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Spotlight on Biodiversity: The Al Ahsa Biodiversity Challenge

Back in March, as the COVID-19 infection rate began to climb again almost a year from the first confirmed case in Saudi Arabia, I read an article in Al Arabiya News titled “COVID-19 takes a heavy toll on Saudi residents’ mental health”. According to the article, a recent study published in the European Journal of Psychotrauma found that more than one in seven people over the age of 18 in Saudi Arabia were currently suffering with a major depressive disorder (MDD) and more than one in ten people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). I thought then of the young Saudi men in my online classes. I wondered who among them could be privately suffering under the ongoing strain of the pandemic. I wondered how many more might succumb to a mental health disorder as the Kingdom seemed on the brink of another wave of infections and possible lockdowns. As someone who’s dealt with spells of generalized anxiety and depression over the years, I’ve learned ways to manage my mental health, the most important of which has been spending time outdoors, hiking and birdwatching in particular. Turns out the research supports what for me has been a personal coping strategy. According to the American Heart Association, getting outside and enjoying nature can help alleviate stress and anxiety, enhance your overall mood, and increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing. How, though, could I get my guys to break away from their screens and spend more time outside?

Abdulmajeed Al Hamada using the iNaturalist app outside his home

That same week, it came to me—I’d hold a biodiversity challenge through iNaturalist. What is iNaturalist? A joint initiative of the National Geographic Society and the California Academy of Science, iNaturalist is a crowd-sourced database of observations of flora and fauna from around the world. Users submit photos of plants and animals and can get help identifying them through the website as well as through the broader iNaturalist community—scholars, researchers, and other experts. The best thing though—there’s an app! Maybe you’ve heard of Pokémon Go, the incredibly popular smartphone app that leads players outdoors through augmented-reality (AR) to track down and “catch” the 898 fictional creatures making up the Pokémon universe. Well, the iNaturalist app allows users to upload pictures directly from their phones of the infinitely more diverse array of creatures they can encounter IRL and then, using AI technology, analyzes the pictures and offers species suggestions in a matter of seconds. It wouldn’t have to be a matter of luring my trainees away from their screens. I just need to capitalize on their attachment to them, connecting my trainees with nature in ways they’ve never experienced before.

Hussain Al Jumah, the winner of the biodiversity challenge, using the app in Al Khobar

The Al Ahsa Biodiversity Challenge on iNaturalist ran from April 11 to May 17. Participants needed to document as many animal species as they could during the challenge period by exploring around their homes, communities, farms, parks, and natural areas. The challenge drew some of them further afield in search of new species to capture on their smartphones, with observations coming in from the corniche in Al Khobar and Al Uqair Beach. A couple participants initially quipped there were only feral dogs and cats outside their homes but soon came to find a much more diverse community of neighbors in the form of insects, lizards, small mammals, and birds. As Mohammed Al Naas put it, “I learned a lot by participating in the challenge. For example, I learned how many creatures you can find around you when you look for them". The challenge period, in fact, aligned with the peak time to witness spring migration in the Kingdom and sure enough several lucky participants were able to capture images of migratory birds passing through their neighborhoods en route to points north in Europe and Asia, such as the European Bee-eater (Merops apiaster) captured by Hussain Al Jumah, the challenge winner. As not all of my trainees were from Al Ahsa, the biodiversity challenge resulted in observations from elsewhere around the Kingdom, including Makkah and Jazan Provinces, the most comical of which was Fawaz Bu Rasis’s capture of a Hamadryas Baboon (Papio hamadryas) atop a goat. These fascinating Old World monkeys can be seen in the mountains and foothills of southwestern Saudi Arabia. In terms of its biodiversity, the Kingdom is one of the most understudied countries in the world. Biodiversity challenges, such as this one, can help shine a light on the full range of plant and animal species occurring here.

Fawaz Bu Rasis's comically random observation of a Hamadryas Baboon riding a goat

Ultimately, the objectives of The Al Ahsa Biodiversity Challenge were twofold. First, I wanted to use the challenge as a means of promoting physical and mental health and wellness among my trainees during the pandemic by encouraging them to get outside and enjoy the natural world. How did the challenge do in this regard? Responding to a post-challenge survey, all of the participants reported spending more time outside, which correlated with reported feelings of increased happiness and positivity. According to Hussain Al Yami the biodiversity challenge was “a great way to spend your free time and it helps you learn about animals and where to find them. Whenever I got bored, I would take my camera and go to the park”. 70% of the participants also reported feeling less stress and worry while participating, while 30% reported not being sure either way. With so much weighing on people’s minds these days, this is perfectly understandable—even while enjoying ourselves in nature, we may not be able to fully shake free of stresses and worries, perhaps the greatest of which at the moment is protecting ourselves and our families from COVID-19.

Hussain Al Jumah's observation of a European Bee-eater

In addition to promoting health and wellness, I wanted to foster greater awareness among my trainees of the biodiversity that exists all around them and encourage them to make choices in their lives that help promote and protect biodiversity in their communities. Abdulmajeed Al Hamada, the second-place winner, was surprised to find such a variety of creatures living nearby: “I thought that there are only two kinds of ants in the house, but there were six different kinds of them in reality.” “Going outside and walking slowly", he added, "made me realize how beautiful the nature is that surrounds the area where I live”. According to Abdulmajeed, participating in biodiversity challenges “will make [people] think more about the environment and living creatures and show them the world from a different perspective.”

Just as some participants came to realize how biodiverse their own neighborhoods actually were, the challenge provided opportunities to learn about species unique to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula as well as the efforts of the Saudi government, Saudi Aramco, and local communities to protect and preserve them. My visit to Jebel Al Qahar in Jazan Province over the Eid Al Fitr holiday gave me a chance to add the Asir Magpie (Pica asirensis) to the challenge’s growing list of observations. While discussing the theme of biodiversity with my trainees, I’ve had occasion to share information with them about the magpie, a bird related to crows and ravens only found in the southwest highlands of Saudi Arabia, and Aramco’s efforts to save the species, whose numbers may not exceed more than 100 pairs, from extinction. The southwest is the most biodiverse region in the Kingdom; however, a few of the participants from the Al Ahsa area observed species also unique to the Arabian Peninsula, such as the Arabian Jird (Meriones arimalius), a long-tailed rodent that lives in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman, and the Socotra Cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis), a threatened seabird found only in the Arabian Gulf and along the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula. These are species of which none of the participants were aware prior to the biodiversity challenge. With greater awareness will hopefully come a greater sense of responsibility among young Saudis to do their part in protecting and preserving their natural heritage, a goal in line with Saudi’s Vision 2030, which promotes environmental sustainability and economic diversification as Saudis and the world at large learn of the Kingdom’s other natural treasures—a key driver in the country’s budding ecotourism industry.

How did the challenge do in raising awareness about biodiversity in Saudi Arabia? Responding to the survey, all of the participants reported that they had learned more about biodiversity and were interested in learning more about how they could help protect biodiversity in their communities. Likewise, all of the participants indicated that they were more interested in learning about Saudi Aramco’s efforts, in line with the company’s corporate value of citizenship, to protect biodiversity in the Kingdom and around the world.

Of course, then there are those results you never anticipated. When Abdulmajeed Al Hamada came to receive his certificate of participation and prize for taking second place in the challenge—a copy of The Field Guide to Biodiversity in Dhahran—he told me he was excited to have won the book because he loved to draw and was looking forward to using the field guide’s photographs of the flora and fauna of the Eastern Province as subjects for future sketches. As we chatted in the hall at the training center, he thumbed through the field guide appreciatively. I could tell that the spark was there and with it my hope that this experience will inspire a lifelong love and appreciation of Saudi’s biodiversity he’ll pass on to his children—the future stewards of the Kingdom’s natural heritage.

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