Saudis to set up oryx reserve at huge oilfield


Taking time off the complex hydrocarbon operations, Saudi oil authorities have launched an ambitious project to construct a wildlife reserve near one of the world’s largest oilfields in the most barren and deadiest desert on earth.

Officials at the state oil operator Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil producing company, have been locked in a survey about endangered desert animals for the project which involves fencing off large areas and installing advanced cameras.

The project is close to Shaybah, one of the world’s largest onshore oilfields which is located in Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert near the border with Abu Dhabi. The reserve will have an area of more than
600 square km, just less than Bahrain’s area.

“The wild creature was just one of many species observed during a recent ecological survey in Shaybah, carried out by Saudi Aramco’s Environmental Protection Department (EPD),” Aramco said in its Autumn billeting, Dimensions.

The survey, a first for Shaybah, was designed to help determine the biodiversity of the area, and was part of the groundwork for a wider plan to create a wildlife reserve.

“The results were fabulous,” the bulletin quoted Dr. Ron Loughland, an environmental specialist with EPD, as saying. “We have recorded Sand Cat for the first time, which is a vulnerable species and is restricted to the Rub’ al-Khali only.

There were also many sand foxes, possibly including the rare Vulpes zerda, which is adapted to high sand dunes….other mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates were also recorded in the survey.”

The survey revealed that the proposed reserve area is more than just barren sand dunes and sabkha (salt flat), and is set to impact the design concepts for the reserve, 32-page the quarterly bulletin said.

The animals were captured as they went about their business in the depths of the night, it said, adding that remote sensoring cameras were strategically placed at locations the team suspected would be visited by various species.

“Yet the animals set most to benefit from the reserve were not captured on camera during the survey… they have been missing from the region for a number of years. That, however, is about to change,” the report said.

“Famous for its unforgiving climate and red sand, the Kingdom’s Rub’
al-Khali is the stuff of legend. Arabian oryx and sand gazelles defied its unyielding environment and wandered in its vast emptiness for millennia, grazing on native desert plants that had also adapted to the harsh climate; however, in more modern times the oryx and sand gazelles have had their numbers decimated by hunters and poachers.”

According to the bulletin, in the 1970s the last oryx in the region were rescued and sent to San Diego in the United States for an intensive captive breeding program.

This action effectively helped save the oryx from extinction, and over the years they were released back into their natural environment in the Arabian Peninsula.

Aramco, which has pumped oil for nearly 80 years, said the proposed reserve, a joint project between the Shaybah Producing Department and EPD, is set to return oryx, sand gazelles, and other desert animals and plants to their natural home.

“What we are looking at is establishing a wildlife sanctuary in the Rub’ al- Khali, which is based on ecological principles,” Loughland said.

“As the only operator in the Rub’ al-Khali, Saudi Aramco believes it has a responsibility to protect and sustain the ecological environment in the area…and in true Saudi Aramco style, meticulous planning for the reserve is already well under way.”

He said that members of the sanctuary project team have visited other reserves in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to benchmark and learn valuable practical lessons.

One of the major findings was that the reserve needs to be large in order to be sustainable and to support the wildlife, he noted.

The size of the reserve in Shaybah is set to be a minimum of 600 square kilometers, he said adding that the planned site will be fenced, allowing the animals to graze, free from the dangers posed by poachers and competition from roaming camels and goats.

“The harsh climate in the Rub’ al-Khali and its unique ecosystem mean that Saudi Aramco engineers have to ensure the reserve has all the right elements to help the animals and plants flourish once again,” he said.

“It’s a hyper-arid area with little rainfall, therefore, it is a very fragile ecosystem, so the plants that live there are not really adapted to heavy grazing….we want the animals to once again roam in their natural habitat, but there are a number of factors we have to consider — such as ensuring the animals have sufficient water during drought periods and that they have the right plants to graze on,” he added.

He said the oryx and sand gazelles that will make the planned reserve their home will be selected from existing reserves located across the Kingdom.

“But it’s not just the animals that are set to benefit from the reserve. A visitor center is also in the planning, making the exploits of the animals and the majestic surroundings of one of last remaining wildernesses on the planet accessible for all,” he said.

“The sanctuary plan is unique. In Shaybah we have a huge oil field operation, and yet we are about to undertake a massive conservation effort. This is proof that oil exploration and environmental protection can exist hand in hand. The project has commenced and is due to be completed in around three years’ time.”

The oryx, scientifically known as Oryx Leucoryx, once roamed the entire Arabian Peninsula before it became almost extinct as a wild species in the early 1960s.

In the UAE, its precise natural range is not clear but they were probably found in and around Liwa close to Shaybah as well as on the plains adjacent to the mountains that stretch to the Northern Emirates, according to zoologists.

Oryxes are creatures of the open desert being able to live in areas without trees or standing water. Instead they rely on moisture obtained from their food and can conserve water by a special adaptation of their kidneys.
Their bodies are distinctly white, while their legs are clearly marked dark brown as far as the last joint above their hoofs, with the last part to the hoofs being white.

The tail is black-tipped and they have distinct dark facial markings that extend down to the lower part of the neck.

Shaybah Oil Field is a major crude oil producing site in Saudi Arabia and is located approximately 40 km from the northern edge of Rub Al Khali desert. It is located about 10 km south of the border to Abu Dhabi.

Shaybah area was developed for the purposes of exploiting the Shaybah oilfield. It was established by Saudi Aramco during the 1990s, and, prior to this, only the rough tracks used by early exploration teams existed in this isolated desert region.

Shaybah has housing facilities for 1,000 men, administrative offices, an air-strip, a fire station, recreation areas, maintenance and support workshops, and power stations for generation and distribution.
There is a 650-kilometer fibre optic cable linking Shaybah to the main radio system at Abqaiq.

When it was commissioned, the Shaybah oilfield had estimated proven reserves of over 14 billion barrels of crude oil and 25 trillion cubic feet of gas. Saudi Aramco brought the project on-stream in 1998.

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