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Hills surrounding the ruins of Palmyra.

Photo M. Marzot

February 1 996 saw the start of a project entitled: “Range rehabilitation and establishment of a wildlife reserve in the Syrian Steppe”. This project (hereafter referred to simply as “the Palmyra project”), is funded by Italian Cooperation and implemented by FAO. Its aim is to assist the Syrian authorities in promoting conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in their country, by developing Al Talila Reserve, and rehabilitating the rangelands which surround it.

In 6 years of activity the project has developed a model for promoting the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the country, through intensive training of government staff, involvement of local communities, promotion of programmes emphasizing conservation education, and the raising of public awareness. Technical work has been done and continues to be done on all three of the components which make up the Palmyra project, namely: Range Management, Extension, and Wildlife Conservation and Management. Ideally, the experience of this pioneer project (methods, practices, and lessons learned) will be replicated in the future in other ecologically important environments of the Syrian Arab Republic, within the framework of the recently created National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan.

Entrance to Al Talila reserve.

Photo G. Serra


The project area is around 130 000 ha, of which 22 000 ha is the biodiversity conservation reserve (Al Talila), and 108 000 ha is assigned to three cooperatives with 426 Bedouin household members who own 95 000 sheep. The peasants of Palmyrean Al Badia are the intended beneficiaries of the project, and the three cooperatives are the principal target group.

Al Talila reserve is surrounded by the cooperative areas; thus, the status of the rangelands and activities around the reserve have a considerable impact on it. Effective implementation of the project has, therefore, required a realistic assessment of the present status of the rangelands in the project area, and practical proposals for their improvement and management. Detailed studies have shown that the rangelands are severely degraded, particularly the high potential sites. The existing perennial vegetation is dominated by species with low forage value for grazing animals and populations of the native species of antelope have locally become extinct.

In the context of the project, natural resource management involves building the capacities of national staff to implement the inventory, plan, monitor, and evaluate; activities that are vital for sustainable resource management. There is also a widely recognized need for a holistic approach to resource management which involves all stakeholders (people with a recognized interest in the area), because their support will be vital for the long term sustainability of the reserve and its surrounding rangelands. Community participation and Bedouin extension are priority considerations because without the acceptance and understanding of the local people in the Bedouin pastoralists inside a tent. project area, long term sustainability of project activities will not be achieved.

Key stakeholders in the context of the project include representatives of the cooperatives, the Peasant Union and the Directorate of Al Badia. Together with project staff, they were trained in the use of Participatory Rural Assessment [PRA] techniques in resource management, such as informal resource mapping, ranking and scoring, SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), standard of living ranking (wealth ranking) and conflict resolution. The application of these techniques in practical field situations was found to be effective. For example, the use of PRA helped national staff to identify demand driven extension needs.

Bedouin pastoralists inside a tent.

Photo G. Serra

Androctonus crassicauda is the most common scorpion of Al Badia.

Photo G. Serra

Since resource management requires that the people who actually use the resources understand clearly the importance of sustainability and conservation of the resources, a way to establishing communication and discussion with them had to be found. Because of the high rate of illiteracy among the Bedouins, and their mobility, trained Bedouin facilitators were found to be the best solution. These individuals were Bedouin males and female who could both read and write.

The project produced communications materials such as flip charts and leaflets, and the facilitators were trained to use them to deliver extension messages and generate feedback to the project. This was found to be an effective method of awareness-raising, outreach and identification of problems affecting the Bedouins themselves.

The building of trust is a top priority when concrete services are provided to target groups. Community demands were met, within the limits of the project’s resources, by conducting training programmes aimed at income generation, particularly for semi-settled Bedouins (mainly women).

One of the major outcomes of community participation is the management of Al Talila reserve for approximately 1 200 camels (the largest camel concentration in one area). This was achieved by setting up a grazing management committee which works with the project.

Ornithogalum spp.

Another important result is that the cooperatives have agreed to implement grazing management plans in their areas.

This was the result of a land tenure workshop, in the which a serious debate was held around the customary management of the rangelands, which identified the three options of having either tribes, cooperatives or the state as managers of the rangelands. The majority chose the cooperatives as the best institution for rangeland grazing management.


The Government of the Syrian Arab Republic demarcated Al Talila as a biodiversity reserve in 1991 by excavating a trench around its perimeter. The reserve is located 30 km southeast of Palmyra. Its underlying geology is mainly of recent origin and the enclosed area is generally flat to gently sloping, with localized sand dunes, depressions and drainage lines which lead to relatively large wadis.

A range of soil types support a relatively high diversity of plant species, particularly in the perennial component of the vegetation.

The most important perennials in different areas inside the reserve are Artemisia herba-alba, Achillea conferta, and Achillea fragrantissima. Calligonum comosum and Stipagrostis plumosa are present on stable sand dunes.

Anabasis syriaca and Seidlitzia rosmarinus are common in more saline habitats. Chenolea arabica, Poa sinaica and Ephedra alata are found in localized pockets in different parts of the reserve. Astragalus sp. makes a dense mat in most parts of the reserve in wet years and is the dominant species in the annual component. The situation in the reserve is very different to that in the surrounding area, where both diversity and density of plant species are very poor, which suggests that the reserve has improved thanks to the exclusion of sheep.

Achillea fragrantissima.

The relatively high diversity of both the land and vegetation makes the Al Talila reserve ideal for the reintroduction of antelopes, but any efforts in this direction must first take into account the area’s traditional importance for camel grazing.

Management objectives for the reserve thus include:

Sand Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa marica) has almost disappeared from the wild in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Photo G. Serra

Reintroduction of locally extinct fauna

There is clear historical evidence that the Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx), which is a globally endangered species according to the IUCN, and extinct in the Syrian Arab Republic, was once prevalent in the project area.

The Sand Gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa marica), which is also a globally endangered species and until recently was common in the Syrian Arab Republic, are today reduced to a few individuals in the wild.

This animal was hunted relentlessly in the past, and poachers still track and kill it. It was thus decided that both species were suitable candidates for reintroduction to the reserve.

There are two important considerations when choosing the method of introduction: a) Al Talila reserve is not large enough to provide the reintroduced antelopes with sufficient food, so they would probably not remain within its boundaries; and b) because of the lack of conservation awareness among people around the reserve, animals leaving the reserve would probably not survive.

Because of this situation, a 10 km2 release area was created where oryx and gazelles will be able to get used to the environment gradually and live under substantially free range conditions without leaving the reserve.

Because their movements are restricted, they will be monitored continuously so that they can be provided with supplementary feed and water as required, especially during very hot periods.

To acquire the oryx and gazelles, the project approached the Royal Society for Conservation of Nature (RSCN) of the Kingdom of Jordan and the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWD), in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both organizations generously agreed to help the Syrian Arab Republic, in its efforts to reestablish populations of both species. Before the animals were reintroduced, Syrian national counterparts were sent to the RSCN and NCWCD for practical training in handling and management of antelopes.

Since their reintroduction in late 1996, the original eight oryx have increased to 38, while the original 30 gazelles have increased to 300.

The success of antelope reintroduction to the Syrian Arab Republic, is a clear indication of how neighbouring countries with similar ecological conditions can benefit from each other in resource conservation and management and in transfer of technology.

Wounded Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucouryx) male: males often engage in fierce ritual fighting aimed at controlling the harem.

Photo M. Abdallah

Complex system of wadis intersects the valleys of the Palmyra mountains.

Photo G. Serra

Surveying, inventorying and documenting of habitats, flora and fauna

Four ecosystems and several habitats were observed and described within the reserve area and its surroundings. Fourteen dominant perennial and about 40 annual species of flora were found and identified within the reserve by the project range team.

Curculionid Larinus spp. is frequently associated with Echinops spp. during spring.

Photo G. Serra

During the period 2000-2002, about 340 different species of fauna (invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) have been found and identified within the reserve and its surroundings, and a representative sample was thoroughly documented and photographed, with the aim of producing attractive material for conservation education and awareness raising.

As published data from field surveys of Syrian fauna is very scarce, the data collected by the project wildlife team is valuable from a scientific point of view.

Several species of fauna found within the reserve and surroundings had not previously been reported as occurring in the Syrian Arab Republic, while one species of beetle (Coleoptera: Aphodidae) was found that had not previously been identified in scientific literature.

In honour of the reserve it was given the name of: Aphodaulacus talilensis.

Ad-dud ar-rabie (literally in Arabic “the spring worm”) is a colourful caterpillar (Lepidoptera) heralding the spring in Al Badia.

Photo G. Serra

Managed camel grazing

The area now included within Al Talila reserve has long been a critical one for camel grazing, and camel owners consider it as the life support system for the remaining camel herds in the Syrian Arab Republic. Traditional access of camels to the area now within the reserve is being respected, the involvement of camel owners in decision-making is part of the management plan. The long term management aim for grazing by both camels and reintroduced antelopes is that this should be regulated by a grazing plan based on the principles of sound range management, the use of indigenous knowledge and the involvement of target beneficiaries. A grazing committee was therefore elected by the camel owners. A case study with additional details on the work carried out to regulate and enhance camel grazing in the reserve can be found in Volume 2, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Approach, FAO 2003. The grazing system adopted by the project was selected to maximize the grazing period for camels, while at the same time sustaining the productivity of the key perennial species of the reserve, Haloxylon salicornicum, which starts growing in late spring and reaches peak production in summer. The camel grazing period negotiated with the camel owners is thus from late autumn to late spring/early summer. The winter dormancy period after seed maturation is regarded as the least detrimental growth stage for the grazing of Haloxylon salicornicum. By removing the dry biomass above ground during winter dormancy, camel grazing actually has a beneficial pruning effect on the shrubs, while an opportunity for the shrublands to grow is provided by the period of rest during the crucial summer growth stage, when maximum production occurs. More than 1 200 camels graze the reserve annually for a period of seven months with no negative impact on shrublands even in drought years. This demonstrates the rewards of judicious use and sustainable management. Some 20 households benefit from access to the reserve for camel grazing.

Camel (Camelus dromedarius) herd within Al Talila reserve.

Photo G. Serra

Involvement and training of locals

In addition to involvement in range rehabilitation activities and in the formulation of the camel grazing management plan, pastoralists from the Bedouin cooperatives working with the project were equipped with skills that will enable them to benefit from income-generating opportunities associated with possible future ecotourism development. Several local women were trained in traditional embroidery and tailoring, while four young men were selected to be trained as nature/birdwatching guides for the Al Talila reserve.

Cooperative members also benefitted from literacy programmes, training in English, and study tours to protected areas abroad.

During an intensive two year fauna inventory, two national counterparts from the Directorate of the Steppe received a thorough in-service training in wildlife identification, survey and photo-documentation.

They are thus well prepared to contribute to biodiversity monitoring in Al Talila reserve.

A Palmyrean hunter was also frequently involved in the fauna surveying, and became very competent in the field identification of birds.

He has already successfully led several parties of foreign birdwatchers into Al Badia.

White-throated Robin (Irania gutturalis) is an interesting bird belonging to the Asian range.

Photo M. Abdallah

Trainees from local community in-service trained in wildlife detection and identification.

Photo G. Serra

Portrait of a Bedouin pastoralist from Al Badia.

Photo M. Marzot

Conservation education and awareness raising

Establishing good public relations and setting up an awareness-raising programme for the conservation of biodiversity were key objectives of management planning for the reserve.

The impressive Environmental Education Centre (EEC), capable of serving a wide range of audiences, including school children, students, local visitors, ecotourists and Bedouins, has been built by the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic. The EEC will help visitors to discover and interpret the biodiversity of the steppe, the different ecosystems and the links between the daily lives of the Bedouins and the natural world of Al Badia.

Educational and information material produced by the project includes an environmental guide for extension agents and teachers, flip charts, and children's colouring books. In terms of activities, the Al Talila conservation club has been set up, and visits to the field involving interaction with the natural environment are proving to be an effective tool for conservation education.

Regular meetings with Palmyrean hunters have been organized in the context of the project, to discuss the importance of biodiversity, and the conservation problems and threatened fauna of Al Badia. There has been a marked interest and participation in these discussions.

Al Talila reserve Environmental Education Centre (EEC): a unique regional resource for nature interpretation, conservation education, raising ecological awareness, and scientific reference.

Photo G. Serra

This Licosidae spider species is a common nocturnal predator of Al Talila reserve.

Photo G. Serra

The white Stork (Ciconia ciconia) is an iconic, passage migrant bird of Al Badia.

Photo M. Abdallah

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