According to BirdLife International, every autumn over two billion birds channel through the Middle East from Europe and Central Asia on their way down to Africa, before migrating back again in spring.
A quarter of that number, however, are shot or trapped by hunters in the region every year, and up until recently few efforts were being made to protect them.
Now, however, a new app — the world’s first to be launched in Arabic — by conservation charity, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia (OSME), looks to change attitudes towards wildlife in the region.
Based on the book Birds of the Middle East, which was also translated into Arabic and launched at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai in 2017, the free to download app looks to take the fight for conservation to a wider and ever younger, tech-savvy, audience.
“Hunting is one of the big concerns so we hope to try and get people — the next generation or the generation after that — to appreciate birds for their natural beauty and incredible behaviour, rather than just being merely seen as something to be shot,” OSME chairman Rob Sheldon told the Weekend Review.
He explained that numerous species from Central Asia, Siberia and the Artic get channelled through a bottleneck in the Middle East on their way down to East and Southern Africa, making it a significant stopover. So significant, in fact, that birdwatchers head here in their droves to tick off species from a list that’s known as the Western Paleartic.
“The potential for ecotourism is quite high,” he added. “It’s almost as if it’s an airport for birds to stop off and refuel before continuing their journey south. However the importance of this particular flyway has probably been neglected up until the last few years.”
But he said change was afoot and it had been sparked by social media.
“We’ve all seen some of the pretty horrible images of hundreds of birds being lined up on the floor because they’ve been shot while they are migrating, and people are starting to turn their attention a lot more to this region and say ‘come on guys, this isn’t acceptable, let’s do more to conserve them.’
“It’s quite an important place and I think attitudes are changing slowly, it always takes a while to change, but hopefully they will and this will be a key part of it,” he added of the app.
“There has already been several thousand downloads, so we think there’s an appetite for it, but we also hope to create one as well by aiming it at youngsters and children and making it more accessible.
“We also hope to introduce it into the national curriculum so that it can be used as an educational tool. That’s the obvious next step, to use it in a structured educational way instead of just an app that you download and have on your phone.”
Sheldon added that from his experience of working on nature reserves in the region, it was important just to have this resource in order to know that he and Arab rangers were actually talking about the same bird.
Abdul Rahman Al Sirhan, who translated the text from English into Arabic, said the app would always have a much deeper purpose.
“From about 20-30 years ago, as soon as it became easy to own a four-wheel drive, and fuel was cheap enough, people began venturing out into the desert, but as soon as they saw animals or birds, they shot them for souvenirs or to show off,” he said.
“It’s going to take time, people still shoot birds to hunt and not everyone who ventures into the desert is a conservationist, but people are becoming slowly interested in nature.
“The pace is sadly still very slow, but wildlife photography is picking up thanks to social media, and although the number of birdwatchers in the Arab world are still very few, apps such as this will help.
“It will be easy for people of all ages to access this app and in 10 years time, when eight to 10-year-olds now have seen birds and get interested in them, hopefully we will see numbers increasing.
“More can definitely be done,” he added. “And I think the government needs to take initiative. They should hold conferences and run campaigns to show people why we should take an interest in wildlife conservation.”
For bird enthusiasts, there are many species to be seen but the highlights include the hypercolius, the slender billed curlew, kingfishers, owls, the crab plover, the hoopoe, the Socotra cormorant and the greater flamingo.
This edited article first appeared in Gulf News.