Saudi Arabia factfile
The living desert – the wildlife of Saudi Arabia
At first glance, Saudi Arabia gives the impression of being a barren, lifeless region.
Lack of rainfall, constantly shifting sand and temperatures that may exceed 50 degrees Celsius make life extremely
demanding for living things, and both plants and animals must make special adaptations to survive. For those
who are lucky enough to visit the Kingdom, there is a wealth of life to be discovered, from the dense juniper
forests of the Asir region, to the large turtle and seabird colonies on the coastal beaches. Even the most remote
of sand dunes will, at dawn, reveal a maze of tracks and footprints of the numerous creatures that enjoy the
cool of the night.
of soil and water, combined with wind, shifting sand and heat, make
life tough for plants. Where water is present, growth is luxuriant,
such as in the cooler, wetter Asir mountains, where juniper forest
mixes with olive trees, jasmine, honeysuckle and roses. Elsewhere,
in the hotter regions, date palms flourish where water is more accessible,
and in the drier areas, in the open gravel and sandy plains, acacia
trees are the most common, specially adapted, with long tap roots
that reach down into the ground in search of water.
Other adaptations to the conditions include small leaves to reduce water loss, and thorns to prevent being
eaten by camels. In addition to providing a home and food for many birds and insects, plants have been heavily
used by man in the past, providing food, building materials and herbal medicines. One of the most amazing things
in the natural world is the sight of the desert turning green, almost overnight, as seeds that have lain dormant
for years spring to life after a period of rainfall. This often happens in Spring and Saudi families travel into the desert to camp and admire
this magical phenomenon.
Over 450 species of birds have been spotted in the Kingdom, but
few stay all year round. Arabia acts as a corridor between Asia
and Africa, and for ornithologists the best time of year is the
spring and autumn when the migration is in full swing, and thousands
of birds are on the move. Multi-coloured bee-eaters, huge Egyptian
vultures and large numbers of steppe eagles are often seen inland,
whilst flamingoes inhabit the coastal shallows. The desert is home
to the huge eagle owl, which often nests down old wells, and large
colonies of terns inhabit the islands offshore where they are safe
is possible to travel a long way in Saudi Arabia and think that
camels are the only mammals that exist there. You’d be very
wrong. Whilst the lack of plant cover means that mammals are few
in number, there is a surprising range of different species. Some,
such as the Oryx, have been hunted to extinction, and are being
carefully re-introduced in well-planned conservation programmes.
In remote, rocky areas, where vehicles cannot go, wolves, striped
hyenas and even a few leopards are thought to survive.
Elsewhere, gazelles, foxes, honey badgers, porcupine and mongoose are often seen. The desert abounds with small
mammals such as gerbils and voles, and in the cooler mountains of the Asir region, baboons and hyrax live in
good numbers. In coastal waters it is sometimes possible to see the mysterious dugong, a marine mammal about
which little is known.
These are probably
the animals best adapted to the harsh conditions, so it is unsurprising that there is a large number of species,
including over 100 species of lizards and a staggering 53 species of snakes (this compares with 3 species in
the UK!). One of the most well-known snakes in the desert is the cobra, which, together with the horned viper,
can be dangerous to people if surprised. In the warm coastal waters, there are several species of sea snakes
that are even more dangerous, with powerful venom. Frogs exist in areas where water is present, and lizards
are everywhere in Saudi Arabia, often sheltering from the heat by resting in the shade of burrows.
The large, fearsome-looking dhub lizard is a favourite delicacy, and chameleons live in the moist mountains
of Asir, using their 30 cm long tongue to catch their prey. Dawn in the sands often reveals the tracks of numerous
lizards such as skinks and geckos that have spent the darkness busily feeding on insects and beetles.
As with most places on the planet, insects are the most numerous
animal in Saudi Arabia. Several hundred species of beetle are thought
to exist, perhaps the most well-known one being the scarab or dung
beetle, usually seen rolling balls of dung across the desert! Other
insect inhabitants include the mysterious praying mantis (often
hard to see as it doesn’t move very much) colourful butterflies
such as the swallowtail and bees, from whom delicious honey is harvested.
However, the award for the most famous insect of the desert must go to the scorpion. There are over thirty
species thought to exist in Saudi Arabia, ranging from large black ones, to much smaller, yellow ones that pack
a more fearsome sting… seasoned desert explorers always give their boots a good shake in the mornings
before putting their feet inside! Another insect that often sends desert explorers running for their tent is
the camel spider, known to give a nasty bite, and sometimes growing up to 12 cm across.
It is often easy to find out about a particular animal or plant by typing its name into a search engine. Try
typing in ‘camel spider’ and see if the horror stories are true!
To find out more about
wildlife in Saudi Arabia:
and conservation body in Saudi Arabia:
the re-introduction of the Arabian Oryx:
society of the Middle East:
See also the Adapt and Survive Worksheets in Unit 2
Photographs courtesy of John Smith, www.arabian-oryx.com and www.desertusa.com