The wealth and oil of Saudi Arabia has tended to eclipse awareness of the rich natural history of the region, but that hasn't been the case for Kris Hundertmark. It was the natural history that drew him there.
Hundertmark has spent the last six months living in Thumamah, Saudi Arabia, a small town north of the capital Riyadh. There, Hundertmark works with populations of the country's most endangered animals at the King Khalid Wildlife Research Center.
"It's everything I thought it would be," he said.
His primary duties involve monitoring the genetic diversity within the populations.
"It's what I wanted to be doing."
Hundertmark, although technically a Zoological Society of London employee, works with species such as the Arabian oryx, the Arabian wolf and sand and mountain gazelles in their native arid environments.
He said his more than 20 years experience as an employee for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game helped him in his new assignment. He spent much of his time with the state at the Moose Research Center near Swanson River, which gave him the opportunity to work with small, captive populations of animals.
"The Saudis are concerned with protecting their wildlife," he said, adding they have been for quite awhile.
He explained how in 1972 the oryx went extinct in the wild, and had it not been for the conservation efforts of sheiks, the species would have gone extinct completely.
"The kings are proud of the fact that they are tied so closely to the land," he said.
From those few animals the sheiks saved, and through the worldwide efforts of zoological facilities and conservation organizations, large herds were built up again and are now in the process of being reintroduced back into the wild.
Although Hundertmark enjoys his work, the former Fish and Game employee has just returned to his home in Soldotna on a much anticipated vacation. He also admitted it was quite a transition to move from Alaska to Saudi Arabia.
"The scorpions, poisonous snakes and the camel spiders took some getting used to," he said. He described the latter species as being similar to a huge tarantula.
Hundertmark transitioned well to the warm weather, though.
"I was surprised I adapted to the heat so well," he said. "It will be 120 degrees, but it's a dry heat so it's comfortable."
In fact, Hundertmark thinks he might have adapted a little too well.
"When I came home it was in the 60s, but I had to put on a sweatshirt it felt so cool," he said.
Hundertmark said he's been catching up on all the things he's missed over the last half year, such as pepperoni pizza and beer. Saudi Arabia is strict in its adherence to the Islamic beliefs, so pork and alcohol are taboo.
Most importantly he's been spending time with his wife and two children he had to leave behind.
"Being away from my family is difficult, but given the political situation they won't be going over any time soon," he said.
Hundertmark said after the bombing in Riyadh several weeks ago, things have been more tense than they were before, even more so than during the war against Iraq.
"They really cracked down after that, and there have been a lot more military checkpoints," he said. "Overall, though, I feel safe most of the time."
He said most of the Saudis are quite different than the average American would probably expect or have a mental picture of.
"A lot of the Saudis have been to the U.S., a lot of them were educated here," he said. "I even bumped into a Saudi who had been to Soldotna to fish for king salmon."
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