A graze danger

Oman's khateel migration has changed little over the centuries but the land can no longer support traditional pastoralism

When monsoon mists lift from the Dhofar mountains of Oman, camel herds begin their annual autumn migration from the plateau into cloud forests. 

But the beasts that once connected the ancient frankincense capital of southern Arabia to trade routes through Petra and Gaza have multiplied, threatening the trees whose fragrant resin brought the area its wealth.

The migration, called the khateel, has changed little over the centuries but the land can no longer support traditional pastoralism. Large herds have had devastating consequences for rare vegetation found nowhere else on Earth.

Finding drier ground

“Just be careful because the camels don’t know you and they could attack,” says Ali Mohammed, trudging through long, thick grass behind a herd of 60 grunting dromedaries.

Rolling hills expand below in a landscape that could pass for northern England were it not for the camel herd trundling past, filling the air with a prehistoric chorus of groaning and sputtering. 

This is the khateel, the annual autumn camel migration to the cloud forest of Al Dhofar in southern Oman.  

Camels of the Al Awayid family graze near the hamlet of Jibjat, Dhofar.

Camels of the Al Awayid family graze near the hamlet of Jibjat, Dhofar.

On this edge of land, between the Indian Ocean and great deserts spanning the Arabian Peninsula, is a crescent of jungle and grassland extending less than 140 kilometres along the coast and 80km inland. 

The Dhofari mountains are shrouded in cloud for a few short months every year when the monsoon rolls in, a time known as the khareef. 

The khareef draws tribesmen and tourists from neighbouring countries, because in the Arabian Peninsula nothing is considered more wondrous than the novelty of green land and grey skies.

Salem Mohaad on the autumn camel drive near Jibjat.

Salem Mohaad on the autumn camel drive near Jibjat.

But camels cannot abide the khareef. It brings blood-sucking flies and ankle-twisting mud. When mists descend over craggy cliffs, camels retreat inland to drier grasslands and, during particularly wet years, to the sands.

As autumn descends and the mists lift, herds return to the mountains.

The khateel is a time of celebration, when youths studying in the city or working at oilfields in the interior come home. 

Salem Mohaad skins a goat for a feast on the first day of the migration.

Salem Mohaad skins a goat for a feast on the first day of the migration.

Ali walks through the grasslands to the crest of a hill where Salem Mohaad, his neighbour, is skinning two goats hung from a tree in preparation for a feast to mark the first day of the khateel.

Other men begin to arrive in Pajeros and Land Cruisers and help Salem. They light two fires with scraps of wood found in the grass --one fire to boil bones, meat, fat and organs; another for tea to be sipped while the goat cooks.

Musallem Ali sips tea under a tree.

Musallem Ali sips tea under a tree.

“Today, the city comes to the mountains,” Ali says.

All of the men and this land belong to Al Awayid tribe, who number in the thousands. This herd is a composite of cows, bulls and calves owned by five or six families.

As the men prepare the feast, their herd wanders into the valley below, where they will remain until the late afternoon.

Just as the men can identify individual camels among the herd in the grasslands below, they can recognise each other’s vehicles from a great distance by the manner in which they drive.

Ali points at a distant Land Cruiser bumping towards us. “In this car is a famous man,” he says. “His name is Bu Sufian. He’s a nice guy.” 

The herders

Ali Mohammed lights his medwakh pipe.

Ali Mohammed lights his medwakh pipe.

Musallem Ahmed kneels beside us and introduced himself by the name he is known, Bu Sufian. He asks us to introduce ourselves and, after a few minutes of appraisal, announces he will be our guide to the land.

Bu Sufian's renown comes in part from a camel named Nadhamish, which yielded 15 litres of milk in one sitting and won him a Land Cruiser. We were told this was a Dhofar record.

Bu Sufian smiles on the khateel.

Bu Sufian smiles on the khateel.

It is prestige that caused camel proliferation, a problem throughout Arab Gulf states.

Dhofar’s camel population nearly tripled between 2005 and 2012, when the last local government census took place. The population reached 146,136. The government has a conservative growth rate of two per cent annually but tribesmen say the population has boomed since 2011.

Graphic Ramon Penas / The National

This is partly from a rising human population and better veterinary care. But the largest factor is wealth. As employment opportunities improved and salaries rose, so did the number of camels. 

Even the 2011 Arab uprisings had an effect. There were mass government hirings after weekly protests in Salalah. Men who received jobs or pay rises bought camels.

“Eight years ago, there were a lot of men who graduated from college but were not working,” Ali says. “But after all of them joined the police, they were buying.”

Camels are sold for thousands but opinion is divided on whether or not they make a sound financial investment.

What is agreed is they bring prestige, says Bu Sufian as he bumps over the grasslands. He points out trees, hills and rocks on the mountain plateau and explains who owns what. Time and again, he points out the borders.

“You see that tree there?” he asks. “This is the border for our family. It is a taluh bush. You see the signal for the telephone? The border is not here but maybe 10km from there, and from there to Darbat.”

When Bu Sufian grew up, borders mattered. Raiding was common until at least the 1950s. Bu Sufian is 56 but he grew up in a time before electricity, when transport was by foot, beast or boat and water was collected from the source. 

Bu Sufian drives over grasslands once covered in forests.

Bu Sufian drives over grasslands once covered in forests.

This lifestyle did not change until Oman’s Sultan Qaboos overthrew his father in a palace coup in 1970. His late father, Sultan Saeed, had eschewed any trappings of modernity and launched what would become the 12-year Dhofar Rebellion, a war against Dhofari independence fighters backed by Marxists.

When Sultan Qaboos came to power, he offered amnesty to rebel fighters and began an era of intensive modernisation known as the Omani Renaissance.

“Sultan Qaboos, he’s a nice guy,” Ali says. “Today, people have enough.”

Born without the luxuries of schooling or modern healthcare, Bu Sufian’s generation learnt to use every inch of land.

Driving from one hill to another, he tells us local plant names and their medicinal uses. He shows us dry land that was once beneath flowing water. He takes us from one grazing site to another and quizzes us on the advantages of each. 

Then, he parks on a hilltop and points to a grassy valley criss-crossed by livestock trails where he had lived as a child.

Families once averaged two children and herds seldom exceeded 10 camels. His family owned 10 camels and 150 cows. Now, he owns about 100 cows and 80 camels. 

Bu Sufian lights a spark with a block of flint and his knife.

Bu Sufian lights a spark with a block of flint and his knife.

“Because of development, day by day, the number of people increased,” Bu Sufian says. “More people, more children. In the past there was no one here. But after time they moved here with their camels.”

The valley’s grass was once so tall and thick that Bu Sufian remembers a day in 1988 when he accidentally stepped on a dead cow hidden by the undergrowth.

He blames livestock for the deforestation. “They eat.”

And do they. A mature bull camel can weigh 600 kilograms and consumes an daily average of 2kg of dry fodder.

The palate of camels has become less discerning as vegetation variety has diminished. On their march from the grasslands to forest, they purse their furry lips around every leaf, twig and tendril. They pull sprouts up from the roots, strip trees of bark and reduce the forest to cud. 

A camel's feast

And what a smorgasbord they have.

Dhofar’s forests are like nowhere else on Earth, the remnant of a lush vegetation belt that covered the Arabian Peninsula. There are baobab groves, seaside slopes of bulbous desert rose, scraggly frankincense trees and wadi jungles thick with orchids and flowering vines.

Plants are closely related to species found in north-east Africa before a rift in geotechnic plates split it from the peninsula and formed the Red Sea between 23 and 56 million years ago. Isolated from the continent, vegetation adapted to months without rain.

This southern slice of Oman and eastern edge of Yemen have at least 39 species found nowhere else on the planet.

“These species are unique to the world, let’s put it this way,” says Shahina Ghazanfar, a senior botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, Britain, who has documented species in Dhofar and authored Flora of Oman.

But alien invaders appear in the form of aggressive introduced species such as the American persimmon, which flowers profusely with small white blooms and has seeds unpalatable to goats and camels - a superpower in Dhofar’s hills.

“A person will see it’s very green and it’s very beautiful but have a close look at the green patch and ask, 'How many different species can you find? What invasive aliens are there?'”

Between overgrazing and alien invasions, diversity is at stake.

“From what I understand, it’s not easy to have grazing laws but we know the areas that are species-rich and should be conserved,” Shahina says. “The number of animals has simply become so large that I think it is unsustainable for them to graze, even with strict regulations.”

The medicinal plants and relatives of crops such as melons, okra and cucumbers could prove important to human food security.

“There’s a big endeavour to conserve the world’s crops because we depend on so few,” Ghazanfar says. “To improve them, basically, we need their wild relatives and Dhofar has the wild relatives. Losing diversity means we will lose them for good, forever.”

Wadi Raysut, west of Salalah.

Ruttya fruticose in Wadi Hinna, east of Salalah.

Impatiens balsamifera.

Argemone Mexicana in Wadi Hinna.

Reseda sphenocleoides near Jibjat.

Wadi Raysut, west of Salalah.

Ruttya fruticose in Wadi Hinna, east of Salalah.

Impatiens balsamifera.

Argemone Mexicana in Wadi Hinna.

Reseda sphenocleoides near Jibjat.

Over the edge

Wadi Darbat.

Wadi Darbat.

As Ali and his family drive camels to the highlands, six Ministry of Environment officials are trudging through Dhofar’s jungles, collecting pods for a government seed bank. 

“They are working as watchmen,” says Mohammed Hardan, the Ministry’s head of wild plantation in Dhofar. “We are collecting three species right now.” 

Outside his office in downtown Salalah, workers prepare a garden for indigenous plants. The department has collected more than 20 seed types and will grow 15,000 saplings of indigenous plants in its nursery this year.

Years ago, Ministry officials asked herders to delay the khateel by a few weeks so plants would have longer period to seed.

They refused.

“If you go to the mountains now you will see a lot of very small trees,” Mohammed says. “But after one month, no trees will be there because all animals will be grazing, a lot of camels and lot of cows.

“Nobody is willing change grazing patterns. There is no way.”

He suggests camels be corralled for three years so plants can regrow. Camels can graze anywhere and only education will change this, Mohammed says.

Up to 80 per cent of Salalah’s water recharge comes from the fog during the khareef. Trees catch the fogwater and store it underground in aquifers. Without trees, fog moves quickly to the desert and evaporates.

“So when you don’t have trees, what happens?” asks Mahaad Shammas, an assistant professor and water resource specialist at Dhofar University.

A weaverbird nests in Wadi Hinna.

A weaverbird nests in Wadi Hinna.

“All of the fog will evaporate into the atmosphere. If we don’t have trees, there is no interception.”

Shammas believes Dhofar has lost five per cent of its mountain forests annually since 1990 and that tree coverage has decreased by at least half since 1990, from to 4,000 to 2,000 trees a hectare.

“Camels and cattle are not giving plants a chance to grow,” he says. “Traditional grazing is keeping animals in the forest 24 hours a day, so that’s the problem. That’s why we are facing desertification. We have to manage that. We have to keep them enclosed.”

Losing roots

More than forest that will be lost. 

Environmental degradation accelerates the erosion of language already at risk from urbanisation. 

Four languages that probably predate Arabic are spoken in Dhofar, including Mehri and Shehri, the language spoken by Bu Sufian. 

Modern South Arabian languages are full of references to nature. In Mehri, an upright, tall and slender man with a shock of hair is described as a samr tree.

A clinging child is compared to frankincense, a well-built man to a bull camel. A fool “doesn’t know upstream from downstream”.

When the sun is obscured by monsoon mists, time is measured by other telltale signs, such as the movement of dung beetles, the sound of large beetles that appear at sunset, or the opening of flowers that follow a sun hidden by mists.

Time can also be measured by activity, such as the time needed to milk 10 camels or walk a bend in the wadi. As nature is destroyed, knowledge gleaned over centuries is lost.

“The population isn’t endangered but the language is endangered because of a changing lifestyle,” says Prof Janet Watson, a linguist from the University of Leeds who specialises in modern South Arabian languages. “If the languages die, then information on the environment dies.

A woman herds goats east of Salalah near Hasek.

A woman herds goats east of Salalah near Hasek.

“Language gives us an insight into the way people lived. It matters because the way in which people live at the moment is not going to continue. It’s not sustainable. Life was sustainable in the past. People only had as many livestock as they needed and as many livestock as they could look after. Now they have too many. That’s resulted in overgrazing.”

Prof Watson led a research project on modern South Arabian languages from 2013 to 2016, which included documenting local names for plants, wildlife and winds. Those taking part frequently expressed regret at the loss of flora. Grazing was often the centre of discussion.

“Some people will say, ‘Yes, we need to have fewer camels, but if I have fewer camels so and so will have more’ and that’s why it has to be dealt with at a tribal level,” Prof Watson says. “It needs to be addressed.”

Monsoon tourism

Inside Salalah Airport. Alamy Stock Photo

Inside Salalah Airport. Alamy Stock Photo

Hotel Salalah Rotana Resort. Alamy Stock Photo

Central Salalah. Getty Images

The groom, Ammar Salem Bait Saeed, hosts a traditional Dhofari wedding at a tent in central Salalah.

Salalah's monsoon tourists take pictures of Wadi Darbat.

Hotel Salalah Rotana Resort. Alamy Stock Photo

Central Salalah. Getty Images

The groom, Ammar Salem Bait Saeed, hosts a traditional Dhofari wedding at a tent in central Salalah.

Salalah's monsoon tourists take pictures of Wadi Darbat.

Salalah’s population has grown to 165,000 and the quiet town has transformed into a busy city with four-lane motorways and a Dh4.8 million airport that opened in 2015.

The development of Oman’s less-populated south coast is central to diversification away from the oil and gas industry, which accounted for almost half of the GDP in 2016.

Salalah is pivotal to a 25-year strategy to increase tourism from 2.8 per cent of Oman’s GDP to 6 per cent by 2040. In the short term, the government wants to attract 2.7 million tourists by 2020, from 1.9 million in 2015.

The monsoon is lucrative. When rain hits, hotels sell out and Salalah’s population doubles.

Tourists to Salalah increased by almost a third from last year to 826,376 this year during the three-month khareef.

Yet as Salalah’s fame grows, the khareef could disappear.

Herders settle down for the night by campfire after the first day of the khateel migration.

Herders settle down for the night by campfire after the first day of the khateel migration.

Milking by mobile light

Dusk falls as the herders reach a meadow valley between thickly forested hillsides.

Some have already set up nylon tents and started a fire.

The men will camp with their herd for at least two weeks. Their houses are just out of sight in the hamlet of Thin.

The herdsmen line up for Mahgrib prayers.

The herdsmen line up for Mahgrib prayers.

“If we sleep here, we feel relaxed,” says herder Salem Ali, 60. “There are young camels and they could be attacked by a wolf.”

Women and children no longer take part in the drive. Women can tend cattle or goats, but rearing camels is a man’s domain even when they are owned by women. Milking a camel is taboo for women.

Milking a camel at night.

Milking a camel at night.

As darkness falls, Ali points to camels traversing a cliff.

“You see them?” he asks. “Trees were so thick before that there could be 1,000 camels there and you wouldn’t know. Humans and camels are plenty now because water and food is available.”

Pans of camel milk.

Pans of camel milk.

As the stars began to shine, the herd settles into the meadow surrounding the tents and a herdsman calls his companions to prayer. Then, the camels are milked by the light of mobile phones.

Ali points to the forest.

“Every year, there are fewer trees,” he says. “If the trees disappear, the khareef goes with it.”

Credits

Reporting: Anna Zacharias
Photography: Chris Whiteoak unless stated
Producer: Stephen Nelmes
Editing: Paul Stafford
Photo editor: Jake Badger
Video editing: Andy Scott
Graphics: Ramon Penas

Copyright The National, Abu Dhabi, 2018