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28 February 2024

Dubai thrives as a biodiversity hotspot despite the desert environment


Dubai’s development vision is defined as much by its quest for futuristic technologies as it is by its focus on preserving its rich heritage and natural ecosystems. The importance accorded to wildlife habitats and endangered species is a prime example of Dubai’s commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable practices.

Protected areas for wildlife conservation in Dubai have flourished amid the emirate’s primarily desert environment, thanks to well enforced biodiversity and sustainability programmes. Dubai’s wildlife reserves have increased from two marine and coastal habitats to eight areas representing the major geological features of the emirate in just a few years, a ridge to reef protected areas management approach The designation of protected areas translates into clearly defined rules and regulations for protecting the unique biodiversity of different areas.

Dubai’s wildlife sanctuaries are today home to a host of unique species that have adapted to the mountain, marine or desert habitats thanks to the committed efforts of authorities. Some of these reserves seek to promote, enhance or restore the conservation of specific links in the ecological chain, while others allow for the protection and conservation of an assortment of flora and fauna, such as habitat enhancement programmes to boost numbers of critical species, especially endangered ones.

This emphasis on ecological balance has also paid off by fuelling a culture of corporate social responsibility that is apparent in green initiatives across diverse sectors in the emirate.

His Excellency Dawoud Al Hajri, Director General of Dubai Municipality, said that great care was taken to ensure that environmental mandates of the civic body were fully met, more so in protected areas. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study for each project is done beforehand to identify its potential impacts on human welfare and biodiversity, also taking carbon offsets into account.

“Dubai accords paramount importance to matters of ecology and sustainability and has fully integrated these aspects in its developmental framework. Protected areas across the emirate exemplify this expansive vision that welcomes change and innovation on the one hand and affirms utmost respect for nature and heritage on the other,” His Excellency said.

“Dubai is also constantly looking to enhance its appeal as the world’s best place to live, work and visit. Conservation efforts across Dubai also aim to reach out to the larger community and the tourism sector,” His Excellency added.

Daily inspections
Daily monitoring and inspection programmes help with the maintenance of optimal conditions at all the wildlife sanctuaries in Dubai, enabling prompt management intervention where needed. Annual studies and surveys also help keep track of the diverse species and their population dynamics.

A ridge to reef approach
Protected areas in Dubai dot every corner of the emirate. The marine and coastal habitats are well represented by the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary and Jabal Ali Wildlife Sanctuary, which were the first to be designated as protected areas in 1998.

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, issued a decree in 2014 notifying six more protected areas. The desert reserves are the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve, Al Wohoosh Desert Conserve, Jabal Nazwa Conservation Reserve and the Ghaf Nazwa Conservation Reserve where a formerly arid landscape transformed into a sprawling wildlife conservation zones and recreation spaces. The Hatta Mountain Reserve is the lone highland reserve in the emirate.

Wetlands of international importance
Dubai has three declared Ramsar Sites; 1) the Ras Al Khor Widllife Sanctuary, 2) the Jabal Ali Wildllife Sanctuary and 3) the Hatta Mountain Reserve.
The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is located at the heart of the Dubai creek, at the intersection of the creek and the canal. It spans 10.13 square km and hosts a massive population of migratory and local bird species all year round. In winter, the number of birds goes up to 25,000 with some 201 different species reported at the reserve over the years.

Flamingoes are the main attraction for visitors to Ras Al Khor, but the sanctuary also draws large numbers of mallards, pintails, common teals and other duck species, waders, shorebirds, songbirds and raptors. It also supports globally threatened water birds such as the Socotra Cormorant, Ferruginous Duck and Sociable Lapwing, each of which is listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

A total of 472 species are estimated to inhabit the reserve. Winged visitors aside, there are 13 mammal species, 14 reptile species and 145 invertebrates, besides 47 plant varieties and 52 fish species. The reserve is a refuge to more than 20 endangered species such as the Greater Spotted Eagle, Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit and Curlew Sandpiper.

An early bird on the conservation scene, the Jabal Ali Wildlife Sanctuary extends over 75.2 square km and is home to 619 species – 127 birds, 11 mammals, 27 reptiles, 218 invertebrates, 157 fish varieties and plant species numbering 79.

The Jabal Ali reserve houses more than 45 endangered species, such as the Eurasian Curlew (Numenius arquata), the Socotra Cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis), Macqueen’s Bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii) and Cream-coloured Courser (Cursorius cursor), Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (Pterocles exustus erlangeri), Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin (Sousa chinensis), Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops adunious), and Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides).

The wildlife scene is anything but rarefied at higher altitudes. The Hatta Mountain Reserve covers over 21.56 square km amidst the Hajar peaks. Some 345 species have sought out the reserve, including 128 varieties of birds, 27 mammals, 20 reptiles, 133 plants, 9 fish, 2 amphibians and 29 invertebrates.

Around 10 endangered species inhabit the reserve, which include the Arabian Tahr (Arabitragus jayakari), Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia), Lappet-faced Vulture and Leptiens spiny-tailed lizard. Though locally extinct now, the critically endangered Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) used to habituate the mountain reserve.

Teeming deserts
Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve offers a refreshing twist to the desert setting of Saih Al Salam. Spanning 949.35 square km, it boasts 479 species including 258 varieties of birds, 11 mammals, 26 reptiles, 134 invertebrates and 3 fish varieties species besides 47 kinds of trees and vegetation. It harbours more than 30 endangered species, such as the Persian Wonder Gecko (Teratoscincus keyserlingii) and Leptiens Spiny-tailed Lizard (Uromastyx aegyptia leptieni), Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx), Mountain Gazelle (Gazella gazella cora) and Sand Gazellle (Gazella marica), Lappet-faced Vulture and Asian Houbara (Bustard).

A collaborative effort by different government agencies help tend to the large population of endangered ungulates including the Arabian Oryx, Mountain Gazelle and Sand Gazelle at the reserve. There is also a dedicated breeding programme for the Asian houbara with hundreds of the birds released in the site to breed naturally.
Scenic manmade lakes surrounded by vast groves allow for unobtrusive buffers between the animals and visitors. A staggering variety of native vegetation dots the landscape.

Size doesn’t matter if there is real conviction in one’s work, and the Ghaf Nazwa Conservation Reserve to the north of Margham is proof of that. It is home to 66 species despite being just 0.13 square km across. These include 19 varieties of birds, 5 mammals, 6 reptiles, 24 invertebrates and 12 representatives of the plant kingdom. The endangered Pharaoh Eagle Owl (Bubo ascalaphus savigny) and Mountain Gazelle receive special attention at the sanctuary.

Size does not limit the Jabal Nazwa Conservation Reserve either. Located to the southeastern corner of Dubai, along the border with Sharjah, it spans 0.48 square km but houses 246 species in all including 111 birds, 20 mammals, 24 reptiles, 21 invertebrates and 70 plants and trees. The reserve has more than 10 endangered species, such as the Arabian oryx, mountain gazelle and sand gazelle.

Then there are the wonders amid the desert. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve also abuts the Sharjah border to Dubai’s north. Covering an area of 225.9 square km, it has some 562 species including 142 varieties of birds, 22 mammals, 28 reptiles, 298 invertebrates and 72 species of flora.

The reserve supports more than 15 endangered species, such as The Arabian Oryx, Mountain Gazelle, Sand Gazelle, Macqueen’s Bustard, Lappet-face Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos), Spiny-tailed lizard and Gordon’s wildcat (Felis silvestris gordoni). It also has a breeding programme for the Asian Houbara.

The Al Wohoosh Desert Conservation Reserve marks a 15.06 square km patch in the Al Aweer desert area. There are some 91 species inhabiting the reserve including 19 varieties of birds, 4 mammals, 8 reptiles, 11 invertebrates and 49 plant species. The sanctuary has special conservation plans for the Mountain Gazelle, Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis) and the Leptiens Spiny-tailed Lizard.

Protected areas in Dubai have had an almost surreal effect of transforming desert landscapes across the emirate into virtual oases buzzing with life, just as Dubai continues to attract people from far and wide to explore its unique story, with its evergreen narrative convincing many to set up home and business right here.