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Oman's Oryx Sanctuary – First Site Ever to be Deleted from the World Heritage List

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) issued a press release earlier last week announcing its first ever deletion of a site from the World Heritage List.
The item removed was Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary – a massive 27,500 square kilometer natural sanctuary located in the Wusta region of Oman. The sanctuary was established to preserve the rare Arabian Oryx from extinction and was managed by Oman's own Royal Court. UNESCO's press release states it removed the site from the list because Oman failed to show it enough interest in preserving the Oryx as the size of the sanctuary was reduced by 90 per cent and number Oryx found in it fell from 140 in 1996 to 65, with four breeding pairs only. UNESCO went on to say that this reduction in the size of the sanctuary was made to advance the search for oil in the area.

As usual, we heard about the news from abroad before anything was said here. The reduction of the size of the sanctuary took place in January following a royal decree by His Majesty the Sultan of Oman. News about delisting eventually reached the country, but people still wonder about the reasons behind the reduction of the size. There is no proper logical official explanation or justification for the incident.

Blogger Muscati explains that the sanctuary had many problems that led to the reduction of the number of Oryx in the area:

The problem, which most people don't seem to comprehend, is that the Oryx Sanctuary is massive. It is 27,500 square kilometers. For comparison, the entire state of Kuwait is 17,820 sq. km, while Qatar is 11,437 sq. km. So basically the Oryx Sanctuary was about the size of Kuwait and Qatar combined. It is not easy to protect an area that large when all what a poacher needs is a land cruiser abu shanab and a rifle to go in under the cover of darkness, shoot an oryx or two and drive through the desert, slip the border into KSA or UAE and sell the animal to a rich sheikh who would gladly pay thousands of rials for that oryx.

Sue Hutton, the first to report the news in the Omani Blogsphere, heard several other explanations of why the government could not preserve the sanctuary:

As Rangers became unavailable, partly, if not mostly, as a result of lack of funding for training and salaries, the Oryx roamed beyond the boundaries of the sanctuary towards the boundaries of the UAE. Many allegations of poaching brought by Omanis claimed that the animals had been captured from across the international border for private collections in the emirates.

And while it is apparent that oil is vital for our developing nation, the discussion on whether the government is doing the right thing or not is still going on, some acknowledge that the loss of interest in the sanctuary and the unpromising future of the oryx in the area a very sad incident, while on the other hand, many seem to find the exploration of oil as a good enough justification for sacrificing oryx. This point of view is very apparent in the posts made in the Arabic forum Omania2.net.

What irritated me personally the most, was not the fact that we were internationally shamed by this award – to be the first to ever be delisted -, but the manner in which the Omani press flipped the story around and claimed Government of Oman REQUESTED the removal of the sanctuary from UNESCO's list IN ORDER to PROTECT the oryx:

كتب ـ عبدالله الجهوري:وافقت لجنة التراث العالمي التابعة لمنظمة اليونسكو في اجتماعها الذي عقدته أمس الأول بنيوزلندا على طلب السلطنة سحب محمية المها العربية بجدة الحراسيس من قائمة التراث العالمي وذلك حفاظاً على المها العربية حيث تتعرض هذه الفصيلة النادرة في ظل المساحة الكبيرة للمحمية للصيد غير القانوني من مصادر كثيرة خارجة عن إرادة السلطنة وفق ما صرح لـ(الوطن) سعادة الدكتور موسى بن جعفر بن حسن مندوب السلطنة الدائم لدى اليونسكو. وقال سعادته: إن قرار اليونسكو يأتي عقب تقليص السلطنة مساحة المحمية من خلال المرسوم السلطاني السامي رقم( 11/ 2007 ) من 28 ألف كيلومتر لتصل المساحة الجديدة إلى 2824 كيلو متراً.

Headlines over all major newspapers said ‘Oman Pulled the Sanctuary’, when in fact it was UNLISTED by UNESCO. It is true, that we might not be in a position to have a say in the decision making regarding the issue, but the least that we deserve is the right to know the truth.

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