Amid the region’s political and religious turmoil, Jordan has set up a cluster of national parks that conserve an astonishing array of biodiversity.
The van and the thick clouds hug the side of the steep mountain. Two hours after starting from the Dead Sea basin, the road keeps climbing in perilous unseen switchbacks. Finally the tarmac levels out. A swath of fog parts as we pull into the village of Dana, revealing old stone houses perched on a ledge that juts out into a grey vastness. Below is one of the Middle East’s largest and most important nature reserves, a huge tract of rugged land where lesser kestrels nest and Griffon vultures circle as ibex and gazelles roam along cliffs, through gorges, and among sand dunes.
This is a vertical place, stretching from one of the highest inhabited spots in Jordan to within a short hike of the earth’s lowest point on land. Europe, Asia, and Africa mix it up here, and thousands of birds—from the enormous imperial eagle to the tiny mourning wheatear—funnel through this area while migrating as far as South Africa and Siberia. “This is one of the most important bird sites in the Middle East,” says Mohammad Al-Qawabah, Dana’s former manager, as we sip tea in his office perched on the cliff edge overlooking the dramatic canyon that defines the 250-square miles of reserve.
If Dana were in the American West, Theodore Roosevelt would have championed its cause, and an act of Congress, uniformed rangers, and an annual budget would have followed. But in the volatile Middle East, with its wars, population growth, and poverty, environmental protection is typically on the low end of national priorities; Dana itself was created in 1989. Making the park succeed in a poor country with little experience in environmental awareness required a bold, and sometimes gutsy, new approach. “This is a place where you interact with people who have machine guns and M-16s,” says Al-Qawabah, a trim young man who grew up nearby and knows the complexities of Bedouin politics.
Now, thanks to local initiative, outside expertise, and Western money, Dana is on its way to becoming a self-sustaining park that protects wildlife and draws thousands of tourists from Europe, America, and Jordan itself. On top of that, it has the strong support of the armed pastoralists who live nearby. That would be an amazing accomplishment in the United States. But in a region that combines a fierce tradition of tribal independence with top-down and inefficient bureaucracies, the Dana experiment, though still unfolding, is little short of a miracle. It offers an intriguing model for Jordan’s growing park system, and for struggling nature reserves throughout the developing world.
A measure of Dana’s success can be found by climbing the steep stairs to the local Bedouin cooperative, which rents rooms to tourists. “The concept of nature conservation is very new to us,” explains its director, Amer Khawaldeh, a thin and quiet man in stylish boots sporting a NASA patch on his jacket, as we huddle near the stove in the spring chill. Khawaldeh’s people have long grazed their sheep and goats here, moving from the foothills and plains in the winter to the high plateau in the summer, living in black goat-haired tents or simple stone houses. By the 1980s, Khawaldeh says, it was clear that hunting and overgrazing were damaging not just wild species but also the Bedouin’s way of life. The once-plentiful chukar, for example, a Eurasian game bird in the pheasant family that was a favorite dish of locals, became rare. “Now you see them crossing the street,” he says through a local interpreter. “People are starting to see the benefits.”
That positive view of the park formed after a long struggle that often edged toward violence. When Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) first created the reserve, Bedouin tribes regularly brandished rifles to get a point across. “At the beginning there were conflicts,” acknowledges Khawaldeh with a wave of his hand. The men around him, with their heads swaddled in kaffiyehs against the cold, smile knowingly at one another. “We were afraid, and RSCN in the beginning didn’t explain why the park would benefit the people,” he adds. “At first we thought the RSCN had come to stop our grazing and wood cutting. But now we are working together.” Khawaldeh’s move from independent pastoralist to savvy conservationist came only after the RSCN backed away from its original plan to close most of the reserve to grazing.
Instead, they worked out a compromise that opens large chunks of land to livestock, although only during certain seasons. When it became clear that people were using one sensitive forest area because they lacked shelter for their flocks, the RCSN provided materials for Bedouin to build shelters elsewhere. Now that portion of the reserve, about one-fifth, is off-limits to flocks. Since 1995, park personnel say, two dozen of the rare cypress seedlings that grow in the wooded areas, previously a favorite sheep snack, successfully germinated, though they did not thrive.
Today conflicts involve interminable meetings over tea, without firearms. The latest dispute is over adding rooms to the cooperative’s guesthouse. “It requires a lot of energy to succeed at this,” Al-Qawabah says with a sigh. He trained as an engineer but now has to think like a diplomat. “Whenever you do something wrong here, it is hard to overcome it.”