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CommunitySustainableFrom turtles to Ghaf trees, conservation in the UAE

From beaches for turtles to saving the Arabian oryx from near extinction to planting the desert, the UAE is serious about wildlife conservation
Anna PukasJune 21, 202122 min
عرض المقال بالعربية
caracal conservationCaracal/Shutterstock

Nature is our most precious resource, but our enjoyment of it comes with a responsibility to protect it, and that responsibility for conservation and rehabilitation is one the UAE is now taking very seriously.

Take turtles, which have been around for more than 100 million years – longer than snakes and crocodiles and certainly a lot longer than humans. Though they are slow-moving, these enigmatic creatures migrate over thousands of kilometers, yet somehow return to their birthplace to breed. And nobody knows how they do it.

The sea turtle is also what’s known as a flagship species for marine conservation, which means that if we protect the sea turtle, it also helps many other species which share the same habitat.

The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project was established in 2004 and is the first of its kind in the region. It has rescued and rehabilitated almost 2,000 turtles from all over the UAE, treating the sick and injured ones before releasing them back into the sea where they belong. The organization also has education programs for schools and aims to spread awareness of the turtle’s plight, which is dire.

sea turtle conservation
Baby sea turtle hatching/Shutterstock

It is estimated that six out of seven species of sea turtle are threatened with extinction due to loss of habitat, poaching and pollution. The hawksbill turtle, which is native to the Middle East, is listed as “critically endangered” following an 87 percent decline in population over the last 30 years. It is estimated that only 8,000 nesting females remain in the world.

The Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project is based at the Burj Al Arab aquarium, which is where anyone who comes across an injured turtle should take it. As part of the conservation project, the turtles get a health check and then stay in holding tanks where they are fed and given any medication they need.

Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts are partners in the project and one of their establishments, the Jumeirah Al  Naseem, has state-of-the-art turtle lagoons where turtles spend the last part of their rehabilitation before being released into UAE waters. Some are fitted with tags so that turtle acitivity can be monitored throughout the region, which is vital for conservation planning.

Local residents, visitors and hotel guests can visit Turtle Lagoon at Jumeirah Al Naseem every day.

In 2018, the Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort in Abu Dhabi opened as the first eco-conscious luxury resort with a protected beach and its own in-house marine and environment manager, Emily Armstrong.

From March to June, hawksbill turtles come to Saadiyat to lay their eggs. Emily is responsible for making sure nests are protected and for looking after any turtles that wash up on the beach. Since opening, Jumeirah at Saadiyat has rehabilitated around 250 juvenile hawksbill turtles and helped more than 700 hatchlings make their way safely to the sea.

The loss of the hawksbill turtle would not only be a tragedy in itself but would also be disastrous for another element of the marine environment they help to keep alive and vibrant: coral reefs. The turtles help clear the surface of the reef, giving fish better access to feed.

coral reef conservation
Batfish swimming by the coral reef project/Asraq

Coral reefs are essential to marine life yet they are also among the most threatened natural environments on the planet. One way to preserve and increase marine biodiversity is to build an artificial reef.

Azraq, the Dubai-based non-profit, and Freestyle Divers have teamed up to sponsor a coral reef to be located in the waters off Dibba in Fujairah emirate. The conservation partnership was announced on June 8, which also happened to be World Ocean Day, with plans for 15 of the coral ‘nurseries’ to be built.

Artificial reefs are underwater man-made structures built to look like natural reefs. Over time, coral grows on them, attracting fish and creating a new, healthy marine ecosystem. The new Dibba reef will be shaped like a shark and should help expand the existing ecosystem as researchers monitor how quickly the reef becomes populated by marine creatures.

Azraq founder Natalie Banks said she hoped the new reef would attract new species, such as batfish, over the next three months.

“The reef will be surveyed monthly by our marine biology team, who will measure and document the reef colonization and publish statistics on the progress of the ecosystem,” she said.

More artificial reefs will be added as other sponsors come on board.

The UAE has 34 types of coral, but 73 percent of them were lost in 2017 to bleaching, according to a study by New York University Abu Dhabi and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi. The EAD has been monitoring coral reefs since 2005 from 10 survey stations in Abu Dhabi’s waters; coral bleaching happens from a combination of high water temperature, exposure to sewage, overfishing, dredging and construction.

Last week His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the ruler’s representative in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region, launched the region’s biggest coral reef rehabilitation project, which aims to create more than a million coral colonies, rehabilitate degraded coral areas and cooperate with academic institutions to carry out research into which species of coral are most adaptable to local conditions.

Fish species are also in trouble in the Arabian Gulf. A study conducted by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) and published in early 2019 found that more than 85 percent of two local species, hammour (also known as grouper) and sheri (also called rabbit fish) had been wiped out.

The study, which compiled data over 250 days at sea and from more than 2,500 survey stations, described the results as a conservation emergency.

An earlier study by the University of British Columbia in Canada concluded that a third of all the marine species in the Gulf could become extinct by 2090 because of rising water temperatures, changing salinity and oxygen levels and human activity.

Dugongs, also known as sea cows, may not be the prettiest creatures in the sea but they are among the gentlest, grazing peacefully on sea grasses in the shallow coastal waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans. But they are under threat because of the loss or degradation of their habitat, from human activity that causes water pollution and from getting entangled in fishing nets. Without sufficient sea grass to feed on, dugongs cannot breed normally, so preserving the shallow marine areas where they live is crucial to their survival.

In Abu Dhabi, the EAD established two protected marine areas with sea grass beds. The result is that Abu Dhabi now has a thriving dugong population that is the second largest in the world. There are now believed to be more than 7,000 dugongs swimming happily and safely in the Gulf and the Red Sea.

The UAE’s conservation efforts are not limited to the seas. One recent success is the recorded sighting of the Arabian caracal in 2019 after an absence of 35 years.

caracal conservation
A Caracal in action/Shutterstock

The caracal (al washaq in Arabic) is typically found in mountainous areas throughout central and southwest Asia and Africa, but has become increasingly rare in the Arabian peninsula due to illegal hunting and destruction of its habitat.

It was last spotted in 1984 and was even feared to be extinct locally until the EAD recorded a sighting in Jebel Hafeet National Park two years ago. The Arabian caracal is a medium-sized, sandy-colored cat with distinctive long, tufted ears. It is known as the barking cat because of the noise it makes when threatened. It can tackle prey two or three times its size and even jump six feet into the air to catch birds in flight. The ability to go for long periods without water makes the caracal perfectly adapted to the harsh landscape of the region.

It is also a very old breed, dating back to ancient Egyptian times, when caracal sculptures were supposedly placed as guards outside the tombs of pharaohs.

Arabian Oryx
Arabian oryx in the desert of Dubai/Shutterstock

The Arabian oryx is another success story for the EAD. In the 1970s, this handsome antelope, regarded by many as an emblem of Arabia, was classed as “extinct in the wild” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was saved by a captive breeding program that began reintroducing the animal into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and a reserve in Abu Dhabi in the 1990s. In 2011, the Arabian oryx became the first animal to have its IUCN status reclassified as “vulnerable.” The reserve is now home to 2,000 of them — more than half of the total population on the Arabian peninsula.

Research into the habits and territory of the Arabian oryx, as well as gazelles, foxes, wild cats and birds of prey, continues, along with a joint project with the University of Edinburgh in the UK to manage genetic diversity among the oryx population.

Saving the Arabian oryx is “a really good conservation story”, says David Mallon, co-chair of the Antelope Specialist group, part of the IUCN Species Survival Commission. “The Arabian oryx was ‘extinct’ on the Red List, then they became ‘critically endangered’. Once the population increased they moved to ‘endangered,’ and then moved to a level where they could be called ‘vulnerable’. The next target they have to get to is ‘near-threatened,’ and that’s not far off,” he added.

Macqueen bustard
MacQueen’s bustard/Shutterstock

The MacQueen’s bustard was once hunted to near-extinction in the Middle East by falconers and poachers because its meat was considered to be an aphrodisiac. In 2010, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and the National Avian Research Centre initiated a breeding program to supplement the declining population of the MacQueen’s bustard.

The birds, a protected species in the UAE, are bred in captivity in the National Avian Research Centre and released as adults into the desert reserve. The first 29 birds were released in 2010 and the process has been repeated every year since. As of January 2020, more than 3,000 MacQueen’s bustards have been released in the UAE. More than 100 bustards have GPS trackers attached to them, which have shown that they are breeding and chicks are hatching. Staff at the reserve also report regular sightings of bustards without trackers.

Wild animals need vegetation for food and shelter, just as we do, and the study of plants that are adapted to the desert is a specialization in itself. The UAE University, in partnership with the car servicing company Cafu, is conducting the first study into how to enhance the germination of desert plants to optimize planting with minimal use of water.

Ghaf tree planting
Ghaf trees/Shutterstock

The research is part of the Ghaf Tree Seed Project, which aims to plant a million Ghaf tree seeds in the desert of the UAE to combat climate change. More than 10,000 seeds have already been planted in the desert using cutting-edge drone technology

The Ghaf tree is an evergreen which can reach 25m in height. It occurs naturally throughout Arabia and is in many ways the ideal desert plant. It can thrive in extremely dry areas where annual rainfall is less than 75mm and temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius. It grows equally well at sea level or on high ground up to 600m and has a wide drooping canopy of branches which give much needed shade. Camels and wild animals love to eat it. In times past, the Ghaf tree was invaluable to the Bedouin, who used it for food, fuel, shelter and even medicine. They ate the young leaves and seed pods, made eye drops from leaf extract, ear drops from crushed seed pods and mixed the ashes of burnt bark with water as a dressing for broken bones.

Ghaf bark was used to treat rheumatism and scorpion stings and ghaf wood was used for construction.In fact, it’s it’s safe to say the Ghaf tree was essential to survival.

Anna Pukas

Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.

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