Newsletter December 2000

Newsletter December 2000

Confirmed sighting of rare Arabian Tahr on Jebel Hafit

by Peter Cunningham
Recording Officer

During a hike up to the summit wadi’s on Jebel Hafit during October I witnessed a rare event that made the unusual heat for this time of the year more bearable. An adult male Tahr emerged unexpectedly out of a gully approximately 100m ahead of me. Recognizing it immediately I knew how privileged I was to see this rare ungulate in its natural environment.

Arabian Tahr, Hemitragus jayakari, are endemic to the Arabian Peninsula and occur in mountainous terrain throughout the eastern UAE and northern Oman, from the Musandam in the north to the mountains bordering the Wahiba Sands in the south. The well-known Arabian explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, first documented them from Jebel Hafit in 1949 and mentions them being regularly hunted by local Bedu during that time. According to a study conducted on this species in Oman in the late 70’s, the Arabian Tahr world population did not exceed 2000 animals. A helicopter survey of Jebel Hafit in 1980 sighted only 5 animals. During the 80’s they were thought to be extinct on Jebel Hafit as no sightings were reported. Confirmed sightings are infrequent and they are classified as “critically endangered” (i.e. “facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future”) in the UAE.

This little known species is in direct competition with domestic and feral goats for the available food. They are highly selective feeders mainly utilizing the growth tips and fruits of certain shrubs. The carrying capacity of mountains such as Jebel Hafit is generally low and the extra pressure of hunting (now illegal although not enforced) and excessive goat numbers could lead to the demise of this species in the wild if something drastic is not done to protect them.

The individual I encountered was typical of males of the species with its well-developed forequarters, prominent facial stripe, thick slightly curved horns and dark-brown shaggy coat [A previous sighting I had of a female in the Central Hajar Mountains had an overall slender build and “blonder” appearance]. Initially it was unaware of me as I had the wind in my favor and had approached the rise I was on with care. As soon as I moved to get my camera from my backpack it sensed me and loped off - not fleeing in fear - up the mountain towards some inaccessible cliffs where I could not follow. As I was not expecting to stumble upon Tahr, I was unprepared, but did eventually (after having to change lenses in haste) get two photos of the Tahr just before it disappeared over the crest. Unfortunately the distance involved as well as midday lighting did not make for a great photo and I am now trying to get the subject enlarged. Although not detracting from the actual encounter of observing Tahr at such close quarters, one thing I did however learn is to always be prepared for the unexpected - next time!

(To report observations or to get a list of information you should collect, please contact Peter at

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Exploring the mangroves of Khor Kalba by canoe

by Gerry Buzzell

Canoeing in the mangroves was an outing organized by Debbie Handley, who seems to be the ENHG organizational dynamo. A company in Dubai, Desert Rangers, has the exclusive right to run canoeing outings in the Khor Kalba mangroves. They supplied the canoes and we supplied the manpower. They supplied two types of canoes — white fibreglass 18 foot two-man canoes (except for colour, identical to my canoe in Vermont), and larger red Coleman products, suitable for three people with the third sitting immobile in the middle. Sadly, they had had one of the two-man canoes stolen the night before; the guy I talked with said that these ones cost the company about Dh10,000 to import from Canada. They are insured, of course, but the loss was a blow to them, not least because the thieves also cut all the canvas straps used to secure the canoes to the trailers.

Linda and I used one of the smaller canoes and were the first ones on the water.

The mangrove area of Khor Kalba was described to us as a left hand, viewed in the pronation position (palm down). We were launched beside the bridge, near the base of the thumb. The ‘thumb’ is the inlet from the sea. The ‘pinky’ extends beside a sandbar separating it from the sea, and the three middle fingers extend inland. We initially took the ‘index finger,’ then briefly the ‘thumb’ (until turned back by a ranger who pointed out that the current there as the tide ebbs is very strong), then the ‘pinky’ and finally the ‘middle finger.’ We canoed from 8:00 until 11:00 and a glorious time it was.

The first hour or so we mostly marveled at the scenery. Up the ‘index finger’ the stands of mangrove trees on the starboard side (going in) opened in places giving us vistas of mountains and the white buildings of a nearby village. Then up the ‘pinky,’ with the sandbar on the port side and the mangroves to starboard. Finally, the ‘middle finger,’ with mangroves on both sides, up the finger as open water in the center became narrower and narrower and finally didn’t quite end, but we turned around and went back out the way we came in.

The mangroves appeared as trees and bushes, trunks in the water, and branches and leaves forming dense aerial foliage. The Green Guide names them Avicennia marina; I understand that they are hardy and capable of withstanding high salinity conditions. In Kuwait, KISR (the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research) is studying the possible use of mangroves to control shoreline erosion. Years ago, Alan Butler, a colleague in the University of Adelaide Zoology Department, was studying the effects of warm water from a nuclear power station on the ecology of local mangroves. That is the extent of my knowledge of mangroves.

The last hour or so was spent marveling at the animal life. In the shallow waters of the ‘pinky,’ we could see many snails and several hermit crabs inhabiting large conical snail shells. Along the sandbar were numerous gulls. But the small fishes were most in evidence. They were obviously being pursued by some predator, as they’d leap from the water in masses, like a starburst. We saw a couple of what looked like elongated heads peeping above the water, too far away to identify, making us think they were perhaps turtles chasing fish. Laurence Garey opined that they were snakes. Perhaps it was simply larger fish chasing smaller fish, as these piscine explosions seemed to become more numerous as the tide ebbed and the water became shallower. At times I was reminded of people doing “the wave” at Oiler games. Occasionally “the wave” encompassed the canoe and I tossed several small fish back into the water.

About 10 o’clock we began to see wading birds and, as the morning progressed, we saw more and more of them. Herons, mostly. A group of four curlews digging in the mud with their long curved bills. Sandpipers.

And one glorious white collared kingfisher.

Finally, at about 11 o’clock, with the current of the ebbing tide strong, we paddled back to our starting point, had our canoe pulled ashore by the Desert Ranger crew, and returned to civilization.

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Unforgettable Nizwa trip includes ‘singing silversmith’

by Geoff Sanderson

We left Al Ain for Nizwa (via Sohar and Muscat) on Wednesday 6th December in the thickest fog ever, we could see no more than 30 meters in front of us, so there was nothing to note before the Wadi Jizzi border post!. Quite suddenly, like passing through a curtain, the fog was behind us and bright sunlight washed the Hajjar Mountains, splashed with greens, reds, browns, whites and shades in between. Ahead of us the early morning sun shone through a gossamer thin mist silhouetting each layer of ridge line.

At first glance the mountains appear lifeless, but, on closer inspection you see the odd goat teetering on a rocky outcrop and the light sparkling on ancient rocks.

From the mountains we slid down to the narrow plains before Sohar. The Sohar suq was bustling , after a quick trade in fragrances we drove a little way to the seafront. Here there was beauty of a different kind, the seaside villages of Sohar. We visited the fish market right on the beach where the fish were being brought in off old reed fishing boats and more modern versions. The fish were filleted on the spot- the smell was to die for if you happened to be a cat….!! It is so nice to see that despite modern technology their traditional lifestyle has changed very little.

The buildings along the beach front reflect their history of Omani and Portuguese occupation. Bougainvillea and old Neem Trees, colourful painted doors, richly carved doors and a variety of window and parapet details make a fascinating villagescape.

The highway south to Muscat is midway between the sea and the mountains, neither of which are clearly visible. Nonetheless, we made a few more detours, Barka was especially interesting with its magnificent fort and beachside fruit and vegetable market.

From the coast road we turned westward toward Nizwa before reaching Muscat. The road through the Sumail Gap is now a four lane highway for at least three quarters of the distance. A necessity no doubt but now it would be so easy to fly by the little villages as though they were only figments of imagination.

We didn’t fly by. We stopped at Izki and Manal just as the afternoon light danced gently through the oases and old buildings glowed yellow and gold as if they were riches beyond all other desires. The watchtowers of Manal still stand guard over the tiny village with its laughing children, busy farms and cheeky goats.

The old fort of Izki is crumbling, its need long gone, but it is still the centrepiece of the village. A fine old Sidr Tree which could, no doubt, tell many stories of battles, stands proudly beside the fort. We reached the Falaj Daris hotel in Nizwa as the call from the mosques confirmed it was time for Ifta and the last rays of sunshine lit the jebel peaks.

The full compliment of ENHG Al Ainiens gathered at the hotel over the next hour or so, 24 in all, some repeat visitors but most were new to this region.

A hotel meal and a short walk through the largely inactive suq was enough for the day.

By 8.00am next morning we were on the road, 7 “trucks” in convoy headed for Bahla and beyond to Fort Jabrin.

En route we diverted to Tanuf, a now ruined village, destroyed during uprisings in the 1950’s (jabal war) but is now a fascinating place to explore. Tanuf still has most of its defensive wall intact and the falaj lives on, undeterred by battle.

As I walked into the village enjoying the morning light, I noticed some footprints in recently dried mud; the prints were too large for a dog, my optimistic mind instantly said “leopard”. I photographed the prints then my son Robert pointed out faeces that would, no doubt, complete the picture, assuming they were linked to the footprints. I collected enough of the faeces to present to Peter Cunningham on return to Al Ain and wait with baited breath for the news of a positive leopard recording.

We reached Fort Jabrin at 9.30, it is magnificent, carefully and senstively restored and brought to life by our guide who was both a delightful personality and very good at relating facts and stories from Fort Jabrin’s history. I was a bit worried by his delight in telling us of the frequently used boiled date syrup method for dissuading assailants but was reassured that it is no longer in practice!!

The fort is a “must see”; its catacomb like rooms are partially furnished with pots, carpets, muskets, swords, implements of various kinds, beautifully embroided cushions and exquisitely carved timber and plasterwork.

We were more than happy to raise a 1 Rh each tip for our guide and I highly recommend him to any future visitors to Fort Jabrin.

Next stop Bahla suq and the “singing” silversmith, a charming old man who treated me like a long lost brother when I once again stepped up into his little workshop. He loves to scatter his vast collection of old silver jewelry over mats, demonstrate his skills at working silver and generally be the perfect host. The ladies, who dominated our group, would have none of the suggestion that there was more to see in Bahla and continued to rummage through the silver collection until the suq closed near 12.30pm.

The potter was closed too so we missed him, but that will be another adventure for another day, it would be sad to reach the stage where I had experienced all this region had to offer.

We ventured on to Wadi Ghul, to find a place, hidden away, where those not fasting could replenish their dwindling stocks of nutrients. In a deep canyon with massive rocks towering over head and a tiny oasis clinging to the edge of the wadi we sat under the shade of date palms to rest and recharge the batteries. From our vantage point we could look up 3000 metres to the top of Jebel Sharm (mountain of the sun) and make out the precarious route (with binoculars), taken by other ENHG adventurers, to the deserted village.

Hidden away? Not likely, the local kids soon found us and set about trying to persuade these hardened tourists that they were in need of the fossil rocks, key holders and woven shawls that mother had sent them out to sell.

Even the toughest amongst us gave in to the smiles and irresistible laughter of the little boys who were not going to leave until a sale was made.

As the afternoon wore on we drove back to Al Hamra, the old village built on a vast sheet of rock sloping at 30degrees down to a oasis. The village has some very fine two and three storey mud brick houses many in good condition. They looked splendid against the deepest blue sky you could possibly imagine. Apart from children and goats, the village was almost deserted. Little girls in brightly coloured dresses giggled and called to us happily, ran to hide if a camera pointed in their direction then reappeared with cheeky chatter and flashing smiles as we passed.

We then climbed the mountain road to Misfa. The village of, Misfa would have to be my favorite. It hugs the mountainside and the houses appear to grow out of huge boulders. Alleyways wind this way and that, without a straight line to be seen. Oases step down the side of a deep gorge, a falaj gurgles and meanders through the village, providing the people, animals and plants with much needed water. Date Palms, Bananas, Papaya, Mangos, Citrus, animal fodder and vegetables thrive on the narrowest terraces . Looking up we see 100 metres above us, children tending to their donkeys and goats, chickens scratching through the leaf litter and groups of women preparing vegetables for the break of fast.

The late afternoon light of early winter told us it was really the best time to be in Misfah. Shafts of light lit the stone steps and walls, played amongst the Date Palms and Banana Palms and fell on old men as they chatted and solved the world’s problems.

The people in all of these places are so friendly, particularly the old men and the children. Everybody shouts ‘howareyou’ repeatedly, until they get the answer they are looking for ‘fine thankyou’. The children cannot contain their excitement and scream and giggle, whenever we pass by. In Al Hamra they all wanted to shake hands, and no body was allowed to pass until all hands had been shaken and everybody had responded to ‘howareyou’?

They still farm the land using traditional methods and use fresh fruit and vegetables just picked, regardless of size, colour and shape. Everybody has the time to stop and chat and relax. It’s nice to find people who are not so obsessed with time, money and perfection.

Reluctantly we climbed into our trucks to head down the mountain and back to Nizwa where we had a Omani feast waiting for us in the suq.

It was quite amusing to watch the uncertain faces of the 20 odd ENHGians gathered around assorted tables and seated on anything from pink plastic chairs to an office chair, as the first insignificant plate of salad arrived and a bottle of water stood shyly as a centrepiece. Steadily more and more and more food appeared from the kitchen until in chorus we had to say, ‘you won, we are beaten’. Still we found room for coffee and dates but there was little more we could do then but stagger to our trucks and return to our welcome beds. The last thing I remembered that night was the fragrance of the Millingtonia trees outside the hotel and the Frangipani’s in the courtyard.

Friday morning we dribbled out of bed and into the suq and the Friday morning goat market. If we weren’t properly awake, the suq saw to that. The suq and goat market was a sea of activity, vibrant with colour, the air rich with the smell of goats, incense, fruit, vegetables, coffee, spices and Damas Rose buds. Sounds of bartering and boasting of the virtues of each and every goat, bleating of kids, bellowing of young bulls defending their meagre space, debates over the relative merits of bananas confirmed the suq was alive and well.

Old men wandered about with muskets in hand, silver hunjars hanging from silver belts; small boys pushed heavily laden wheel barrows; colourfully dressed women sat debating the wisdom of sales and purchases, still others staggered by with heavy bags of vegetables. It was an overwhelming sensual experience.

It is hard to decide which aspect of Oman I like best, the charm of the seaside villages and suqs, the people, the villages tucked away in the folds of mountains, the mountain suqs, the goat market teeming with people of all ages, the smells of spices and coffee.

So many memories, so much to return to.

Leave all this? Sadly, yes, it was Friday afternoon and there was a long drive ahead. As I drove, so many thoughts and memories passed through my head but foremost amongst them was…I’ll be back!!

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Environmental concerns addressed during factory tour

by Adrianna Sutherland

Before our 16 November tour of the Coca Cola bottling plant, I was deputed to ask why Coca Cola continues to use environmentally- unfriendly pop tops on cans of its products. The response: Two reasons.

First, at 40 degrees C, a soda can is under approximately 80 pounds per square inch of pressure; compare this with about 30psi for a tire on an average passenger car. At high temperatures, cans with fold-back tops were found to be more likely to explode than those with pop tops. Members who have experienced a summer here will concur that we do get a few high temp days, and many shops store their products unrefrigerated.

Secondly, there is a srong perception among consumers in this market that fold-back tops are unhygenic, because the part of the top that was outside prior to opening then goes inside and likely comes in contact with the drink. So, while Coke has experimented with the more environmentally-sound tops, customer preference has combined with physics and the UAE climate to rule out their use for the time being.

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Photo competition highlight of Annual General Meeting

There were no elections, no dimpled chads, not a ballot to be seen at the Al Ain chapter’s Annual General Meeting last month. However, members did enjoy an evening of refreshments and breath-taking photography.

Thanks to sponsors: Hilton Hotel, Studio Sophie, Mubarak Studio, Emadi Glass and Kowkab Studio. Thanks also to the Intercontinental Hotel for its ongoing support.

The group also acknowledged and thanked the judges of this year’s entries: Tony Quirke, Phil Iddison, and John O’Heron.

Competition in several of the categories was very close, notably Landscape and People of the UAE and Oman.

Much credit goes to Debbie Handley, Renee Hefti-Graham and Marie Catto who were responsible for organizing the competition and the evening’s program. They were also responsible for the donation of prizes by our generous sponsors.

Following the AGM, the Committee voted to make an effort to find some display system to better present the photography of the members. Winning photos have been scanned and will be available at the group’s website shortly.

Category First Second
Architecture and Archaeology Ellen McFarland Geoff Sanderson
Landscape Renee Hefti-Graham (tie)
Janke Cunningham (tie)
Gerry Buzzell (tie)
Jim Dalgleish (tie)
Abstract Earl Dunn Ruth Dunn
Culture and Heritage Ellen McFarland Jim Dalgleish
People of the UAE and Oman Alan Pomering Renee Hefti-Graham (tie)
Alan Pomering (tie)
Digital Earl Dunn ..
Fauna and Flora Brigitte Howarth Jane Bracken (tie)
Joyce Zomer (tie)
Field Trips and Care of the Environment Tove Johansen ..
People’s Choice Karen McLeister ..

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Facts about Bats: Bat sightings, data needed for study of winged mammals

by Peter Cunningham
Recording Officer

Did you know:

  • Nearly 1000 kinds of bats account for almost a quarter of all mammal species and most are highly beneficial.
  • A single bat can catch up to 600 mosquitoes in just 1 hour.
  • Agricultural plants such as bananas, mangoes, dates and certain figs rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal.
  • Bat droppings in caves support whole ecosystems of unique organisms.
  • Contrary to popular belief, bats are not blind, do not become entangled in human hair, bite only in self-defence, and seldom transmit disease to other animals.
  • Bats are exceptionally vulnerable to extinction, in part because they are the slowest reproducing mammals on earth for their size with most producing only one young per year.
  • Only one species of “vampire bat” occurs in south and Central America and does not suck blood, but makes an incision and then laps up the blood.
  • Very little scientific work has been conducted on bats from the UAE with only 8 species ever recorded although it is suspected that many more may occur.

I am busy doing some work on bat distribution in the UAE and would appreciate information regarding the following:

  • Bat roosts (i.e. caves/crevasses/ceilings, etc.)
  • Bat gatherings (i.e. frequently used feeding areas or where seen often)
  • Bat records (i.e. 16 Mouse-tailed Bats seen roosting at Abool Fort on 15 March 1999, etc.)

Any information regarding bats from the UAE & neighbouring Oman areas could be useful. Any dead specimens & sculls, etc. could also be used for identification purposes.

(If you have any information regarding bats, or other mammals, reptiles or marine life, please contact Peter at

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