Written by Frances Gillespie
As you gaze out of the window as your flight approaches Doha, Qatar appears through the haze as a flat, golden landscape, the colour broken only by the occasional isolated square or circle of green farmland.
Shallow seas of deep turquoise surround the small peninsula, which only 15,000 years ago lay beneath the waves. Today, the highest point in the land stands barely more than 100 metres above sea level. The centre of the country is mostly made up of hamada: dry, gravel-strewn plains, with occasional lines of low, rocky hills harbouring pockets of wind-blown sand rich in vegetation. Along the west coast lie shining white limestone mesas, sculptured into fantastic shapes by the wind, and in the far south towering sand dunes march down to the tidal lagoon known as Khor al Adaid – the Inland Sea. In the north, where the scanty annual rainfall is higher, a few showers rapidly result in a light covering of waving, silvery-green tasselled grasses and small bright flowers.
Qatar is globally unique in lacking any natural surface fresh water, and summer temperatures can be scorching. But amazingly, this desert land is home to a wide range of wildlife and vegetation. Lilies bloom on the rocky hills in winter, and rare birds like the Avocet and Red-billed Tropicbird breed on the peninsula and its islands. Wetlands created by irrigation and water treatment schemes attract both endemic and migrating birds, ranging from majestic Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles to delicately graceful Black-winged Stilts, small piping waders foraging at the edge of the reed beds, and huge flotillas of moorhens.
Many desert denizens are nocturnal, but take a morning stroll almost anywhere away from human settlements and you are bound to come across patterns left by small feet criss-crossing the sand: tracks of tiny rodents, the jerboas, gerbils, and jirds. Jerboas are charming animals, sandy-brown above with cream-coloured undersides, long, tufted tails, and large, shining black eyes. Nicknamed ‘kangaroo mice’, they are capable of spectacular leaps – often a metre in length – on their long hind legs.
Hamster-sized rodents, gerbils have sandy-orange fur and long tails, and, like all animals inhabiting sandy regions, the soles of their feet are covered in fur to provide a better grip. Unlike jerboas, which are at home in almost any kind of terrain, gerbils specialise: Cheesman’s Gerbils preferring the sandy mounds that accumulate around clumps of vegetation, while Wagner’s Gerbils favour more rocky habitats. Their slightly larger cousins, Sundevall’s Jirds, are active both day and night and live in colonies with elaborate burrow systems.
Few animals have more enemies than these small rodents. Both species of fox in Qatar – the common Red Fox and the rare Rueppell’s Fox – prey on them, and on another desert-dwelling animal, the Cape Hare. Raptors of all kinds and owls, ranging from the giant Pharaoh Eagle Owl to the diminutive Little Owl, rely on rodents as part of their diet, and Ethiopian Hedgehogs and metre-long Monitor Lizards will dig into their burrows to take young. And then there are the snakes!
Some people, when first joining a camping trip to the sand dunes, or the scenic west coast, feel apprehensive about the possibility of encountering a snake, but in reality the likelihood of being bitten is very small. Of the dozen or so species of land snake that inhabit the peninsula only one, the Horned Viper, poses any danger. Two others are mildly poisonous, while the rest are completely harmless to humans, though not to rodents!
Horned Vipers are small, with a pattern of cream and dark brown on a lighter background. Despite their name, in Qatar they lack the strange projections over each eye that are such a noticeable feature on the species elsewhere. As they move through loose sand, especially on the slopes of dunes, they leave a curious pattern of parallel S-shaped tracks achieved by only two points of the body touching the ground at a time, a movement known as ‘side-winding’.
Other snakes encountered by desert trekkers are long, thin Rat Snakes, which climb trees in search of birds and nestlings, as well as hunting for lizards and rodents. Sand Snakes inhabit the ruins of abandoned villages and the old coastal city of Zubara, searching the crevices of walls for their prey. Another snake seen during the day is the attractively-patterned Hooded Malpolon, sometimes called the False Cobra because when alarmed it rears up and hisses, spreading the skin on its neck in a cobra-like manner.
Qatar’s deserts are home to many other kinds of reptile, ranging from solitary, burrow-dwelling Monitor Lizards to innumerable small geckos and skinks. One of the most colourful is the bizarre-looking Spiny-tailed Agama. With its heavy spiked tail, wrinkled face, and sharp claws it looks like a survivor from the age of dinosaurs, but in fact it is harmless, having no teeth, and lives mainly on vegetation. These agamas live in large colonies, often numbering a hundred or more, and hibernate during the cooler winter months. But come the spring, the male Spiny-tail puts on his courting colours and is resplendent in blue and orange.
A number of rare mammals survive in Qatar, but so secretive and wary are they that the presence of two species has only recently been recorded. The beautifully-marked Sand Cat, smallest of the Arabian cats, inhabits burrows, sometimes taking over an abandoned fox den, and is almost entirely nocturnal. Fortunately this endangered species is being successfully bred in captivity at a privately-run reserve. In the southwest of the peninsula a few families of ratels, also called Honey Badgers, survive. Large, heavily-built black and white animals with sharp claws and powerful jaws, these badgers have been known to go after the chickens kept by workers at desert camel camps! Recently there have been sightings of Golden Jackals in the southwest. Long thought to be extinct in Qatar, it is incredible that these dog-sized animals could have evaded human eyes for so long.
Qatar is a magnet for birders with its diverse range of species, now numbering some 220, and first sightings of ‘new’ species are recorded almost every year. Some are resident all year-round, others are winter or summer visitors or are migratory, pausing in Qatar for a few days or weeks before continuing their long journeys. Parks and gardens attract resident species such as bulbuls, doves, mynas, and parakeets, while brilliantly coloured rollers and bee-eaters are encountered in agricultural areas. The peninsula’s long coastline is home to gulls, terns, cormorants, and waders, including the rare Crab Plover. Flocks of spectacular, rosy-pink Greater Flamingoes feed along the mangrove-forested areas of the east coast and at Khor al Adaid.
Word is now getting around among wildlife enthusiasts that, despite their arid appearance, Qatar’s wilderness areas hold many secrets, and that the bird life is among the richest anywhere in the Arabian Gulf.
Seagrass beds off the west coast of Qatar are home to the world’s second largest breeding population of dugongs (sea cows). These shy, endearingly ugly herbivorous animals are supposed to have given rise to sailors’ tales of mermaids!
Dugongs are hard to spot as they submerge when boats approach, but tell-tale signs are the long ‘lanes’ in the shallow seagrass beds made by grazing animals.
Like all marine mammals, dugongs are endangered, but all Arabian Gulf states have passed laws protecting them, and conservation efforts are in progress.
Marine Turtle Conservation Project
Four species of sea turtle feed in Qatari waters, but only one – the Hawksbill – breeds on the peninsula. Nesting occurs on northeastern beaches where the sand is of the right consistency.
Worldwide, turtles are critically endangered by human activity. Qatar takes an active part in the conservation of these ancient creatures, with round-the-clock protection afforded by rangers patrolling the nesting sites.
This year the Marine Turtle Conservation Project was launched in Iran, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. The three-year satellite tracking programme will help identify the migration routes of turtles in the Arabian Gulf. Information collected will enable scientists to make long-term plans to improve protection. Five turtles in each country were fitted with transmitters which will remain active for about 400 days. Movement of the turtles is monitored daily and published on the website www.gulfturtles.com
The Qatar Quranic Botanic Garden
As part of a network of Quranic Botanic Gardens being established in the Arab region, a garden designed in the shape of a vast flower will be constructed at the Qatar Foundation site to the west of Doha. The garden will feature around 350 varieties of plants native to the region, including the 51 sacred plants mentioned in the Holy Quran, ranging from mustard to saffron, pumpkins to aloe, and henna to pomegranate.
When it is opened the garden will have a specialised heritage library, where books and brochures will be available, providing information about the plants, their scientific and local names, and traditional medicinal uses. The Qatar Quranic Botanic Garden is the result of a fruitful cooperation between the Qatar Foundation, UNESCO, and Maersk Oil Qatar.