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23 April 2024

$1bn dream will bring lions to your doorstep

By Sue Brattle


House-buyers will be able to live close to lions, cheetahs and other wild animals in properties to be built at Al Ain Zoo as part of a $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) redevelopment.

Around 750 homes, ranging from apartments to villas, are to be built looking out over newly created desert safari areas. It is not yet known whether they will be sold freehold – but it will be the first time housing and a safari park have been mixed in this way anywhere in the world.

The redevelopment scheme is at an early stage and will take several years to complete. Only an outline plan – shown opposite – could be displayed at this week’s Tourism Development Projects and Investment Market exhibition held in Dubai.

But the zoo hopes to reveal a more precise blueprint of what will be known as Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort in May at Cityscape Abu Dhabi.

“In the past we all lived very closely with animals and we will recreate that,” said Hanan Sayed Worrell, a member of the project’s executive committee.

“Safety and security is foremost, but we want to create a desert experience that is not about four-wheel drives and dune bashing. From the butterfly garden to big animals, everywhere you go you will engage with the wildlife.”

It is expected work will commence on the development towards the end of this year, and phase one of the park – the African and Arabian safaris and the residential building – is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2010.

The entire project will be finished by 2012 and will include a five-star resort, a 300-room family hotel and a multi-storey shopping and restaurant complex. From all of these, visitors should get clear views of the wildlife roaming free in the surrounding parks, which will include recreation of deserts from Central Asia, Chile, California and Australia. Housing, shops and cafés in each of these zones will reflect that culture, too. Watering holes will be strategically placed so that animals will gather and provide an even better spectacle.

At the centre will be the core zoo, the existing facility established in 1968 by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. This has already been upgraded over the past two years and will have more changes. Zoo Director Mark Craig said: “We are moving away from animals in cages to animals in communities. This will be a paradigm for zoos of the future.”

Craig joined the zoo in January 2006 when, he said, “it was in pretty bad shape”.

He added: “It cost Dh2 to get into the zoo and that is about all it was worth. We have brought in expertise and turned the zoo around. It has all the components you would expect a zoo to have now.”

The zoo pulled off a public relations coup last summer by opening at night so that visitors could see the nocturnal animals at their best. Craig said: “I noticed that families stayed out in Al Ain until about 1am, making the most of the cooler temperatures, so we thought we could make the most of that.

“We changed the animals’ feeding regime to suit this, so people could see them being fed.” The same will happen with the upcoming safari parks; the animals’ behaviour will be managed by food being distributed to coincide with the planned safari treks and rides.

Al Ain is the largest zoo in the Middle East, and its 5,000 animals and 250 species attracted 614,000 visitors last year. Craig said: “If we opened the African safari park next week, we already have enough animals for it. We will be working with other zoos and government agencies to bring in new species, though.”

The existing shape of the landscape has determined the whole project. The zoo is in the foothills of the Jebel Hafeet, and has mountain and desert terrain. Worrell, a civil engineer, said: “We want to tread lightly and will avoid major earthworks. We want people to know it is Al Ain they have visited. People think of deserts as arid and empty when, in fact, they are abundant.

“We are surveying every tree. If it is an indigenous tree, it will remain, and the areas with the most ghaf trees will be the Arabian desert safari.

“Water, water, water is the big subject for us, of course. Early settlers came here thousands of years ago because of the water and recent developments have put a strain on our supplies. We cannot dictate to the residents, but we will suggest parameters for energy consumption.”

In the meantime, the zoo’s animal husbandry activities will carry on. They will be re-introducing scimitar-horned oryx, addax (antelope) and the Dama gazelle to areas of North Africa, building on their success in bringing the Arabian oryx back to the UAE.

Craig said: “Our responsibility is to the UAE, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula; we don’t want to diversify.”

The question still remains – just how safe will all this closeness to nature be? A posh lodge house (with personal butler) is planned for each of the safari parks, where guests will be encouraged to walk through the safari areas with a guide.

Some wildlife will roam freely on the grounds of the resort hotels, and the massive African safari park will include lions, cheetah, wild dogs and hyenas.

However, much of what you will see will be an optical illusion. Craig explained: “You may travel through a park and see lions on a rocky outcrop with Thomson’s gazelles grazing just below them. In fact, there will be barriers so the lions cannot get to the gazelles.”

The same is true around the residential areas; moats and other natural barriers will keep the wildlife separate from the housing, while giving the illusion of man and beast living side-by-side.

The development planners are EDSA of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States. The company also designed Orlando International Airport in Florida, and Songjiang, a new town in the suburbs of Shanghai in China.

Worrell said: “Zoos used to be about protection; in the 1960s and 1970s, people just put a fence around the animals. Then it became restoration, to restore animals to their natural habitat. The next phase, we think, is integration. If people see the Arabian oryx every day, they will understand it or want to know more about it.

“It is all about familiarity. So many children are either afraid of animals, or think they are just toys. We want them to experience their life cycle and be able to see how they live.”

The planners are aiming at UAE residents and visitors, as well as GCC nationals as their customers, and expect to attract a million a year at first, growing to two million.

Worrell said: “We will capitalise on Al Ain’s ancient role as a crossroads. But we do not want people to be processed like a Disneyland experience, we want them to have the space to pause and reflect.”

At the helm


  • NATIONALITY: Lebanese-American
  • QUALIFICATIONS: BSc, civil engineering; MSc project and construction management
  • EXPERIENCE: Worked with Abu Dhabi Government since 1993, in aviation and the environment. Joined Al Ain project in 2005


  • NATIONALITY: Born in the UK, emigrated to Australia 20 years ago
  • EXPERIENCE: Started as bird keeper at Adelaide Zoo and worked his way up to zoo director. Joined Al Ain Zoo in 2006

The world’s biggest zoos

  • In 1,000BC Chinese emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence that covered 1,500 acres
  • The San Diego Wild Animal Park covers 1,800 acres
  • Toronto Zoo opened in 1888 and at 710 acres is the largest traditional zoo in the world
  • The Zoologischer Garten Berlin (Berlin Zoological Garden) has the largest number of species of any zoo in the world, with 14,000 animals from 1,500 species
  • The Werribee Open Range Zoo in Melb-ourne displays animals living in 500 acres of open savannah

The numbers

  • $1bn: the approximate cost of the wildlife park project
  • 950 hectares (or 2,347 acres): The size of the whole development
  • 1m: the number of visitors the zoo aims to attract after its phase one
  • 5,000: the number of animals at the zoo
  • 750: the number of houses to be built in the park
  • 200: the number of staff at the zoo