almost 100 kilometres an hour in less than three seconds, optimism is growing that the rewilding and restoration projects that we see taking place in the Gulf region will gather momentum and accelerate, bringing significant, sustainable ecological and economic benefits in their stride.