Quick – envision the Arabian Desert. What do you see?
Sand? Shimmering waves of heat? A burning sun? When most people think “desert,” biodiversity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
What they might envision, however, is a single antelope, white and tan with black markings, horns arcing gracefully back from its head. An Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx), standing proud on a bank of sand. Maybe they see a regal sheik supporting a hunting falcon on his arm.
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Although these images are stereotypes, there is truth in them. And, in fact, caring for the oryx, Saker falcons (Falco cherrug), dugongs (Dugong dugon), sand cats (Felis margarita) and greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) of the region is something that the leaders of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have in common with other conservationists around the world.
The United Arab Emirates
The UAE sit on the southeastern scoop of land on the Arabian Peninsula, bordering the Persian Gulf. Although the Emirates have approximately 1,318 kilometers (over 800 miles) of coastline, nearly four-fifths of the land is desert. It is a country of habitat extremes.
The UAE’s Environment Agency (EAD), based in Abu Dhabi, hews to the principles of research, development and protection. They seek to understand their environmental situation and role, to develop new models in conjunction with economic growth, and to protect the natural habitats and species that make every landscape unique. As with Conservation International (CI), they are working to catalyze an environmental ethic in their people.
In addition to agreeing to numerous international environmental treaties (Biodiversity, the Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, and Marine Dumping), UAE projects include a motion to eliminate the use of plastic bags in Abu Dhabi and the creation of new protected areas.
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Appropriate to their geographic location, much of their work is dedicated to assessing and protecting regional water resources, but there is also great commitment to protecting species indigenous to the UAE.
Protecting Unique Species and Landscapes
Arabian culture has a long history with falconry. The people and leaders of the UAE raise and train numerous hawk and falcon species for the hunt. This history ties them to their land, but it also has unforeseen consequences.
Unfortunately for the Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), a turkey-like bird often used as a target for falconry, its popularity has led to serious species decline. Listed as globally Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the bustard is over-hunted.
To address this, the EAD created the National Avian Research Center to breed houbara in captivity, contribute to the global strategy for houbara conservation and to reduce the illegal trade in poached houbara. The program honors cultural traditions as well as the species’ needs.
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve follows this model as well. The preserve houses a first-class resort facility founded on the ideal that conservation of natural resources is vital to economic success.
The protected area that surrounds the resort cradles an iconic Arabian oryx population, sand cats, Cape hares (Lepus capensis) and desert hedgehogs (Hemiechinus aethiopicus).
The UAE’s marine landscape cannot be ignored either. Endangered fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) swim in the Persian Gulf, dugongs (cousins of the manatee) troll the seagrass-edged coastlines, and millions of birds congregate in marshes and wildlife refuges. Some of the most beautiful and diverse coral reefs in the world exist beyond the UAE’s waves.
The habitats of the marine protected area Bul Syayeef, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, include open water, salt marshes and tidal mud flats.
At the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, hundreds of bird species congregate, including the greater flamingos, which are known to breed here in close range of bustling Dubai.
The UAE are fast-growing, with an aggressive approach to development. The leadership of the country and its people are dedicated to preserving the natural wonder of the land where the desert meets the sea.
Only time will tell which species survive, and thrive, as the United Arab Emirates grow in international stature.
As more people visit the region and make it home, conservationists are encouraged by the many ways in which the unique habitats and species are being protected as well.
LEARN MORE: Explore many unique threatened species with CI's species profiles.