Nigel Winser: Understanding Nature is our Future – Let’s Protect Her!
Are you passionate about protecting the environment? Here at ub-cool, environmental conservation is something close to our hearts.
Ahead of our next edition of ‘ub-cool TALKS’ with marine conservationist, Suaad Al Harthi, this week we look at issues around conservation efforts in Oman. For a unique insight into how Oman has progressed as a conservation-focused country over the past 35 years, we draw on the incredible knowledge and work of environmentalist Nigel de N. Winser from our interview with him in January.
‘ub-cool TALK’ with Suaad Al Harthi
If you’re in Muscat on May 13th, join us for our next inspiration speaker, Suaad Al Harthi. Listen to her tales of travel and learn about the ecosystem’s challenges. By raising awareness and brining the experience of nature closer, she hopes to inspire a more sustainable future for the benefit of people and the environment.
Nigel de N. Winser
Born in Kenya and now based in the UK, 65-year-old Niger Winser is an environment consultant and the co-organizer of the annual Oman Natural Heritage Lecture in London. With a focus on biodiversity, community conservation projects, geographical surveys in Oman, East Africa, and Sarawak, he is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) and an Honorary Conservation fellow of the Zoological Society of London, to name just a few of the international organizations he works with.
Nigel Winser | Image Source: University of Westminster
Oman in the 1980’s
ub-cool: What project brought you to Oman?
Nigel Winser: We came to Oman on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society in 1984 to undertake a geographical survey of the Wahiba Sands desert on invitation from the government. The science director, Dr Roderic Dutton and I brought together three groups of people: the people who understand the earth (the geologists and geomorphologists), the people who understand the animals and plants (the life scientists), and then the people who understand how people relate to both those (the social, the human geographer). So, we built a big team, of earth, life and social sciences to come and study the Wahabi Sands.
“The sands in those days were pristine. We completed a report for the government, published in the Journal of Oman Studies (special Volume III), and it documented everything we saw into absolute detail. And, it’s been recognized as one of the best interdisciplinary studies of its kind of an isolated Sand Sea. My book about the work was called ‘The Sea of Sands and Mists’.”
Image Source: Nigel Winser
ub-cool: How long was the project and what was the most remarkable aspect about it?
Nigel Winser: The project was 6 months long and it was the first time that we started to truly integrate all the thinking from all the different disciplines, with the help of satellite and computing technologies. Every evening there were really powerful discussions between the earth, life, and social scientists to come up with the overall picture. And, also importantly, tapping into traditional knowledge of our Bedu guides, led by Said Jabber Hilays Al Wahibi.
At the time a large team completed the survey of all the rocks, of all the soil, all the sands – we mapped it all. Then we mapped all the plants, and conducted studies of what lived there. We saw Sand Gazelle, Sand Cats and, and Fennec Foxes. And, when you read the report, the list is phenomenal; we found a lot of insects, many new to science, and documented the botany of the sands. Much of the findings are in Oman’s Natural History Museum and the new Oman Botanic Gardens.
“Thanks to the help of leaders in the Oman Government and the Office for the Conservation of the Environment, the findings were presented at a seminar at the Sultan Qaboos University. We were proud of the completed report of the important sand desert, now called the Sharqiya Sands. The legacy of that continues to the work I’m doing today, 30 years later.”
Wahiba Sands Desert in Oman | Image Source: Nigel Winser
ub-cool: What is the government’s involvement in these projects?
Nigel Winser: The Oman Government has a long record of instigating important marine and land conservation projects. The big lesson that I’ve had is that everything that we are doing here, in terms of environmental studies, is a vision from His Majesty. For instance, the study of the Arabian Tahr, in Wadi Sareen (in the Hajar Mountains), with the National Field Research Center for Environmental Conservation and the Office for the Conservation of the Environment. That Sareen reserve was set up in the 70’s by His Majesty under his jurisdiction through the Diwan of Royal Court, led at the time by Mr Ralph Daly, believing that we need to protect it. The Hajar Mountains is an outstanding landscape that is home to wonderful wildlife.
“His Majesty is very supportive to sustainability and wanting to protect Oman’s natural heritage.”
What Dangers Do You Encounter During Expeditions?
ub-cool: What would you say are the most dangerous wildlife you would encounter in the desert?
Nigel Winser: I think you always have to be very careful of the snakes.
ub-cool: Snakes? Not scorpions?
Nigel Winser: No, I think, if I had to put them in an order, I think it’s the snakes. And, you must always check your boots at night! But, I think, it’s still very rare – nonetheless, you still have to be very careful.
Nigel’s Tips to Avoid Snake Bites in the Desert
- Always wear boots – don’t leave your feet exposed
- Don’t lift rocks up without being very careful
- Always check your boots at night!
According to Wikipedia, the majority of the dozen or so snake species in Oman are harmless. However, the following four species, which are uncommon, are venomous: cobra, puff adder, carpet viper, and horned viper (pictured here) | Image Source: reptileforums.co.uk
Most Common Accidents during Expeditions
Nigel explains that unlike popular opinion that snake bites are the biggest danger during an expedition, they are in fact quite rare. The two more common acts that end up being fatal are:
The most dangerous thing on expeditions is driving accidents. We’ve lost more people on expeditions through road traffic accidents, than anything else. So that’s the more dangerous thing. We have a number one rule when we’re doing expeditions:
“#1 Rule: Never drive without a seatbelt, and never drive at night. That saves lives.”
The second area is usually climbing accidents: mountaineering and falling.
“Driving and falling outweigh being bitten by snakes and being attacked by a dragon.”
Oman’s beautiful mountains | Image Source: Nigel Winser
Nigel explains that there are new reports about Oman’s rich wildlife describing animals such as the Arabian Tahr, the Gazelle, the Nubian Ibex, and the Arabian Leopard.
Nigel Winser: The Arabian Tahr are these fantastic antelopes that live in Oman’s mountains, which will be the focus of the 3rd Oman Natural Heritage Lecture in London by Haitahm Al Rawahi, from the Office for the Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of Royal Court.
“They’re like acrobat goats with special rubber toes. And they can stand on tiny ledges. At present, the current studies show the population is really healthy.”
An Arabian Tahr | Image Source: TheNational.ae
Nigel Winser: The unique Arabian leopard in Oman is shy and elusive. Scientists like Hadi Al Hikmani who have been studying them for over ten years, very rarely see it. The images come from camera traps.
ub-cool: Which is more difficult to see the Arabian Leopard or a Snow Leopard? And, which is more rare?
Nigel Winser: If I had to put money on that, I think that the Arabian Leopard is more difficult. I’ll tell you why. Because the Snow Leopard, if you work hard, you’ll find where she and he and the family are. And you’ll then see them. The Arabian Leopard has very rarely been filmed. I think the Arabian Leopard is rarer. I think in Oman the numbers are very low.
ub-cool: What is the reason behind the low numbers of this animal?
Nigel Winser: Habitat, habitat, habitat is the key – and hence the value of Oman’s protected areas.
The Arabian Leopard is one of the smallest species of leopards | Image Source: SharjahUpdate.com
3 Main Environmental Issues
We asked Nigel to list and explain the top 3 environmental issues facing nature in both Oman and the world.
#1 – Global Warming & Climate Change
Global warming is by far the biggest issue, and no one has really properly understood the impact. It’s very simple: reduce our global carbon footprint. It’s very simple in principle, but it’s very difficult to do. Hence the importance of the recent UNFCCC discussions in Paris and the renewable (wind and solar) energy agenda.
Globally, the big, big growth area for this, of course, is going to be electric cars. Last time I checked my carbon footprint was 12 tons. So, I have to offset it every year, which means I could put money into projects that grow trees to absorb carbon. This way, everybody can have a zero-waste lifestyle if you want. So, if everyone did that, throughout the world, we’d have a better chance of saving the planet.
Nigel in the field | Image Source: Nigel Winser
#2 – Habitat Loss
The second biggest issue is habitat loss. In the 70’s, my generation thought we’d save the rain forests and there was a large movement around this. We thought: done. And then there was a bit of complacency that went into it, and then a bit of rain forest fatigue. But if you look on the satellite imagery of the forests that have disappeared from Africa, from Southeast Asia, and from the Amazon, you’d be horrified. And the fact that it’s still going.
“So, in my lifetime, around over 50% of all the world’s pristine tropical forests have disappeared.”
So, whenever you see a tree, protect it. It’s priceless because it does three things: it converts CO2 into oxygen, helps provide clean air and clean water, and it provides a habitat for nature. So, every tree in the country is very precious, every tree.
#3 – Plastics in the Ocean
Third would be the plastics in the ocean. Even the plastics that my parents and my grandparents threw away are now in the sea. The more we research in the marine environment, the more we realize it is down there already, even at the micro level, which is just causing nature a headache.
“If every adventure tourist is aware of those three things, it takes a different perspective to realize how lucky they are to walk down a clean canyon, through a clean river and see beautiful trees.”
A humpback whale breaching near Suaad Al Harthi | Image Source: Suaad Al Harthi
The Future of Conservation Efforts
Solar Energy & Electric Cars
We learned that in Oman the Authority for Electricity Regulation announced that their 2018 plans would help to set up the framework in Oman for electric cars. While, last year their focus was more on solar energy and allowing for private users, residences, etc., to feed into the grid.
Nigel: Yeah, it’s fantastic. We’re very close to all roofs, all car parks, and very soon glass in buildings will be acting as solar panels, so we’ll be getting more and more of our energy direct from the sun. It’s not rocket science. Quite exciting, actually.
“And, I think Oman is in a really strong position, because of how much sun it gets.”
Image Source: Nigel Winser
Ecotourism & Earthwatch
Nigel Winser: The big lesson for the new generation of leaders in Oman is to protect any habitats that have fantastic ecosystems; this includes the marine environment. I am proud to be working with such leaders in Oman especially with the National Field Research Centre for Environmental Conservation and more recently with the Office for the Conservation of the Environment and the Environment Society of Oman.
Worldwide there are a growing number of ‘citizen scientists and eco-tourists’ who want to get involved in doing data collection and observation and sightings. And I know that model because I had the privilege to head the Earthwatch Institute for 10 years and Earthwatch is an organization who enables the public who pay to go on active science projects. New models are growing all round the world, using hand help Apps to identify and record plants and animals.
“For me, the ultimate adventure is being in a great landscape with the local community, seeing wildlife and recording it in some way: photography, painting, sound, or even observations, putting it into your notebook.”
Voices Make a Difference
Nigel encourages the public to stand up when their governments attempt to cut down forests or appropriate land destroying vital ecosystems. Below are a few of the examples he mentioned where the public and governments have stepped up:
Nigel Winser: There were some forests in UK that were going to be cut down or reduced in size, and the National Forest Project, the uprising in UK was phenomenal. And, the government had to back down.
“Also, the increased number of marine protected areas. One of the great successes of President Obama, for me, was how much he increased protection of the marine environment around the world.”
The 3rd Annual Oman Heritage Lecture in London
Save the Date:
24th October 2018: Oman’s Hidden Natural Heritage Lecture at the Royal Geographic Society in association with the Oman Office for the Conservation of the Environment. Those interested in securing early ticket information of the lecture should email Nigel Winser on Nigel@winserdialogue.com.
Highlights from the 2017 Oman Heritage Lecture in London
Lecture Title: ‘Oman’s whales, dolphins and turtles’ – an important heritage for the future of our planet.”
View of the lecture hall and speakers at the 2017 event in London | Photo Credit: Martin Hartley
Last year’s well-attended lecture in London on 18th October 2017 featured visits and and lectures by: Dr Saif Al Shaqsi (Oman National Field Research Centre for Environmental Conservation), Aida Al Jabri (Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, Oman), Suaad Al Harthi (Environment Society of Oman), and Rob Baldwin (Five Oceans Environmental Services, Oman). Photo Credit: Martin Hartley
The lecture had the honour of the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent GCVO (a strong supporter of geographical fieldwork in the Sultanate of Oman). Left to right: Rob Baldwin, Aida Al Jabri, His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent GCVO, Suaad Al Harthi, and Dr Saif Al Shaqsi | Photo Credit: Martin Hartley
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Feature Image Source: Nigel Winser