19 December 2013

The Arabian Gazelle – Farasan Islands

The Arabian Gazelle Gazella arabica (Lichtenstein, 1827), until recently, was thought to be synonymous with its ecologically and behaviourally very similar sister species the Mountain Gazelle Gazella gazella (Pallas, 1766) which occurs in the Levant. Historically, G. arabica occurred continuously through the Arabian Peninsula, from the Arava Valley in southern Israel, along the Hejaz and Asir Mountains in western Saudi Arabia through Yemen and Oman, and into the UAE. In Saudi Arabia, since the middle of the 20th century, G. arabica numbers have decreased dramatically throughout their range. Small relict populations of G. arabica occur in Al Khunfah and Harrat al Harrah Protected Areas in the north of Saudi Arabia and on the Tihama coastal plain. On the Farasan Islands a strong population of about 1000 individuals survives, the largest natural population in Saudi Arabia. The Arabian Gazelle is categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. On the mainland the species’ survival depends on a few remnant populations in the western Mountains and coastal plains and on two reintroduced populations. The number of free-ranging gazelles on the Farasan Islands has remained approximately constant since the first counts in 1988, with an overall density of 0.64 km-2 and an estimated population of 1,039 on Farasan Kebir in 2009. The populations on two other islands, As Saqid and Zifaf, have not fared as well, possibly because of uncontrolled hunting pressure, competition with domestic stock or poor habitat conditions overall. The population on Qummah Island is extinct. Threats to this subspecies include uncontrolled hunting and uncoordinated development, although they are not major issue at present on the Farasan Islands. Continued protection of this apparently stable population of Arabian Gazelle in Saudi Arabia is imperative to ensure the survival of the species. The coat colour of G. arabica is very variable, but is always some shade of buff. The face-markings and flank stripe are generally well expressed, and the face-markings always show a broad, smudgy black nose spot making the animals fairly easy to identify.

We went looking for the Arabian Gazelles whilst on the Farasan Islands where they can be found by the Saudi Wildlife Authority office. You have to register here to be allowed to drive over the rough ground to look for the animals. Here the animals can be seen running over the rough ground or resting under the acacia bushes out of the heat. The best time to see them is early morning 06:00 hrs or in the afternoon after 16:00 hrs. We saw seven Arabian Gazelles including a fine male and a female and calf. The Gazelles can also be seen in the northern region at N16.991785, E 41.900282 by driving out of town on a paved road. Do not go past the beach and mangroves unless you have a 4x4 car or you could easily get stuck. The gazelles are normally seen on the coast where they are most active in the early morning or before sunset as the rest of the day they go deep inside the mangroves and disappear.