By EB Davis
Summer is almost here and that means its time to plan a few weekend escapes to cooler climes. Taif, one of KSA’s most popular summer destinations, is known for its fresh mountain air, rose farms and sprawling verdant agricultural landscapes, but its also home to the Prince Saud Al Faisal Wildlife Research Center, more commonly known as the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC).
Located about 30 km east of Taif, the NWRC is open to the public, but only with prior permission from NWRC and the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA). Established in 1986, the centre has been an important part of KSA’s conservation efforts for a variety of endemic species such as the Arabian oryx, Asian houbara bustard, red-neck ostrich, sand gazelles and the Arabian peninsula’s critically endangered apex predator, the Arabian leopard.
With less than 200 of these big cats left in the wild, KSA along with UAE, Oman and Yemen, has taken steps to preserve this species. NWRC, under the auspices of the Saudi Wildlife Authority, has over the years launched community outreach and conservation education programs as well as installed dozens of field cameras throughout the Sarawat Mountains in hopes of tracking the elusive leopard within KSA’s borders. Unfortunately, the last wild leopard sighting was in 2014, after it was tragically poisoned by a Makkah province local for killing one of his camels.
However, there is still hope for these big cats. NWRC successfully bred two cubs in 2018 bringing the total to 15 Arabian leopards in captivity in KSA. The centre is the only place in Saudi to view the Arabian leopards as well as learn more about SWA’s conservation programs.
Inside the centre’s secured area, visitors can tour of the expansive grounds via a 4×4 vehicle along with a knowledgeable guide. The majority of the centre’s grounds are dedicated to large captive-breeding groups of oryx, sand and mountain gazelles and Nubian ibex which are free to roam the savannah-like terrain. The landscape is also dotted with large granite rocks, a favourite place for the resident non-captive breeding population of rock hyrax which can be seen scurrying across the boulders in the late afternoon sunshine.
Believed to have been the origin of the mythical unicorn, the Arabian oryxes are incredible to witness with their dignified gait, striking black and white-patterned faces and impressive twin-spire horns. The red-neck ostrich, also known as the north African ostrich, is the largest bird on the planet and is also amazing to see moving in groups across the sandy plain.
The centre does not allow visitors into the leopard’s captive breeding area but keeps one older leopard on-site near the visitor centre for viewing. There are also several other non-breeding species such as a lion and lioness, striped-hyena and several cheetahs on-site.
These big cats and other species were smuggled into KSA mostly likely en route to private collections or as personal pets, but were seized and later brought to the centre. Saudi Arabia is a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna, better known as CITES and prohibits the trade of endangered wildlife and plants. Looking into the concrete enclosures at the once majestic lion and cheetahs as they recline listlessly inside their small cages is a sad reminder that without conservation initiatives and protection efforts these big cats may soon be extinct.
This year NWRC will officially open its newly built welcome centre and plans to expand its public outreach with additional activities and tours. The NWRC is one of Saudi Wildlife Authority’s 15 protected areas and all are worth a visit.
To plan your visit contact Saudi Wildlife Authority or NWRC at 012 748 1252 or fax your request to +966 12 7481305.