In the Qatari Desert, An Oasis for Vanishing Species

Editor's note: Today is the International Day for Biological Diversity, a U.N. observance dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of the world’s species. Writing about topics such as accelerating extinction rates can be disheartening, but among the stories of loss are other stories of hope. Today’s blog chronicles an inspiring experience I had last December.

Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation’s tagline is “a well-hidden secret in Qatar.” Truer words were never spoken. The first three taxi drivers I asked had never heard of it. The fourth claimed to know how to get there, but as we sped west of Doha for 45 minutes along the dusty highway, with the car’s gas light blinking ever more insistently, I realized this was not the case.

Fortunately, my map eventually led us to a large compound with leafy green trees peeking over its walls — a welcome visual relief from the brown, rocky desert surrounding it. Al Wabra may be little-known in its home country, but this place is internationally recognized for its success at breeding some of the rarest species in the world.

Upon arrival, I was met by director Dr. Tim Bouts, a veterinarian from Belgium who started at Al Wabra last year. He is one of around 200 staff from 13 countries who live on the premises in order to remain close to their charges, of which there is a wide variety. As he gave me a tour of the property, we passed dozing cheetahs, giant tortoises munching on grass, wild sheep clamoring over rocks and marabou storks wandering freely over the grounds.

Today, Al Wabra may be the last hope for certain species; however, it wasn’t always that way. The facility originally started as a “hobby farm” by the father of Sheikh Saoud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family. Like other private animal collections throughout the Gulf region, Al Wabra often acquired its animals from wherever they were available.

Around 2000, the sheikh had a change of heart and decided to turn his private animal collection into a world-class conservation facility, improving its enclosures and recruiting animal husbandry experts from across the globe. Their knowledge and skill has helped turn Al Wabra into a place that now often sets animal care guidelines for the rest of the world.

The facility currently houses around 2,000 animals representing 90 species, most of which are highly threatened with extinction. The animals are housed together in breeding groups that aim to maximize genetic diversity among potential offspring in order to expand the gene pool and the species’ chance of survival.

In addition, Al Wabra trades individual animals with other accredited zoos and breeding facilities around the world. For example, although the facility owns 40 Arabian sand cats (Felis margarita harrisoni), only 19 currently reside in Qatar.

As we wandered through an open-air aviary, amid chattering parrots and lavishly feathered birds of paradise, Bouts described Al Wabra’s strategy simply: “Nature is the best teacher.”

Simulating animals’ natural habitat as realistically as possible has led to impressive breeding successes. For example, after observing that wild Lear’s macaws (Anodorhynchus leari) in Brazil build their nests in rock crevices, Al Wabra staff built similar crevices for their captive population, with great results. Last breeding season alone they bred seven Lear’s macaw chicks.

Thanks to ongoing reproductive research and state-of-the-art technology, Al Wabra has made historic contributions to sustaining several species. Among their successes is the first artificial insemination of a beira antelope (Dorcatragus megalotis) — one of the species Al Wabra had originally taken from East Africa.

Al Wabra’s flagship project is the conservation of the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii), a parrot native to the Brazilian state of Bahia. Recently popularized by the movie “Rio,” its population has dwindled as a result of habitat degradation and the pet trade. The bird is thought to be extinct in the wild; the last wild individual was seen in 2000. (Incidentally, the last westerners to see it were CI President Dr. Russ Mittermeier and his two sons.)

Al Wabra has played an instrumental role in slowly bringing this species back from the brink. Five chicks were born at the facility last year — the only recorded births for this species in the world. There are currently thought to be 79 Spix’s on Earth, 60 of which currently reside at Al Wabra.

Of course, the ultimate goal of growing captive populations of species like the Spix’s macaw is to reintroduce them into the wild. This is often a risky endeavor — after all, there’s a reason these species became threatened in the first place.

Al Wabra recognizes that for these animals to have any chance at survival, captive breeding must go hand in hand with on-the-ground conservation activities. In 2008, Al Wabra purchased Concordia Farm, a 2,380-hectare (5,881-acre) piece of land in Brazil where the last wild Spix’s macaw was seen. At Concordia, Al Wabra is in the process of restoring the bird’s caatinga forest habitat, as well as conducting educational outreach activities in schools and communities to instill a sense of local pride in the parrot. They hope to re-introduce Spix’s into the wild within a decade.

Similar projects are underway in places like Ethiopia, where Al Wabra is working with the Ethiopian government to create a protected area in Ogaden, a region home to animals like the dibatag antelope (Ammodorcas clarkei). This project is supported by the IUCN Northeast African Antelope Specialist Group.

For the past quarter-century, CI has been committed to saving the world’s threatened species — not only for their aesthetic and cultural values, but because they form the building blocks of the ecosystems that sustain all 7 billion people on Earth.

Without parallel efforts by captive breeding facilities like Al Wabra, CI’s work to preserve and restore the planet’s last wild places might be for naught — the forests empty of birdsong, the savannas devoid of thundering hooves, and the people who depend on these species left with nothing.

For me, this visit to Al Wabra could not have come at a better time. Disheartened by the lack of progress at the U.N. climate talks several days earlier, I had found myself seriously questioning humanity’s ability to take the actions we need to save our planet — and ourselves. But Al Wabra reminded me that even as the international community drags its feet on making critical decisions, smaller entities — whether they be individuals, countries, companies or organizations like Al Wabra — are doing what they can, and helping the world hang on by a thread.

Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature. Learn more about Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation on their website or Facebook page.