Protective instinct

Held up as a model of biodiversity on a par with sites such as Yellowstone National Park and the Great Barrier Reef, a Dubai national park – the UAE’s largest – is setting international benchmarks in desert conservation

When conservationists found six new species of plant, bird and insect in the Dubai desert last year, some of the emirate’s older inhabitants were surprised. Forty years ago, when they were young and the gleaming towers of the great modern coastal city were barely a twinkle in the eye of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Dubai’s then-Ruler and founder, the burning lands of the interior of the small desert kingdom were home to little wildlife. Bedouin roamed the great desert, but camels and goats had overgrazed the land for decades, the fabled acacia trees and grasses had mostly been replaced by dwarf shrubs, predators like the lynx and the wolf were extinct, and wildcats and the fabled Arabian oryx were down to a few pairs. Hunting and poaching had decimated wildlife and the land was neglected and littered with rubbish.

It took Dubai’s ruling family to remind the world that the wildest, most remote places, where temperatures can rise to 50°C and water is severely limited, can be some of the most ecologically rich.

Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum’s first conservation act was to try to save the Arabian oryx, the fabled animal which used to range across all North Africa and the Middle East, symbolising beauty, resistance and untamed wilderness. Animals from some of the few remaining small herds in Dubai were flown to a wildlife reserve in Arizona to recover their numbers with a view to returning them when conditions were better. The timing was perfect; within a few years no Arabian oryx remained in the wild anywhere in the world.

By the late 1990s, with Dubai city growing rapidly and the human population soaring, conservation of the desert had become imperative. In 1999 the government and Emirates Airline stepped in to build an exclusive desert holiday resort to attract visitors and raise money for conservation. Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, a luxury eco-getaway, was to be the centre of Dubai’s first national park, and in 2004 the area was massively expanded to 225 square miles and named the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR).

Slowly, leading conservationists from the region and around the world came to conduct climate surveys and then began to restore the land, planting trees and shrubs and reintroducing animals. The oryx was returned from the US and thrived in its former lands, and other animals like the Arabian gazelle were successfully reintroduced.

Native tree and grass planting has revived the numbers of small mammals including the Arabian hare, Sundevall’s jird and Cheesman’s gerbil – and these in turn support predators such as the Gordon’s wildcat, Arabian red fox and Rueppell’s fox. In time, sand cats and sand foxes are expected to return.

The degraded desert’s transformation into the UAE’s first and largest protected wildlife conservation area, making up five per cent of all Dubai’s land area, has been remarkably swift and is now internationally recognised. Today, DDCR is home to over 230 different species of birds, plants and animals, including the peregrine falcon, the booted eagle, the eagle owl, the desert lark and the barn owl.

In 2008, the DDCR was formally recognised by the UN and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one of the world’s great conservation successes. It is now registered with the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), audited by UN’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and has joined some of the world’s best-known conservation areas, including Yellowstone National Park in the US and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The reserve is divided into four sections. Entrance to its most ecologically precious zone – of around 10 sq km – is strictly by foot. Zone 2 allows few people in, mostly on horseback, and Zone 3 is reserved for recreational use and low-impact desert excursions. Only 200,000 visitors a year are allowed into the wider park.

No sand dune driving is allowed during the height of summer, only 1,000 camels are allowed to wander freely to avoid degrading the land, and farming and irrigation is strictly limited.

The conservation effort has now been recognised widely. Achim Steiner, former German Environment Minister but now United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Director, ranks the DDCR as internationally important.

“Creating and maintaining national parks and protected areas like the DDCR is one of the most important commitments that nations make towards protecting endangered species, habitats, landscapes and local livelihoods,” he says.

Dr Odeh Al-Jayyousi, Regional Director of the IUCN, says the reserve is an inspiration well beyond the Gulf. “This conservation area is regarded as an example of best practice for sustainable development and biodiversity protection.”

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman and CEO of Emirates Group, says the combination of ecotourism and conservation is valuable. “Much of the region’s natural resources, habitats and wildlife are under pressure; however, sustainable developments like this offer the biggest opportunities to develop the tourism economy, while also protecting natural and historic heritage into the future.”

Greg Simkins, Conservation Manager at the reserve, says the work is not finished. “We will build on this success by continuing to manage the ecosystem in a way that allows natural processes such as breeding, predator-prey interaction as well as seed dispersion and germination to take place. The longer the DDCR is under conservation management the more it will be able to attract and allow other new species to become established.”

Dubai is one of the most modern cities on earth but its culture is still deeply rooted in the desert and the traditions of the past. Now that its wildlife is thriving again and being rediscovered by an entirely new generation, the emirate’s older citizens definitely have much to be surprised and pleased about.