Times of Oman
Aug 29, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 05:08 AM GMT
Rooting for the environment
July 23, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Photo - Times of Oman

The year 2012 proved to be eventful for the Environment Society of Oman (ESO). Sustained research programmes; a community outreach programme; local, regional, and global conferences; and similar activities have kept ESO busy since its establishment in March 2004. ESO's wide-ranging projects cover environmental education as well as terrestrial and marine research, making the organisation a leading player in Oman's conservation strategy.

In her message in the annual report for 2012, Her Highness Sayyida Tania bint Shabib Al Said said, "There has been a huge focus on capacity building over the past year; many of our projects have begun in a secondary phase that involves training local communities for the purpose of increasing awareness and educating the young and old in the inevitable role they play in [safeguarding] the environment. Our goal has been to spread a better understanding of what NGOs and civil societies do. By raising awareness and involving communities, we hope to highlight the role that civil societies play in the country's progress, whilst simultaneously collecting data and sharing the process with those involved."

Incidentally, last year saw HH Sayyida Tania being honoured with the Shaikh Issa bin Ali Al Khalifa Award for Voluntary Work as one of the leading volunteers in the Arab World. HH Sayyida Tania was recognised for her outstanding contribution to the field of environmental conservation and protection in Oman at the awards, organised annually by the Good Word Society in Bahrain to recognise figures from around the Arab world who make a difference through volunteering.

ESO earned the title of Best Civil Institution of 2012 at the Tawasul's Riyada Awards.

Stating that 2012 had been a major year for ESO, Lamees Daar, executive director of ESO, stated, "Our scientific projects continue, with new discoveries being made, especially in the area of whale and dolphin work, where we are focusing our efforts on researching the genetically unique population of the Humpback Whale, which is not known to breed or feed outside of Omani waters. Research on the Egyptian vulture began in 2012, and a much larger number of breeding pairs were found than expected. In addition, we were able to incorporate a socioeconomic aspect in the project in collaboration with the Oman Women's Association (OWA), which was a huge success."

Through its marine projects, ESO has continued to cooperate with the government to help further their common goals through regular meetings and the provision of research and advice in specific areas, such as providing information on marine wildlife to the National Report for the Convention on Biological Diversity for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA). The organisation has also shared data for whale and dolphin reports and the preparation of scientific papers in association with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Besides this, ESO has provided information on marine species to MECA and the Royal Oman Police to help them create new legislation related to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Its participation in the MECA Diving Committee project for the protection of coral reefs from diving, fishing activities, and other human activities has furthered the cause.

Turtle conservation

The global importance of Oman to the survival of turtles—all species of which have been classified as "endangered" or "critically endangered" throughout the world—has been definitively established through surveys and research conducted within the Sultanate over the past 35 years. In the last 6 years, ESO, in collaboration with MECA and senior international scientists, has played the lead research role in studying turtles in the Sultanate. ESO has increased its knowledge and understanding of turtle biology, ecology, and conservation needs and raised the international profile of Oman's turtle resources. Through grants and long-term support, especially from the US Marine Turtle Conservation Fund, ESO has been able to work towards the conservation of turtles, providing continued monitoring and research efforts, enhancement of resource capacity and management activities, and engagement with local communities.

The project is mainly centered on Masirah Island and focuses on Loggerhead turtles, but the team also undertakes visits to the Damaniyat Islands to monitor the annual nesting habits of the Hawksbill.

The project's long-term aims are to conduct research to guide the conservation management of turtles, especially the globally important Loggerhead turtle population at Masirah Island, to study the migration and nesting frequency of turtles, to understand the turtles' potential for interaction with human activities, and to inform and educate local communities and the general public about the value and importance of turtles as essential components of a healthy environment.

ESO is stepping up its efforts through the development of the National Turtle Conservation Strategy.

As for the Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project, ESO uses a variety of methods to learn more about the distribution, abundance, habitat use, population characteristics, and potential threats to whales and dolphins throughout the Sultanate. Apart from the world's rarest humpback whales, Oman also hosts the mighty blue whale, deep-diving sperm whales, killer whales, and a variety of smaller dolphins, some of which can only be seen in Oman and neighbouring waters.

ESO recently compiled a set of specific guidelines to help the tourist industry maximise its opportunities for whale watching whilst minimising disturbance or harm to these enigmatic marine mammals.

The organisation conducted a field survey in October 2012 to gather initial data on scavenger presence at dumpsites since not much had previously been known about avian scavengers' use of dumpsites in Oman. The aim of the survey was to document the population and age of vultures across different dumpsites in Oman. Nineteen visits were made to 10 dumpsites: Barka, Fanja, Izki, Jebel Akhdar, Manah, Masirah, Al Amerat, Nizwa, Quriyat, and Samail.

The findings show the use of dumpsites to be quite variable, with some hosting more than 200 vultures, whereas others hosted none, despite the availability of food. ESO's field assistants have now been trained to contribute to surveys and conduct monthly monitoring of dumpsites without supervision and have learned vulture trapping and handling techniques including safely measuring, ringing, and collecting blood samples. A manuscript reporting the results of the survey of Egyptian vultures on dumpsites in Oman has been accepted for publication in the regional ornithological newsletter, Phoenix, with one of ESO's employees, a recent graduate, listed as the first author, while the field assistants are listed as co-authors.

ESO secured support from the Hima Fund to conduct preliminary research on the Egyptian vulture. Masirah Island is designated an Important Bird Area, and for many years, it was thought to hold some 12 breeding pairs of Egyptian vultures. Field research consisted of two phases: one focused on determining the number of breeding Egyptian vultures on Masirah Island and their productivity and one surveyed dumpsites in Oman to gather preliminary data on the number of vultures that use these sites and their distribution. The project was to collect data and provide training on bird research and ringing to ESO field assistants on Masirah Island. ESO also engaged the local OWA on the island to produce handicrafts with the image of the vulture to raise awareness of the bird and to dispel negative perceptions of the vulture.

In the spring of 2012, field work for the first phase of this study estimated that the number of breeding pairs of Egyptian vultures on Masirah Island was 65–80, far more than the previous estimate of 12 pairs. It is estimated that at least 200 individual vultures reside on the island, which is more than four times the estimate from previous studies conducted in the 1980s.

This apparent increase in the vulture population is most probably due to both better survey methods as well as an increase in the availability of food for the vultures.

The increase in the human population on the island since the last survey has more than doubled and fishing activity has increased, resulting in more waste (fish and domestic stock) upon which vultures can feed.

ESO has also embarked on the Frankincense Research project. Sponsored by HSBC, this long-term research project aims to determine the right frequency of cutting to gain a good yield without harming the trees. In addition, by monitoring the meteorological data in three different locations, the project aims to set a baseline for weather data that can be used in the future to monitor the impact of climate change and its effect on the growth patterns of frankincense trees.

Dr Mohsen Al Amri leads the Frankincense Research project, which is a series of studies being conducted over four years to determine sustainable harvesting methods of frankincense trees.

ESO's community outreach initiatives have increased over the years, and it has worked with women in advocating for environmental issues, led tree-planting campaigns, handled electricity-saving awareness campaigns, and produced socioeconomic programmes.

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