We met the group next morning and shared the 4w drive of our guide, David, for our trip to Wadi Sareen Wildlife Reserve, about 50kms south east of Muscat where we hoped to see the Tahr. David had been in Muscat for thirty years and had seen all the changes taking place from the time when the country had no government and no infrastructure, and a sultan who was paranoid about Western influences so kept the country closed off from the rest of the world. David had been a civil engineer in the British Army and later in the Airforce and it was then that he had become interested in conservation. He still kept his sheep farm in North Wales and since he had taken over the conservation of the Tahr programme he spent his time between Wales and Oman.
He began the project in 1973 to set up a reserve for the Arabian Tahr which is found only in the Northern mountains in Oman. It is a type of primitive goat whose population is under 5,000, which makes it in danger of extinction. It is one of the rarest mammals in the world. In 1976 Peter Scott, the naturalist, visited the area and said the Tahr was the rarest animal he had ever seen. The reserve is in Jebel Al Aswad (the Black Mountain) and in Wadi Sareen. The boundaries of the reserve are 200sq km, 179km of which are mountains which rise to 2,500 metres. Bedouins moved into the area with their sheep and goats, which threatened the habitat of the Tahr, and hunting brought them almost to the verge of extinction. Because of David's work there are now laws to prohibit hunting and the Ministry of the Environment gives money to the Bedouin tribes to keep their goats out of the area and to stop hunting, in addition to supplying them with building materials to build houses. Before this, they erected palm-leaf shelters and moved into caves in the winter.
Local tribesmen were appointed as rangers to take care of the area and the public is not allowed into the reserve without a special permit from the Diwan of the Royal Court. When this began in the 1970's one tribe who lived high in the mountains was outraged at being told to stop hunting. The chief held a meeting in the souk (local market) and told everyone to kill all the rangers then shoot the Tahr and bring them to the souk to sell, as they had always done. He then issued David with a death threat and went after him with a rifle. David went into hiding and the tribesman was eventually found under a tree. He was summoned to the local Wali (governor) and reprimanded. He claimed he had only intended to shoot himself so he was forgiven and David was asked by the Ministry to find him a job.
On the way into the wadi we stopped at a small Bedouin village, Sayh al Qahmah, which has a population of seventy. The houses were all about twenty years old. Here, David had set up a handicrafts centre. The locals were expecting us and came out with their crafts, which were woven camel trappings. Soon we were surrounded by women and children while the men kept watch to make sure we didn't photograph them. Some of the young men spoke good English and one told me he was studying for a Diploma in Accountancy at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. As I watched the women, dressed in traditional clothes of bright colours and leggings with embroidered cuffs, surging around us trying to sell their wares, talking non-stop, I was struck by the contrast with the new generation of English-speaking young men. One of them told me he studied in Muscat but came home every weekend. He said that although I could not photograph the women I could photograph the children. The current sultan has encouraged people to stop marrying their first cousins, but the custom is still deeply-rooted in traditional villages. Sickle-cell anaemia amongst the inhabitants is one of the problems which has been perpetuated by in-breeding.
In another village we met the local sheik, the first ranger of the reserve. He told us he had three wives and thirty eight children. We examined a traditional wolf trap made of stones. Those traps are now outlawed because the wolf is also an endangered species, but they go after the goats and sheep so the villagers trap them. The villagers all turned out to wave as our convoy of six 4w drives went past.
We travelled through the mountainous area on rough steep tracks in a landscape of spectacular beauty with grey mountains stretching jagged peaks into the sky, stopping to see the grave of the first Tahr reared in captivity in 1974. This was a young female that David had reared. He said it developed an eye infection so he took it to the eye specialist at a hospital and sat in a queue of women holding their babies while he held his Tahr. The eye specialist treated the Tahr and bandaged its eye. It recovered but died seven months later. He said he and his team learned a lot about the animals from this experience. He buried the young Tahr in a rocky grave with a flat stone over it and said he was going to place a plaque there before he left Oman for good. He referred several times to "my little Tahr in the mountains". He also pointed out a spot where years ago he had tried to get a helicopter organised to collect a woman who had been bitten by a snake. The husband at first refused to let her go because he wanted her treated by local methods. When they contacted the RAF helicopter in Muscat they couldn't find the one pilot who knew how to get there. No one had a map because the one map of the area had been given to someone else who couldn't be found either. David took the woman in the back of his land rover and started driving to the hospital, but she fell into a coma and died on the way.
With this story he warned us to watch out for carpet snakes which look like vipers and are lethal. At that time of day, he said, they lay on top of flat rocks with their heads turned towards whatever approached. He warned a couple to keep an eye on their two children and not let them turn any stones over in case snakes were underneath. He said we were certain to see some as there were many in the area. We had to park the vehicles and continue up the wadi on foot, over rocks and up steep tracks, and along the remains of an old falaj, a traditional irrigation system by which water flowed through channels cut into the earth. I was very nervous, thinking about the snakes, but to my relief, we didn't see any. We walked to the source of the water, which came out of a spring through a crack in the side of a mountain and all around it there was lush vegetation, including wild orchids. A weaver bird's nest hung off a twig sticking out of the rock face and enormous brightly coloured dragonflies and fat bees flew around it. The acacia trees, growing in abundance in those bare mountain regions and wadis, provide the nectar for the bees. The Bedouins feed huge quantities of it to their camels to make them grow.
We clambered back down the way we had come, got into the cars and drove back down Wadi Qiyd to Wadi Sareen. Upstream we found a large shady tree under which to have our picnic lunch. It’s called the Sidr tree or Crown of Thorns. The Latin name is Ziziphus spina christi, which means Christ's thorns. It certainly did have thorns, several of which stuck into me when I sat down. I wondered if the crown of thorns was made from that kind of tree.
After the picnic we drove up onto the Theremdi plateau. Here the mountains were in shades of rose, amber and slate. David said he had often camped there and described how the colours of the rock intensified and changed as the sun went down. We walked to the edge of the plateau and looked down dramatic buttressed cliffs to the wadi, 1,000 metres below. David told hair-raising stories about the times he had slept on mountain ledges when he was young. Although we didn’t see the Tahr, his passion for these endangered animals and his life’s mission to save them from extinction were unforgettable. It was an extraordinary day in the company of an extraordinary man.