Mideast Miracle

Amid the region’s political and religious turmoil, Jordan has set up a cluster of national parks that conserve an astonishing array of biodiversity.

The van and the thick clouds hug the side of the steep mountain. Two hours after starting from the Dead Sea basin, the road keeps climbing in perilous unseen switchbacks. Finally the tarmac levels out. A swath of fog parts as we pull into the village of Dana, revealing old stone houses perched on a ledge that juts out into a grey vastness. Below is one of the Middle East’s largest and most important nature reserves, a huge tract of rugged land where lesser kestrels nest and Griffon vultures circle as ibex and gazelles roam along cliffs, through gorges, and among sand dunes.

This is a vertical place, stretching from one of the highest inhabited spots in Jordan to within a short hike of the earth’s lowest point on land. Europe, Asia, and Africa mix it up here, and thousands of birds—from the enormous imperial eagle to the tiny mourning wheatear—funnel through this area while migrating as far as South Africa and Siberia. “This is one of the most important bird sites in the Middle East,” says Mohammad Al-Qawabah, Dana’s former manager, as we sip tea in his office perched on the cliff edge overlooking the dramatic canyon that defines the 250-square miles of reserve.

If Dana were in the American West, Theodore Roosevelt would have championed its cause, and an act of Congress, uniformed rangers, and an annual budget would have followed. But in the volatile Middle East, with its wars, population growth, and poverty, environmental protection is typically on the low end of national priorities; Dana itself was created in 1989. Making the park succeed in a poor country with little experience in environmental awareness required a bold, and sometimes gutsy, new approach. “This is a place where you interact with people who have machine guns and M-16s,” says Al-Qawabah, a trim young man who grew up nearby and knows the complexities of Bedouin politics.

Now, thanks to local initiative, outside expertise, and Western money, Dana is on its way to becoming a self-sustaining park that protects wildlife and draws thousands of tourists from Europe, America, and Jordan itself. On top of that, it has the strong support of the armed pastoralists who live nearby. That would be an amazing accomplishment in the United States. But in a region that combines a fierce tradition of tribal independence with top-down and inefficient bureaucracies, the Dana experiment, though still unfolding, is little short of a miracle. It offers an intriguing model for Jordan’s growing park system, and for struggling nature reserves throughout the developing world.

A measure of Dana’s success can be found by climbing the steep stairs to the local Bedouin cooperative, which rents rooms to tourists. “The concept of nature conservation is very new to us,” explains its director, Amer Khawaldeh, a thin and quiet man in stylish boots sporting a NASA patch on his jacket, as we huddle near the stove in the spring chill. Khawaldeh’s people have long grazed their sheep and goats here, moving from the foothills and plains in the winter to the high plateau in the summer, living in black goat-haired tents or simple stone houses. By the 1980s, Khawaldeh says, it was clear that hunting and overgrazing were damaging not just wild species but also the Bedouin’s way of life. The once-plentiful chukar, for example, a Eurasian game bird in the pheasant family that was a favorite dish of locals, became rare. “Now you see them crossing the street,” he says through a local interpreter. “People are starting to see the benefits.”


That positive view of the park formed after a long struggle that often edged toward violence. When Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) first created the reserve, Bedouin tribes regularly brandished rifles to get a point across. “At the beginning there were conflicts,” acknowledges Khawaldeh with a wave of his hand. The men around him, with their heads swaddled in kaffiyehs against the cold, smile knowingly at one another. “We were afraid, and RSCN in the beginning didn’t explain why the park would benefit the people,” he adds. “At first we thought the RSCN had come to stop our grazing and wood cutting. But now we are working together.” Khawaldeh’s move from independent pastoralist to savvy conservationist came only after the RSCN backed away from its original plan to close most of the reserve to grazing.

Instead, they worked out a compromise that opens large chunks of land to livestock, although only during certain seasons. When it became clear that people were using one sensitive forest area because they lacked shelter for their flocks, the RCSN provided materials for Bedouin to build shelters elsewhere. Now that portion of the reserve, about one-fifth, is off-limits to flocks. Since 1995, park personnel say, two dozen of the rare cypress seedlings that grow in the wooded areas, previously a favorite sheep snack, successfully germinated, though they did not thrive.

Today conflicts involve interminable meetings over tea, without firearms. The latest dispute is over adding rooms to the cooperative’s guesthouse. “It requires a lot of energy to succeed at this,” Al-Qawabah says with a sigh. He trained as an engineer but now has to think like a diplomat. “Whenever you do something wrong here, it is hard to overcome it.”


The Maine-sized wedge of land that makes up Jordan—bounded by Israel and the West Bank to the west, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the east, and Syria to the north—includes forested mountains, a salty sea, a stony desert, barren hills, and the immense gash of the Rift Valley. Long the domain of nomadic Bedouin and village dwellers, Jordan once was sparsely populated by people and rich in herds of gazelles and ibex. But by the 1960s members of Jordan’s Royal Hunting Club grew alarmed at the rapid depletion of wildlife. The late King Hussein gave up hunting and took up the conservation cause long before it came to the attention of other Middle Eastern countries.

Through Operation Oryx, a half-dozen remaining animals were bred in the Phoenix Zoo, and the population was reintroduced to Jordan’s Shaumari Reserve in the 1970s. In the following decade the RSCN began to make plans for 17 nature reserves. So far seven have been officially declared. Ultimately, the nonprofit RSCN hopes to oversee 18 parks totaling approximately 1,200 square kilometers, from the Dibeen forest in the north to the Azuja marshes deep in the eastern desert. The focus on Jordan’s rich biodiversity is coming none too soon. Once largely inhabited by nomads and villagers, millions of displaced Palestinians and Iraqi refugees are straining the country’s fragile environment. The capital of Amman has transformed from a dusty town to a modern city expanding at an alarming rate, complete with drive-through Starbucks and major freeways. That exploding population is sucking precious water away from oases and mountains.

With its royal charter, the RCSN has an unusual degree of freedom in managing the parks, though it comes at the price of limited financial support from the cash-strapped government. But with help from the Global Environmental Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and several European countries, the RSCN made Dana the pilot program for a new approach to conservation. Dana is the richest of Jordan’s parks, boasting 215 bird species, 38 kinds of mammals, and 42 different types of reptiles.

Only a quarter of the 391 important bird sites in the Middle East are protected, according to Birdlife International. “The reserve is a bottleneck IBA that lays on the Rift Valley/Red Sea flyway, the second most important flyway for migratory soaring birds in the world,” says Ibrahim Al-Khader, BirdLife International’s Middle East regional director, adding that Dana is home or rest stop for 17 species of concern at the Global and Middle Eastern levels. The reserve’s population of lesser kestrels, Syrian serins, and possibly Cyprus warblers is important for global biodiversity conservation. That makes Dana an important link in an international flyway. And its astounding diversity in altitude, temperature, and landscape make it a birdwatcher’s delight.

The globally threatened lesser kestrel soars among the cliffs along with short-toed and verreaux eagles, which have occasionally been spotted, and griffon vultures. Cyprus warblers nest in acacia trees lining Dana’s creek beds. The small Syrian serin—perhaps 5,000 remain in Jordan, Syrian, and Lebanon—inhabits the oak and juniper woods, flashing its delicate yellow markings. Far below, in the harsh desert scrub, are houbara bustards, Arabian babblers, and the hoopoe, famed in the Islamic world for its conversations with King Solomon, though listed as forbidden food in the Old Testament. The hoopoe’s high orange and black crest and black and white tail look more butterfly than bird as it flits through the brush.


For Dana to survive and the park system to expand, Jordan has turned to modern marketing. “Income is critical,” says Chris Johnson, formerly the director of Wild Jordan, the RSCN’s business unit, and now the USAID Program Director for the RSCN. We’re sitting in the café at its concrete-and-glass headquarters overlooking the ancient Roman center of Amman, a three-hour drive north of Dana. It’s noon, and the tables fill with expatriate Europeans and wealthy Jordanians lunching on organic salads. 

Johnson, a thin and energetic Englishman, explains that though small, the organic food movement is gaining ground in Jordan, where fresh produce is a staple and pesticide concerns are on the rise. The adjacent gift shop offers snazzy jewelry and other wares crafted by artists at nature reserves. Visitors can also pick up glossy brochures for off-the-grid ecolodges like Dana’s Feynan Lodge, which resembles an ancient caravan-stopping place; its mirrored recesses inside reflect candlelight, and organic vegetarian fare is served in the flickering quiet. The simplicity extends to the front desk, where the clerk turned my credit card over and over, as if seeing one for the first time. Cash only in the desert. The profits are plowed back into operations along with new infrastructure and entrepreneurial ventures.

Wild Jordan also focused on providing an income for the village of Dana itself, which, behind its beautiful setting and atmospheric stone houses lacked electricity, sanitation, or employment. Its people were abandoning their stone houses for a growing town two miles away on a main road. Rebecca Salti, an American who had worked for Save the Children, organized a jewelry-making operation, giving women unprecedented freedom—and an income.

When the workshop first formed, it employed 15 women, aged 20 to 32. They work in a spanking-clean room wearing masks and eye protection along with traditional headscarves. “Before, women didn’t go anywhere without permission,” says Bassam Atiyeh, who pauses from her work to talk. “Now women are free to go out and work.” They produce silver pieces based on Dana’s diverse animal and plants, which appeal to outsiders and underscore the connection between the village and the reserve. And by growing fruits organically, turning them into jams and jellies, and marketing them in Wild Jordan’s store in Amman and elsewhere, farmers again have found it worth their while to work their plots. Though the quantity is small, the shift has given new life to Dana’s ancient ways.


These modest businesses made it easier for the Bedouin to accept the ban on hunting within the park, a move that at first outraged them. “It wasn’t a hobby, it was a necessity,” explains Khawaldeh. But now he says, “people have jobs and an income, so the necessity is no longer there.”

The results are encouraging. In 1995 only two Nubian ibex, an endangered species, were found in the entire park. In the latest 2006 survey 168 individuals were counted, and Dana has become a critical refuge in southern Jordan for the animals, thanks to enforced hunting restrictions and increased vegetative cover following the grazing agreement. The Arabian oryx, with its luminescent white coat, was nearly extinct in the1960s. They have now been reintroduced to the Shaumari Reserve, while hopes remain high that the Arabian leopard, which had gone extinct in Jordan, will also be reintroduced. A caracal—the fiercest and fastest of small cats—was spotted prowling around Dana recently. And porcupines, badgers, hyenas, and the partridgelike chukar also are coming back.

Khawaldeh, meanwhile, says his people are committed to conservation. Though his cooperative is full of plans to increase tourist beds and to build a ceramics workshop, he is quick to add that he wants only “sustainable” tourism. “We don’t want to put pressure in this fragile environment.” It’s surprisingly modern phrasing for a rural Bedouin. As we part, he gives me his email address and sends me out into the mist with Achmed, an elderly but spry villager who shows me around the orchards. Rebuilt retaining walls and new irrigation system feed the lush pear, pistachio, and almond trees. But with 10 children and no school in Dana, Achmed has moved his family to the new town on the road; he commutes each day to his orchards. Amid the low clouds and gusty winds, there are no other signs of life. Then, suddenly, a chukar flies up with a cry and a fluttering of wings, vanishing in the mist.