The entire Farasan archipelago, including all the islands and surrounding marine areas, was declared a nature reserve in 1989 and is managed by the National Center for Wildlife; it is currently seeking admission as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reasons are manifold but include rich coastal waters with fringing reefs and seagrass beds supporting dugongs, hawksbill and green turtles, and an abundance of fish together with a unique assemblage of terrestrial species including many scarce and iconic breeding birds including pink-backed pelican, Egyptian vulture, goliath heron and sooty falcon, but most notable of all is the endemic subspecies of the globally threatened Arabian gazelle Gazella arabica farasani with a population estimated by IUCN of around 1,000, half of which are on the largest island, Farasan Kebir.
One evening we meet the reserve manager based just outside of Farasan town; he kindly shows us an area where the Idmi gazelles are wardened by his team and occur in good numbers. We bump across stony plains and skirt a few fields that are freshly turned and awaiting the spring rains, then meander through thorn scrub in places dominated by invasive mesquite Prosopis juliflora which, ironically, is spread in part by the foraging gazelles. The gazelles are easy to find in the flat landscape, wary but not elusive; most stand and stare as we pass by; and they have beautifully marked, large ears that are also zoned in on us. The gazelles here have no natural predators but a few are poached by the local people.
As dusk approaches, we travel on to the coast where the shrub vegetation is ungrazed and the beaches unspoilt and where both green and hawksbill turtles nest. On the archipelago, there are no camels and few goat or sheep flocks. In places, Farasan Kebir provides a glimpse of what much of Arabia may have looked like before the explosion in camel numbers over the past 60 years. It is both astonishing and beautiful and a testament to the largely unheralded, long term protection work on the islands.
The reserve manager takes us back past a fenced exclosure where Saudi and French archaeologists have recently discovered important artefacts dating back to the Roman period; we leave the thorn scrub and travel through a dimly lit village where a small, old wooden boat hull, more a sleek long canoe, rests outside a house; he explains that this carried his late father on long fishing trips west to the Dahlak archipelago and Eritrea well over 100 miles to the west. As well as the extraordinary biodiversity, there is a rich and rare cultural heritage on these remarkable islands; the World Heritage Site admission ought to be a shoe-in.