by Janet Pinheiro
(Photos: Ding and Mohammed Alshaikh/MPD)

Under the Protection of Saudi Aramco’s Biodiversity Program

Saudi Aramco’s working Abha site is an intricate 49 km2 of nature’s perfection, protected and enhanced by the company for more than 20 years. The site represents a significant contribution toward preserving the several hundred native plants and animals living in the Asir Mountains’ exquisite landscape, whose peaks roam across 100,000 km2, and whisper stories of ancient mystery and Arabian history.

Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure
Several endemic bird species have been seen regularly drinking at two artificial ponds constructed recently by the Western Region Distribution Department to further enhance Abha’s biodiversity.

Abha — An area blessed with some of the planet’s most precious biodiversity thrives within the lower slopes of Saudi Arabia’s mighty southwest mountain range.

Saudi Aramco’s 49 km2 working Abha site is a cool, moist environment where lush plants and trees flourish alongside the smooth surfaces of enormous ancient cinnamon-colored rocks, and wildlife tracks quietly rustle amid stalks, branches, roots, and leaves.

Saudi Aramco Environmental Protection Department manager Omar S. Abdulhamid says everyone can be a part of protecting the Kingdom’s environment:

  • plant a native tree
  • neverlitter
  • recycle
  • avoid areas with vegetation if driving off-road
  • don’t overconsume goods and services
  • avoid burning too much firewood when camping, or use a gas stove
  • use your own reusable bags for shopping
  • learn about the Saudi Arabian environment
  • compost unwanted food and biodegradable items
  • eat less meat

Shrouded under a gentle Asir mountain mist, Abha lies within a region listed by Conservation International in 2019 as one of the world’s 36 Endemic Biodiversity Hotspots.

Abdullah M. Al-Ghamdi, manager of the Western Region Distribution Department (WRDD), says the company’s preservation and protection of the landscape and biodiversity at Abha is a significant contribution toward preserving the natural and cultural heritage of the globally important Asir Mountains.

“Saudi Aramco’s Abha site is a nationally significant wilderness area within one of the most biologically important landscapes on Earth — the Asir,” said Al-Ghamdi.

“Unfortunately, the wider Asir region is a vulnerable landscape, and as we go about our operational work at Abha, we ensure the site continues to be kept as natural as possible with the lowest practicable human footprint,” he said.

Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure
Western Region Distribution Department supervising operator Yahya S. Alahmari inspects the near-pristine wilderness of Abha, where at least 18 mammal and six reptile species reside among the russet granite and basalt rock outcrops.

Cautious Site Management

WRDD supervising operator Yahya S. Alahmari explains that maintaining Abha’s biodiversity includes managing litter and waste according to company best practices — and whenever possible — minimizing or avoiding off-road driving.

Recently, after careful consideration, the site decided to construct two brimming artificial ponds designed to attract native wildlife, with a third under deliberation.

Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure
Saudi Aramco protects and preserves habitats:

• Green -- Saudi Aramco Biodiversity Protection Area
• Blue -- Company area of significant biodiversity

“We always avoid any interference with the site’s biodiversity, so we reflected a lot over whether to build artificial ponds, but decided that enhancing the water supply would add to Abha’s protection,” he said. “The water pond idea was to provide a water source during the winter season so the animals wouldn’t leave the site to search for water and face the risk of hunting.

Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure
Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure

“We all share in the planet’s water, land, plants, and creatures, and as part of Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi Aramco works to promote environmental sustainability to protect the planet’s natural environment,” Alahmari said.

“The planet needs healthy biodiversity systems or the quality of our lifestyles and health will suffer.”

Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure

Breathing with Rich Biodiversity

Under the shadow of soaring mountains, Abha’s heart beats to the peaceful noise of a rich biodiversity — butterflies flutter, birds chirp, insects buzz, lizards scurry, and Acacia trees wildly twist their branches.

Saudi Aramco’s engineering procedure (SAEP-359) provides for the identification and notification of areas with high biodiversity or ecosystem value for specific protection and management.

Adnan A. Al-Subhi, acting head of the Abha Distribution Operations Division, says surveys have determined the site’s vibrant biodiversity shelters a minimum of 37 plant species, 18 different mammals, 61 species of birds, and six reptiles.

The site’s listing of species includes:

  • 23 of the 50 species listed by the Saudi government as High Conservation Priority
  • Four species listed as internationally threatened or near threatened
  • 10 regionally endemic or near endemic species
  • Six regionally endemic subspecies.

“There is no doubt that further surveying will reveal many more species exist on the site,” said Al-Subhi.

Classified as montane woodlands and xeromorphic shrub lands with vegetated wadis, Abha is a critical resting spot for birds traveling one of three international migration routes connecting Africa, Asia, Europe, and India.

An estimated 120 species of migrating birds are likely to use the site throughout the year.

Subject to scientific studies on the site’s biological carrying capacity, Al-Subhi said the site may consider the careful reintroduction of extinct populations of native animals, such as the endangered Nubian ibex.

Isolation and Climate

Two overpowering factors contribute to the near pristine wilderness found at Abha.

One is that the site is surrounded by a 50 kilometer, 2.5 meter high security fence with barbed wire across the top, isolating the area from human activity, and uncontrolled grazing by domestic animals such as camels, goats, and sheep.

The fence also protects the site from other damaging factors such as hunting, firewood collection, and unregulated offroad driving.

Abha's Internationally Significant Treasure

A mild and nurturing climate is the second factor. Cool in the winter with an average winter maximum temperature of 19.5 C, and warmer in the summer with an average maximum of only 28.3 C, combined with regular summer rain, makes for one of the most fertile areas of Saudi Arabia.

— The Arabian Sun: October 2, 2019 | Vol. LXXIV, No. 38