The Maine-sized wedge of land that makes up Jordan—bounded by Israel and the West Bank to the west, Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the east, and Syria to the north—includes forested mountains, a salty sea, a stony desert, barren hills, and the immense gash of the Rift Valley. Long the domain of nomadic Bedouin and village dwellers, Jordan once was sparsely populated by people and rich in herds of gazelles and ibex. But by the 1960s members of Jordan’s Royal Hunting Club grew alarmed at the rapid depletion of wildlife. The late King Hussein gave up hunting and took up the conservation cause long before it came to the attention of other Middle Eastern countries.
Through Operation Oryx, a half-dozen remaining animals were bred in the Phoenix Zoo, and the population was reintroduced to Jordan’s Shaumari Reserve in the 1970s. In the following decade the RSCN began to make plans for 17 nature reserves. So far seven have been officially declared. Ultimately, the nonprofit RSCN hopes to oversee 18 parks totaling approximately 1,200 square kilometers, from the Dibeen forest in the north to the Azuja marshes deep in the eastern desert. The focus on Jordan’s rich biodiversity is coming none too soon. Once largely inhabited by nomads and villagers, millions of displaced Palestinians and Iraqi refugees are straining the country’s fragile environment. The capital of Amman has transformed from a dusty town to a modern city expanding at an alarming rate, complete with drive-through Starbucks and major freeways. That exploding population is sucking precious water away from oases and mountains.
With its royal charter, the RCSN has an unusual degree of freedom in managing the parks, though it comes at the price of limited financial support from the cash-strapped government. But with help from the Global Environmental Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and several European countries, the RSCN made Dana the pilot program for a new approach to conservation. Dana is the richest of Jordan’s parks, boasting 215 bird species, 38 kinds of mammals, and 42 different types of reptiles.
Only a quarter of the 391 important bird sites in the Middle East are protected, according to Birdlife International. “The reserve is a bottleneck IBA that lays on the Rift Valley/Red Sea flyway, the second most important flyway for migratory soaring birds in the world,” says Ibrahim Al-Khader, BirdLife International’s Middle East regional director, adding that Dana is home or rest stop for 17 species of concern at the Global and Middle Eastern levels. The reserve’s population of lesser kestrels, Syrian serins, and possibly Cyprus warblers is important for global biodiversity conservation. That makes Dana an important link in an international flyway. And its astounding diversity in altitude, temperature, and landscape make it a birdwatcher’s delight.
The globally threatened lesser kestrel soars among the cliffs along with short-toed and verreaux eagles, which have occasionally been spotted, and griffon vultures. Cyprus warblers nest in acacia trees lining Dana’s creek beds. The small Syrian serin—perhaps 5,000 remain in Jordan, Syrian, and Lebanon—inhabits the oak and juniper woods, flashing its delicate yellow markings. Far below, in the harsh desert scrub, are houbara bustards, Arabian babblers, and the hoopoe, famed in the Islamic world for its conversations with King Solomon, though listed as forbidden food in the Old Testament. The hoopoe’s high orange and black crest and black and white tail look more butterfly than bird as it flits through the brush.
For Dana to survive and the park system to expand, Jordan has turned to modern marketing. “Income is critical,” says Chris Johnson, formerly the director of Wild Jordan, the RSCN’s business unit, and now the USAID Program Director for the RSCN. We’re sitting in the café at its concrete-and-glass headquarters overlooking the ancient Roman center of Amman, a three-hour drive north of Dana. It’s noon, and the tables fill with expatriate Europeans and wealthy Jordanians lunching on organic salads.
Johnson, a thin and energetic Englishman, explains that though small, the organic food movement is gaining ground in Jordan, where fresh produce is a staple and pesticide concerns are on the rise. The adjacent gift shop offers snazzy jewelry and other wares crafted by artists at nature reserves. Visitors can also pick up glossy brochures for off-the-grid ecolodges like Dana’s Feynan Lodge, which resembles an ancient caravan-stopping place; its mirrored recesses inside reflect candlelight, and organic vegetarian fare is served in the flickering quiet. The simplicity extends to the front desk, where the clerk turned my credit card over and over, as if seeing one for the first time. Cash only in the desert. The profits are plowed back into operations along with new infrastructure and entrepreneurial ventures.
Wild Jordan also focused on providing an income for the village of Dana itself, which, behind its beautiful setting and atmospheric stone houses lacked electricity, sanitation, or employment. Its people were abandoning their stone houses for a growing town two miles away on a main road. Rebecca Salti, an American who had worked for Save the Children, organized a jewelry-making operation, giving women unprecedented freedom—and an income.