Azraq & Shawmari
Azraq is a unique wetland, located in the heart of the arid Eastern Desert, which takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘blue’. A migratory stopover for birds from three continents, Azraq is becoming increasingly popular for bird watching. From the walkways and hides, visitors get the chance to observe birds close at hand, including local, migratory and occasional rare species.
The Azraq area also has a rich cultural history due to its strategic location and water resources. It was used as a station for pilgrims and camel trains and Lawrence of Arabia was stationed in Azraq Castle during the Arab Revolt. The local people are also unusually diverse, coming from three different ethnic origins, Bedouin, Chechen and Druze; each of which has distinctive beliefs and traditions. Bedouins have lived a nomadic life style in the area for generations, whereas the Chechens are descendants of settlers from the Caucasus and the Druze stem from Arab tribes in Syria and Lebanon.
Many interesting archaeological sites lie within easy reach of Azraq Lodge, including the famous but misnamed ‘desert castles’: Qasr Amra, Qasr Kharana and Azraq Castle. Qasr Amra is one of the best-preserved Umayyad bathhouses in the world and a World Heritage Site. Its interior walls are covered in lively frescos dating back to 700 AD. There are also many dramatic desert landscapes to discover, including moon-like plains of black basalt and white valleys of chalk.
The best time to visit Al-Azraq is in late autumn, winter or spring. Winter rains often create pools and marshes over the reserve, which continue to attract many seasonal species of birds. The success of bird-watching visits depends largely on the amount of water that has accumulated in the reserve.
Shaumari Wildlife Reserve was established in 1975 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature as a breeding center for endangered or locally extinct wildlife. Today, following breeding programs with some of the world's leading wildlife parks and zoos, this small, 22-square-kilometre reserve is a thriving protected environment for some of the most rare species of animals in the Middle East. Oryx, ostriches, Onagers (an Asian wild ass) and gazelles, which are depicted on many local 6th century Byzantine mosaics, are rebuilding their populations and reasserting their presence in this safe haven, protected from hunting and habitat destruction that nearly wiped them out.
The Oryx and Onagers can often be seen roaming freely in their large desert grassland enclosure, and gazelles can be observed in their own fenced areas. Shaumari's breeding enclosures provide a small "zoo" for visitors, making the reserve a popular spot for children and school outings.
The Arabian Oryx Story
The Arabian Oryx, an elegant white antelope, is one of the few mammals indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula. It became extinct in Jordan around the 1920s, because of the increased hunting for its meat, coat and horns. The increasing range and power of rifles compounded by the factor of motorized vehicles were the key to the extinction of the Oryx. The last known wild Arabian Oryx in the world was killed by hunters in Oman in 1972.
Fortunately, previous to this incident, in 1962, the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund had launched an international rescue effort known as Operation Oryx. A world survival herd was established in the USA, with three animals from Oman, one from the London zoo, one from Kuwait, and four from Saudi Arabia. This herd increased steadily in numbers, and the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature proposed that the Arabian Oryx should be reintroduced into its native habitat in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
In 1978, eleven Arabian Oryx were relocated in Shaumari. The number of Oryx has now increased to a phenomenal two hundred! Operation Oryx has been so successful that Jordan now supplies Oryx to other countries, which are conducting reintroduction programs