Bura’a: Yemen’s last tropical forest endangered
Muaad Al-Maqtari (author), Muaad Al-Maqtari (photographer)
Bura’a Reserve lies about 50km north-north-east of the coastal city of Hodeida, in the governorate of the same name. The road from Hodeida to the reserve runs in the same direction as taken by migrating birds. It climbs up to an altitude of 2,200m above sea level before reaching the Rejaf valley that meanders majestically through these mountains.
However, the area has paid dearly because of a recently built tarmac road that crawls through the heart of this pristine forest. The construction has destroyed up to 30 percent of the forest, disrupted the local water supplies and damaged the unique local fauna and flora.
I arrived at the reserve at 8am on a Monday early this year. The atmosphere felt rather touristic as we were greeted by a band of monkeys on the outskirts of the forest. They had lost their fear of humans, and even baby monkeys were frolicking on the tarmac. The scene impressed upon me the ruthless spread of human activity that threatens to devour the remaining wilderness. I felt a pang of pain in witnessing the depletion of one of the few remaining forests in Arabia.
I entered the forest with a few dozen other visitors. The deeper we went, the more monkeys we saw. Our group ignored the eco-friendly wood shacks that would soon be full of picnicking family. By noon the high temperatures had been softened by a breeze through the trees and and the cool streams running through the forest.
As beautiful as the multitude of colorful butterflies that surrounded us, the visitors could not wait to go on further and discover the jungle. The ecotourism that Bura’a Reserve represents attracts those who feel suffocated in the cement human jungles, even as that those human jungles threaten to destroy Bura’a Reserve itself.
At the concrete and steel gate to the reserve stood the Mohammad Al-Bajali and Abdul Qader, who handed out tickets to visitors for a nominal price. The management of the reserve appears to be a mess. The guides do not seem capable of explaining to tourists the remarkable biodiversity of the woodland that surrounds them.
The tarmac path inside the reserve, the construction of which has destroyed a considerable part of the vegetation cover, already seems degraded by the rains. The ‘management’ occupies a small room at the gate. They run the reserve in coordination with the Public Environment Protection Authority (PEPA) and the Al-Bajali area charity.
Ahmed Bilal is in charge of the arboretum that was established by PEPA to protect biodiversity. He tells us that the forest is more beautiful in the summer with its green cover and migrating birds that stop here to mate.
Bilal believes that his internationally recognized forest is one of the largest in the Arabian Peninsula. This claim is supported by the vast biodiversity the forest contains. That biodiversity used to be even greater before the impact of climate change and the effects of human interference.
An atlas of biodiversity
An accurate description of the biodiversity of Bura’a Reserve is hard to provide, as detailed studies are few and infrequent. Bilal chose to frame his descriptions with the words ‘about’ and ‘approximately‘ as he escorted us through the woods.
According to Bilal, surveys and studies have reported about 315 types of plants divided among 83 species, of which 63 are rare at the local and regional levels. He added that there are plants exclusive to this area including abrus botte, aloe pendens, centaurothamuns maximus and commiphora kataf.
Efforts have fallen short in growing the 35 plants species that are deemed endangered here. Bilal mentioned that the reserve has become a place to visit as a source of information on healing herbs, and that many plants here are seen as potentially useful in alternative medicine and medical research.
Bird studies have listed about 93 different species, of which 32 are sedentary and 17 are of African origin. According to studies conducted by PEPA, the woodland has at least nine species of mammal, including such rarities as the striped hyena, the white-tailed mongoose and the African lynx.
There are numerous hard-to-classify reptiles with at least 13 known reptile genera represented. These include the large Yemeni monitor lizard (also called the snake hunter). The cobra snake also inhabits the reserve, along with many fresh water reptiles. According to Mohammad Al-Bajali, they ran out of snake bite antivenom early last year.
So far, five amphibians and two fresh water fish species have been recognized in the reserve. Unfortunately, the attempts at classification were halted a few years ago, so there is virtually no information on the many insect species that live in the Bura'a Reserve.
Al-Bajali blames the tarmac toad that was put through in 2004, and the subsequent logging, for the disaster that threatens the forest’s very existence. In addition, the vehicle emissions are causing serious damage to the reserve’s biodiversity. According to a sign in the forest, the road was built with funding from the World Bank. It is unclear whether they assessed the environmental impact of the project.
PEPA's fourth report on the state of the environment in Yemen indicates that the road that was built through one of the densest areas of Bura'a mountain. It resulted in enormous environment damage, wiping out about 20-30 percent of the forest. It also caused wells and stream to be clogged by waste from the road work, and has made it easier for lumberjacks to reach the rare trees of the Rejaf valley.
The human incursion also brought along with it a vegetable invader. The prickly pear (Opuntia) is a cactus that threatens Bura'a Reserve’s biodiversity. It has invaded the reserve, crawling everywhere and depriving other plants from of nutrients, strangling the native flora. Monkeys have also contributed to the spread of this pest by adding its egg-shaped fruit to their diet, and thus spreading its seeds further into the forest.
Efforts were made to get rid of the plant, but they failed due to being too limited to make a difference.
Recognition of biodiversity
In Oct. 2004 UNESCO announced the Bura’a region a location that was part of the world’s human heritage. This recognition led to it being declared a reserve in 2006. In 2011 UNESCO added the reserve to its list of World Network of Biosphere Reserves. It is the second Yemeni protectorate to be included in the World Heritage registration after the island of Soqotra.
The reserve covers about 4,200 hectares and is named by UNSECO as one of 57 locations that are maximum importance to birds. It includes about 12 percent of Yemen’s rare flora, including 209 highly significant plants.
Last year the Bait Al-Bajali Charity was founded to conduct local community activities. The charity helps manage the reserve, and the local people benefit from the ecotourism that the forest has brought to the area. The original owner of the forest, Master Al-Bajali, is said to have given the forest to the local people in the early 19th century on the condition that it was not to be destroyed, and that violators of the forest be fined.
As one of the last remaining forests of Arabia, and being one of Yemen’s most biodiverse areas, Bura’a Reserve should be protected for future Yemenis to experience. The forrest has already suffered much by the introduction of a tarmac road through its heart, and the pollution and logging that followed it.
All parties concerned should work hard to preserve the remaining wildlife, including the removal of solid waste from the road construction, setting up competent management, growing endangered plants and banning motor vehicles from entering the reserve.