Al Ain: Ten years ago, the fate of the endangered Arabian tahr — found only in Oman and the UAE — was bleak.
But hope for the species was renewed when a dedicated centre in Al Ain stepped in to protect the goat-like species, with the ultimate goal of reintroducing them back into the wild.
The Management of Nature Conservation (MNC) at the foothills of Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain now houses 345 Arabian tahrs, believed to be the world’s biggest Arabian tahr population in captivity. The centre operates under the Department of the President’s Affairs. It is a research and breeding facility that is not open to the public.
The centre’s current Arabian tahr population is a far cry from its starting point of only 10 Arabian tahrs in 2005. The population sample came from the private collection of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Currently, the Arabian tahr is considered endangered in Oman and “possibly extinct” in the UAE based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
MNC’s recent findings after scouting for Arabian tahrs outside Abu Dhabi rendered negative results. It is believed the remaining UAE Arabian tahrs seen in the wild — about 10 of them — are on Jebel Hafeet.
Competition with feral goats, poaching, and habitat loss have contributed to its decline in the wild.
But hope abounds for the species at MNC. For almost a decade, the centre has managed to increase its Arabian tahr population through natural breeding with a 90 per cent success rate.
“When you deal with an endangered species, you have a very small gene pool. And obviously, you can expect to have a very high genetic relatedness. But through very careful selection, we have reduced that substantially,” Willie Labuschagne, MNC deputy director, told Gulf News during an exclusive visit.
This is done using a breeding matrix that records the Arabian tahr’s genetic relatedness and acts as the primary basis for pair selection. An Arabian tahr Steering Committee then decides — based on the animal’s genetics, size, behaviour — which animals are best suited to breed. This has reduced genetic relatedness among the breeding animals to only 30 per cent.
But the centre does not only rely on Mother Nature’s ways. Its biggest breakthrough came in 2011 with the birth of Khalis, the world’s first artificially inseminated Arabian tahr.
The research programme has extended to include cloning and stem cell project, both of which are currently at their early stages. These scientific measures, plus the centre’s sperm and DNA bank, are the centre’s back-up plan for Arabian tahr’s future.
Any crisis, say a disease, can wipe out the population literally overnight. That is why MNC takes precautions of regularly vaccinating and daily checking on the animals.
This far-sighted approach has earned MNC global recognition from the Germany-based Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research earlier this year. The team declared MNC’s model of conservation as the best they have seen worldwide after an independent two-day audit.
“We have to recognise the incredible contribution that Shaikh Khalifa is doing and it’s not for his personal gain. I think more than pleasure and satisfaction, it is the knowledge that he is actually leaving something for future Emiratis to enjoy and to be proud of,” Labuschagne said.
“And we also recognise Engineer Mubarak Sa’ad Al Ahbabi, Chairman of the Department of the President’s Affairs, his continued support and Abdul Jaleel, who is the director-general of this centre. These three people have made this possible,” he added.
In a year’s time, Labuschagne said they will prepare a small group of Arabian tahrs to adjust to a semi-wild or even a wild environment within the centre in preparation for an ultimate goal of reintroducing them into the wild. MNC is now building the enclosures and planting vegetation to support the species.
Once all goes according to plan, MNC will start putting the Arabian tahr back in their natural habitat in five years’ time. That is after they make sure that the animal is ready for reintroduction and the reasons as to why they have declined in the wild are eliminated.
“If MNC does not succeed in saving the species, we can write it off. Nobody else can do it...We have to undertake all possible methods to ensure the survival of the species.”