Rewilding the Desert

Lurking silently amidst the desert rocks is a leopard, its head turned purposefully towards us, body poised to pounce. It’s a breathtaking moment, and one that hasn’t changed for thousands of years: the leopard is a petroglyph, one of hundreds of pieces of Neolithic rock art that give us a tantalising glimpse into pre-historic AlUla.

It’s a vision of a greener land, rich with animals that once roamed these savannah-like plains: ibex, gazelle, ostrich, and the iconic Arabian Leopard. These charismatic hunters have not been seen in AlUla for more than a decade and are now considered critically endangered, but they are coming back as part of the region’s extensive rewilding that aims to restore and revitalise the landscape.

Not that AlUla’s desert landscape is currently devoid of life, far from it. The endlessly undulating sand dunes, winding red-rock canyons, and towering sandstone cliffs create a striking panorama, a stunningly beautiful if seemingly barren landscape. But this is merely the epic backdrop to an extraordinary biodiversity: more than 500 species of fauna and more than 2,000 species of flora thrive in AlUla. When the conditions are right, the desert blooms.

Naturally, the most verdant area is the oasis valley where water and 7,000 years of human endeavour have shaped a phenomenal agricultural achievement. In a tiered system informed by nature herself, more than two million date palms form a majestic green canopy that shelters thousands of citrus trees beneath which grow olives, figs, mango, pomegranate and banana. Here, in the middle of the desert, the farms of AlUla produce an astonishing 90,000 tonnes of dates every year.

But even away from the irrigated fields, life blossoms. Heading into the open desert, clumps of dense green foliage erupt from the rocky landscape, the rounded mounds dotted with bright yellow flowerheads. This is fragrant oxeye, a common sight in AlUla and a welcome one. Its vibrant flowers attract animals and insects, while its aromatic leaves are still harvested by the locals to make refreshing peach-flavoured infusions. For humans, as for animals, the desert provides.

And, much as they have for millennia, animals continue to graze the desert. There’s something timeless about watching a Nubian ibex perched on a rocky outcrop: the ages seem to slip away in a scene almost unchanged since Neolithic artists carved its likeness into the landscape. With this profound connection with the past comes a passion for preserving it, driving AlUla’s ambitious commitment to restore the balanced and biodiverse ecosystems that once flourished here.

Rewilding is a delicate process of removing some species while reintroducing others: more than 1,500 gazelles, oryx, and ibex have already been released across the six substantial nature reserves that now cover more than half of AlUla. The science is complicated but the results are tangible, and nowhere are they more inspiring than in the very heart of AlUla at Sharaan Nature Reserve.

Sharaan’s 1,500 square kilometres was once devastated by overgrazing, but today hundreds of thousands of locally grown native seedlings are clawing back the desert. Hardy acacia trees provide shade for smaller plants, including seven types of grass, binding the soil so that wild plants can again flourish naturally; today, its valleys are once more carpeted in wildflowers. The native Moringa tree, said to be a miracle plant with many medicinal, culinary and cosmetic properties, is also being replanted en masse by horticulturalists. A local factory extracts the precious oils from the tree to be made into a range of beauty products for eager visitors to take home as souvenirs. 

With the restoration of flora, the animals return. Once endangered Arabian wolves and large-eared red foxes can now be found in the area, alongside red-necked ostriches, Cape Hares, and of course, the Nubian ibex.

What is missing is the Arabian leopard, but confidence is high. A successful breeding programme saw three cubs born in 2022, and another seven in 2023. The hope is that by 2030, the leopards and the landscape will be ready for each other and that we will once again have the breathtaking experience of seeing these magnificent animals roaming the wilds of AlUla.