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Rocky mountains surrounding Palmyra.

Photos G. Serra

Seasonal salt lake Sabkha Al Moh adjacent to a Palmyrean village.

Photos G. Serra

View of the oasis of Palmyra: localized occurrence of shallow underground water has allowed human colonization since the Paleolithic period.

Photos G. Serra

Sandy habitat interspersed with hummocks within Al Talila reserve.

Photos G. Serra

The semi-arid rangelands of the Syrian Arab Republic, known as Al Badia in Arabic, and the Steppe in English, cover 55 percent of the country. The sheer size of Al Badia, as we shall refer to it, means that its wise use and management are an important national issue.

Palmyrean Al Badia is composed of four main ecosystems. In each of these ecosystems all the components - the plants, animals, microorganisms and non-living elements such as soil, water and essential chemical substances (nitrogen and phosphorus) - are linked to each other. Removing or changing one of these components is likely to affect all the others.

This is an important point to grasp because healthy ecosystems are crucial for the survival and well-being not only of wildlife and plants, but also of humans (can we live without clean water and oxygen?).

The wise use of ecosystems, like those of Al Badia, depends on respecting their ecological limits; it is therefore of fundamental importance to gain an idea of what these limits are. We need, at the very least, a basic understanding of the ecology of the system.


The Syrian steppe is a dry area with an average annual rainfall of about 127 mm (average calculated over a period of 42 years in Palmyra), but which varies greatly from year to year, e.g. years of disastrous drought followed by wet or very wet years. No attempt has been made until now to define dry or good rainfall years. Everything depends on how much rain falls, because plants cannot grow without water and animals cannot live without plants. Data collected by the project (shown below in the table) are consistent with the ecosystem behaviour in similar desert habitats where more data was available, and in which the coefficient of variation for dry matter production from annuals reaches as much as 172 percent, indicating the extent of the dependency of annuals on rainfall.

The relatively lower coefficient for perennial plants (79 percent) indicates that perennials are more resilient to drought years. This has an important bearing on forage availability for sheep.
















(percentage over the total production)









Table 1: Data collected by the project, showing the relation between rainfall and vegetation growth.

Shrub uprooting for firewood, combined with population increase, constitutes one of the main causes of overexploitation of Al Badia during the past 30 to 40 years.

Photo M. Marzot

Other important features of Al Badia ecosystems are the quality of the soils and the type of landscape (e.g., flat or sloping, rocky or smooth).

The combination of these features with the rainfall determines what kinds of plants grow in different places and therefore what kinds of animals can live in particular places.

Four distinct ecosystems can be recognized in Al Badia: flat or undulating shrubby plains, uplands with rocky cliffs and plateaus, seasonal wetlands and oases. The vegetation of Al Badia is mainly composed of dwarf shrublands and annual grasses which, since time immemorial, have provided food not only for domestic livestock (sheep, goats and camels), but also for wild herbivores (gazelles, oryx, onagers, ostriches etc.).

The variety of plants and animals - including their colours, shape, behaviour, their capacity to survive and reproduce in different environments and conditions, and the genetic information they carry - is referred to as biodiversity. The biodiversity of Al Badia is an invaluable and unique natural heritage of the Syrian Arab Republic. Ideally, it should be preserved and responsibly managed for the benefit not only of present but also of future generations. In the past, the nomadic Bedouins managed their livestock for subsistence, their flocks depending entirely on communally-grazed and triballycontrolled rangeland forage. The numbers of animals were subjected to environmental regulation and thus the exploitation of natural resources was sustainable. This situation has changed drastically over recent decades.

Aerial evidence of early grazing.

Photo G. Serra


Pressure on the resources of Al Badia has increased drastically during the past 40 to 50 years because of the high rate of human population growth. In 1950 the population of the Syrian Arab Republic, was 3.4 million. By the year 2000 it had reached 17.8 million, having increased by more than five times in 50 years. During the same period, the number of sheep in Al Badia also increased by five times (from 3 million in 1950 to 15.4 million in 1998).

In addition to being faced with competition from sheep for grazing, the wildlife of Al Badia is under severe pressure from current hunting practices that are both unselective (i.e. all kind of species are shot regardless of their nutritional or commercial value), and unsustainable (i.e. the number of individuals shot per species is unlimited).

The widespread Bedouin practice of using poisoned carcasses for controlling wolves also does a great deal of damage to wildlife because it is totally unselective and kills other species that are harmless for humans.

Al Badia seems to be exploited for 12 months a year, which is possible because most places are within easy reach by road from each other. The resulting degradation and destruction of habitats is another important cause of wildlife loss.

Unregulated activities, which are currently considered to be responsible for the degradation and destruction of the ecosystems and habitats of Al Badia, are the following:

Converting rangelands into croplands constituted another major problem of the recent past, but a ban enforced since 1995 seems to have effectively halted it, although the negative effects of this practice are still clearly visible everywhere.

Not surprisingly, Al Badia currently appears to be in an advanced state of desertification. The surface covered by vegetation diminishes steadily year by year, and productivity has declined dramatically: about 50 percent over the past six years alone. The soil is no longer protected by vegetation and is being eroded by the action of wind and water. As a result, sandstorms are becoming more intense every year, a fact emphasized by the citizens of Palmyra, and the process of evolving from rocky desert to sandy desert has already started within Al Badia.

Older Bedouins recall that only 40 years ago the landscape was completely different: Al Badia had abundant vegetation and “gazelles outnumbered sheep”. One can now travel the length of the Al Badia without seeing any wildlife at all. Wildlife populations are declining, while the number of species extinct or threatened with extinction is on the increase.

Hellenistic ruins of Palmyra (II Century A.D.), fading from sight in a heavy dust storm.

Photo G. Serra


Fig. 1 A Drivers-Effects diagram: a simple graphical synthesis of the causes and effects as portrayed in the text.

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