Dubai: Dr Reza Khan has probably had the wildest time in the UAE.
The 72-year-old wildlife expert retired on June 1 after 30 years of service with Dubai Municipality.
Dr Khan, from Bangladesh, was initially head of section of the now-closed Dubai Zoo (run by the municipality) and later appointed the principal wildlife specialist at the municipality.
He has long been the go-to person for amateurs, ordinary residents, the press and officials trying to identify or learn more about wildlife they have come across in the UAE.
Dr Khan is also known for being the first to record a number of rare wildlife species and sightings in the UAE and has written books on the subject, replete with pictures taken by himself (Dr Khan is never too far from his DSLR camera and huge 500mm lens).
And he’s not done yet.
Dr Khan now plans to split his time evenly between the UAE and Bangladesh, carrying on with his field research and consultancy services.
“I will miss Dubai Zoo and Dubai Safari, now that I’m a free man. But I’ll be doing lots more birdwatching; going around the UAE and spending time with my five grandchildren. At the same time, I will be going back to Bangladesh, spending half the time there. They have a new master plan for a national zoo, and I’m likely to be involved,” Dr Khan said during an exclusive interview with Gulf News recently, while exploring Al Qudra desert on Dubai’s outskirts.
As usual, Dr Khan’s thoughts were interrupted intermittently as he spotted a bird here, a beetle there, all with lightning speed and accuracy.
Dr Khan has a special interest in birds — he joined Bombay Natural History Society in 1974 under Salim Ali, “the great birdman of India”.
In 1983, while Dr Khan was assistant professor at Dhaka University, he received a communication from Ali saying “petrodollar is calling you” (petrodollar refers to the income of oil-rich countries, such as the UAE).
Dr Khan had been named by Ali as one of three candidates for Al Ain Municipality, who wanted to recruit a bird specialist for the zoo there.
He got the job and landed at Abu Dhabi Airport on December 14, 1983 — one day before his entry permit was going to expire.
“I came with just $50 in my pocket [around $123 or Dh451, adjusted for inflation], and that too my relatives had given me. In April 1984, I got my first salary when my UAE visa was stamped in my passport — that’s how long it took those days,” Dr Khan said.
“Everyone was lending me money until I got my first salary. It was normal. They said, ‘just give us a cheque and we will put the date on it when you can pay us back’. That’s just how it worked back in the day.”
A month later, his wife and three children joined him.
His eldest son was enrolled in the sixth grade, daughter in Grade 1 and the youngest son was only aged three at the time.
The family’s residence was inside the zoo, and Dr Khan remembers well how he would get “furious” calls from his children’s school.
‘We live in a zoo’
“My children’s teachers would ask them, ‘where do you stay?’ They would reply, ‘we live in a zoo’. The teachers would become furious and call us, ‘Your children are trying to crack jokes with us’.”
“But we were actually staying inside the zoo, we had to explain. The same thing would happen when we moved to Dubai Zoo — and we enjoyed it.”
Dr Khan joined as the official in charge of Dubai Zoo in June 1989 and moved into a six-bedroom villa there in August of the same year.
“Nobody knew the villa was there because nobody really saw it. Visitors had to cross the front of the villa to go inside Dubai Zoo proper. Where the flamingos were, on the left there is a door that says ‘No Entry’ — that’s my door,” he said.
Dr Khan will be handing over the keys to the villa later this month. It is where his children grew up, forging close bonds with some of the other residents of the zoo, which closed in 2017.
‘Gorillas in the Mist’
“I love all animals but there are two gorillas close to my heart. They had been confiscated at Dubai Airport — one in 1997 and the other in 2000 — and Dubai Zoo took them in. We kept them close to our villa window in the zoo. My family would take care of them. My children would play with them on the swings in our villa. Every morning I would go with my tea mug and share my tea with them.
“The big male gorilla is Digit — I named him after the ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ film. The female is Diana; she still recognises me very well.”
With all three children settled in Dubai (now aged 38, 41, and 45), Dr Khan said he has spent his best years in the UAE.
“So long as Almighty Allah keeps me healthy, I will keep going back to nature, looking for wildlife and wild plants. I love plants also.”