Jordan: Wildlife watching in the Middle East

Long renowned for its historic sites and desert adventures, Jordan is building a reputation among wildlife enthusiasts – especially those who enjoy life’s smaller pleasures.

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Travel Jordan opening article spread - the mountainous range of Wadi Dana

Long renowned for its historic sites and desert adventures, Jordan is building a reputation among wildlife enthusiasts – especially those who enjoy life’s smaller pleasures.

 
The sudden movement grabbed my attention; a flash of black, then it was gone.
 
I was panting my way along the dry riverbed of Wadi Dana, and it was already so hot that – apart from the insects, my guide Mohammed and me – nothing appeared to be awake.
 
But alerted by that burst of activity, I scampered off the trail to get a better look; there, momentarily frozen on a boulder, was the lithely coiled body of a 1.5m-long Syrian black snake.
 
I was glad that I hadn’t got too close: they aren’t poisonous, Mohammed told me, but will bite if cornered. They are also, as I discovered, excellent climbers: this one shot straight up and over a 3m boulder.
 
It was that day’s first sighting of anything larger than a bird, but I was content to let it slither off without further study.
 
Touching the void
 
Dana Biosphere Reserve covers 320km2 of saw-tooth ridges, sheer cliffs and deep wadis (riverbeds), the northernmost tendrils of the Great Rift Valley.
 
Arriving by road, my route was flanked by gently rolling hills, but when I stood on the balcony of the Dana Guesthouse at the park’s edge, the sublime view was starkly different.
 
It was as if a huge bite had been taken out of the Earth’s crust; the rocky land dropped away into Wadi Dana down a precipitous slope directly below my feet.
 
As stunningly beautiful as Dana’s vistas are, it would be unfair to ignore Jordan’s other wild areas. Its tremendous variety of natural landscapes harbour highly diverse ecosystems – and a rich mix of species to match.
 
Wadi Rum 
 
Take Wadi Rum. Known to adventurers as one of the world’s most spectacular desert environments, it’s now home to a herd of reintroduced Arabian oryx.
 
Extinct in Jordan for many decades, this proud antelope now has footholds in the country at Rum and the northern Shaumari Wildlife Reserve.
 
Then there are the stark mountains and river canyons of Mujib, which are patrolled by herds of Nubian ibex.
 
In addition, a new reserve opened this year in Yarmouk, an imposing landscape of steep-sloped valleys cut by spring-fed streams, and two more parks are scheduled to open in the next 12 months or so: Fifa, a rare dense acacia forest, and Qatar, a sand-dune desert believed to be home to the globally endangered sand cat.
 
Even Petra, famous for its Nabataean temples carved from the red sandstone cliffs, is a wildlife haven, the protection afforded the monuments ensuring that it provides a sanctuary for many birds and mammals, too.
 
What lies beneath
 
Even so, Dana is one of my favourite places in Jordan and I visit it whenever I am in the country.
 
It’s just so convenient for the wildlife lover: the reserve tops out at 1,500m, but plunges through cliffs of limestone, sandstone and granite to 100m below sea level. The dramatic change in altitude over such a short distance makes Dana a habitat multi-pack.
 
As a result, in just one day you can experience four different ecosystems simply by descending into the wadi. The reserve hosts more than 800 plant species, a trio of which are found only in the reserve, 36 reptile species and 37 mammals, including caracals and wolves.
 
Blending in
 
Then there are the birds – some 190 species. In just a few minutes spent on the Dana Guesthouse balcony I had spotted nine of them, including a glossy Palestine sunbird and a lesser kestrel.
 
Realising that the odds were against spotting one of the reserve’s elusive mammal predators, I asked about the Nubian ibex. The local Bedouin guides all agreed that the species’ dusky tan coat blends in perfectly with the creamy-brown limestone.
 
“You can be staring straight at an ibex and you just won’t see it until it moves,” said Malik Nanaah. “But once you have seen one,” he added, in consolation, “your eyes can pick them out easily.”
 
The way of the jackal
 
Heading out on the trail of ibex, Mohammed led me on a 14km walk, first through Dana village – an ancient settlement of low stone buildings that resemble houses from a biblical story – and down Wadi Dana to Feynan Ecolodge, set on the desert floor far, far below.
 
Up high, the rocks were sculpted into intricate, rounded shapes; among them sprouted abundant oleander shrubs, with vibrant pink flowers and a sweet scent, eking out a precarious existence on what precious, scarce moisture they could find.
 
Mediterranean cypruses grow here, too, at the southernmost extent of their range. 
 
Barn swallows, common and alpine swifts and rock martins swooped above me, flying so fast and so close to my head that they sounded like fencing foils slicing through the air.
 
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