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The Empty Quarter: Arabia’s disappearing plant life

Emma Seal introduces a new Kew project in Oman, set to safeguard the unique Arabian flora of the region.
30 October 2017
Blog team: 
Emma Seal

Opportunities in the desert

The Arabian Peninsula is well known to be one of the driest places on earth with summer temperatures in the mid-fifties Celsius. It’s therefore hard to believe the ancient Bedouin tales of months of cool rains in the Rub al Khali desert, and the ever-flowing Sabkha Matti river. The region encompasses Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as parts of southern Iraq and Jordan. It remains a hugely valuable biodiversity hotspot famed for its endemism and unique desert flora.

Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is developing an exciting new seed conservation programme in the region to safeguard important endangered plants, beginning with our partnership with Oman Botanic Garden.

Rural mountain village farming in Oman, February 2017

Plant types in the Arabian Peninsula

Dust hazes whipped up by hot, suffocating winds known as ‘Simooms’ or ‘poison’ have carved out one of the largest bodies of sand in the world also known as ‘the empty quarter’ where hardy grasses take root, providing essential grazing for the rare Arabian Oryx. Many other plants have evolved to survive in this climate by being extremely salt tolerant or by requiring very little water. Adaptations such as these are critical to our food security in the future and so it’s important we safeguard the genetic diversity of these species.  

Plants in Oman, February 2017

Biodiversity threats

Unfortunately, humans have also had a huge impact on this region, placing its fragile coastal habitats, fertile soils and small archipelagos under direct threat from development, modern farming, and the loss of local traditional knowledge. Over 400 plant species in the Arabian Peninsula have been highlighted as endangered and extremely vulnerable.

Plants provide the basis for life on our planet; as our climate changes, those species which can survive in harsh environments will become even more critical for mankind. Soon it will be too late to protect Arabia’s considerable biodiversity so we must act now.

Livestock grazing on desert species in Oman, February 2017

Seed collecting in Oman

I took on management of this new project in June 2017 and was astounded to learn about the incredible habitats of a region I had previously thought of as endless sand dunes. I’ve been especially fascinated by Oman’s extensive cloud forests in the Dhofar Mountains which support over 70 per cent of the country’s 1,407 plant species. Persistent ocean fog hangs over the forests, creating an exceptional micro-climate with moist soils and the constant drip of water into the greenery. Many local mountain communities still farm using locally-bred varieties of wheat and barley, and collect several wild plant species for cooking, medicinal use and rope/ net making. This biodiversity and local history is under direct threat and even a cursory read of the Oman Red Data book, which lists all recorded threatened species, will send the reader’s heart into palpitations. 

Making rope from local plant species in Oman, February 2017

Our work in Oman will focus on rare and threatened species specifically mentioned in the Oman Red Data book. Collaborating with expert staff at the Oman Botanic Garden will be critical to this work. With our Omani collaborators, we are planning for project activities to begin in 2018. Our aim is to collect and bank 140 species over two years, whilst building the capacity of partner staff through training in-country and in the UK. Seasonal fieldwork will be used to make seed collections as well as identify and document Oman’s economically useful species. This research will highlight problem species which require further investigation into germination and storage needs.  

Critically Endangered Barleria samhanensis in the nursery in Oman, February 2017. Only approximately 1,000 individuals of this species, discovered in 2006, are left in the world, all in southern Oman

Saving flora from conflict

The geography of Oman makes this particular project even more important. The country is bordered to the southeast by Yemen which in turn is thinly separated from Somalia by the Gulf of Aden. Many of the plant species that grow in Oman also grow in these countries, and the area is often referred to as the ‘Horn of Africa biodiversity hotspot’. Yet, because of current political conflicts in the region, Kew is unable to run large-scale seed collecting missions in either country. As biodiversity conservation drops off the bottom of the political agenda, valuable habitats continue to be rapidly degraded with some species pushed to the brink of extinction. This makes our collaborations in Oman even more important in order to safeguard as many vulnerable species as possible.

- Emma -

Rural mountain village farming, February 2017

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