From the wetlands, Abu’l Shalaan and I drove a few kilometres to the Shaumari Wildlife Reserve, located on the edge of town. The 22-square-kilometre fenced-off park, created by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), has been a breeding centre for the globally threatened Arabian Oryx: a medium sized, long-horned antelope that is held in reverence throughout Arabia.
As we drove onto the reserve, a semi-arid scrubland resembling the southern fringes of the Sahara, Abu’l Shalaan became visibly more upbeat. Our arrival was a kind of homecoming for him, as he had devoted a large part of his life to helping develop it, a role for which he is well known in al-Azraq today. The son of a Bedouin policeman of modest means, and one of eight children, he spent much of his childhood and adolescence herding sheep and goat. Following stints with the Jordanian military and with the Ministry of Agriculture in adulthood, he joined the RSCN in 1983 as a driver whose job it was to patrol the boundaries of Shaumari. When the Jordanian government embarked on its ambitious plan to breed eight endangered Arabian Oryx (which were hunted to extinction in Jordan in the 1920s), Abu’l Shalaan was promoted to the position of “oryx observer.”
“These were the best years of my life,” he told me, as we walked into the holding area where the oryx were being kept while renovations took place on the reserve. As oryx observer, Abu’l Shalaan worked every day feeding and watering the animals, providing veterinary services, and monitoring their behaviour and mating habits. The lay team, of which he was part—meaning he and the others had no professional training—knew little about the enigmatic animals at first, and were doing their own research much in the same way professional wildlife biologists do in the field.
By 1997, the oryx population on the reserve had exploded to an astonishing 236 animals. With so many, Jordan started exporting the animals to other Middle Eastern countries like Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—nations whose own wild oryx populations had also vanished. Those nations were now seeing the animal as a lost heritage whose revival had become an issue of both cultural identity and national prestige. Abu’l Shalaan’s contribution at Shaumari was integral to that highly publicized success—one that also involved a concerted, international effort of zoos and conservationists from around the world—and just a year later he was made manager of the reserve. It was a position he retained until his retirement from it in 2010.