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Jordan’s Azraq wetland, a heaven for ecotourists
Marwan Asmar

One-by-one we assembled outside the nature reserve. We were walking alone and/or in groups of two and threes and in-between the towering palm trees. It was 6:15 in the morning, there was a chill in the air but the dew and the mist were intertwining with the brilliant sunshine.

More like a trot or a decanter we strode over from the newly renovated Lodge in Azraq, a good 10 minute brisk walk to the reserve. At 5:30 we were woken up out of our warm beds by RSCN staff that sounded more like army commands.

The Lodge was an environmentally-friendly extension of a 1940s old British military hospital that was converted by the RSCN to give it a natural look. It is a 16-room lodge with more-than-basic accommodation for anyone who wanted to come to Azraq, north-east of Jordan, to explore the wildlife. The reception was kept as it is with couches, and leather chairs resembling a 1950s style and with photographs depicting the history of Azraq.

Through a local guide we were off to the Azraq wetland, and be told about its natural value and its inhabitants ranging from the water buffalo, the red fox, the marshlands, to the mudflats, the reappearing water-pools and the hundreds of migratory birds who stop at the wetland en-route from Europe to Africa and vise-versa.

We were a fairly large group of tour operators, tour guides and some of the intrepid Wild Jordan staff, the eco-tourism arm of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the body responsible for looking after nature reserves in Jordan.

It is an alliance between nature and business made available through the Jordan Tour Operator’s Association (JITOA), a body that represents inbound tour operators—those who bring tourists to the country—and the RSCN to upbeat ecotourism in tour packages with the new philosophy being nature and economics have mutual benefits.

We were invited to the Azraq wetland to market and package eco-tourism holidays to international tourists who were fed up with the usual classic-style holidays and wanted to go back to nature. The tour was short, less than an hour but we saw dried up lakes, natural vegetation growths, endless marshes, water-birds and the world famous endemic Aphanius sirhani, the killifish, which is only found in these pools.
Naturists tell us that more and more people in the world want to get away from the hurly-burly of sky-scrapper wonderments and sunshine-on-the-beach and want to new natural things that seem exotic but are basic to human survival.
As the party move
d forward, the guide explained the importance of the surroundings. Azraq is on the edge of the desert, yet here there are natural vegetations, and thick green bushels, here and there. The contrast between golden-sandy desert and green was interactive, giving you a world of contrasts.Azraq is famous for international ecology and nature conservation, as the 1978 12-kilometer reserve, had been brought back to life from the dead because of excessive water pumping.

Azraq meaning blue in Arabic had been a large oasis with an abundance of water accumulating in deep underground aquifers over the centuries coming down from the Druze mountains over Syria. In 1922, a British officer Colonel R. Meinertzhagen described it as "a perfect paradise......having all the characteristics of an island." The imagination might be mind-boggling, a sea in the midst of a desert. Up till the early 1970s, there was talk about the possibility of turning the wetlands into a national park. It was a debate between politics and nature, and the former won.

The national park idea was abandoned because of the rapid growth of urbanization in Jordan’s sprouting city-states and population growth. By the early 1980s, the water pumping to feed Amman, Zerqa and latter Irbid was so much that the pools dried up, soil degradation and desalination set in, and talk of a natural life virtually disappeared, all this was happening when the wetland had already been declared a nature reserve.
The migratory birds for instance are a case in point. Before the 1960s, up to 400,000 types of birds were counted daily at the wetlands, showing the strategic geographical importance of Azraq between north and south, east and west. At the Visitor’s Center we were told that on 2 February 1967, 347,000 birds were counted while on 2 February 2000, the number had fallen to a mere 12,000, and some say today that there are in their hundreds.

It was only in 1994 that international efforts were mobilized through the United Nations Development Program and the Global Environment Facility to bring life back into the wetland reserve through concerted efforts. But because of Jordan’s acute shortage of water, underground pumping continues till today. However after much lobbying 1.5 mcm of water was allowed to be plowed back and replenish the reserve and that explained the gushing water we heard in different areas of the reserve.
It was this action that allowed 10 percent of the reserve to be restored, with wildlife slowly growing as heard by the birds singing, and the live killifish swimming in the different pools. It is argued once the Disi aquifers in the south of the Kingdom starts pumping to Amman, only then would pressure on Azraq lessen and natural life be fully restored.

However, present RSCN efforts to put life back into the reserve seem to be working, especially through good management and better ecological techniques of conservation and making the wetlands more accessible to the public and tourists.

The dominant thinking that it is only through eco-tourism that people become aware of the reserves for their sustainability and livelihood is gaining importance. Through good management and better control, the reserve can serve a source of livelihood for local communities and nourishment for tourists, especially those from Europe, who are increasingly adopting environmental-friendly life styles.

A good evidence of this is the lodge and the nature center around. Through its different workshops which produce mainly decorative Ostrich eggs, its staff and those who work in the reserve, the RSCN is a major employer in Azraq.

With that thought we went back to the lodge ready for breakfast and off back to Amman to start our marketing activities to tell local and international eco-tourists to come to Azraq and enjoy the protected wildlife.

AZRAQ link
© Marwan Asmar May 2007

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