Ras Al Khor sanctuary Image Credit: Supplied

According to BirdLife International, every autumn over two billion birds channel through the Middle East from Europe and Central Asia on their way down to Africa, before migrating back again in spring.

A quarter of that number, however, are shot or trapped by hunters in the region every year, and up until recently few efforts were being made to protect them.

Now, however, a new app — the world’s first to be launched in Arabic — by conservation charity, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia (OSME), looks to change attitudes towards wildlife in the region.

Based on the book Birds of the Middle East, which was also translated into Arabic and launched at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai in 2017, the free to download app looks to take the fight for conservation to a wider and ever younger, tech-savvy, audience.

“Hunting is one of the big concerns so we hope to try and get people — the next generation or the generation after that — to appreciate birds for their natural beauty and incredible behaviour, rather than just being merely seen as something to be shot,” OSME chairman Rob Sheldon told the Weekend Review.

Not everyone who ventures into the desert is a conservationist, but people are becoming slowly interested in nature.

- Abdul Rahman Al Sirhan

He explained that numerous species from Central Asia, Siberia and the Artic get channelled through a bottleneck in the Middle East on their way down to East and Southern Africa, making it a significant stopover. So significant, in fact, that birdwatchers head here in their droves to tick off species from a list that’s known as the Western Palaeartic.

“The potential for ecotourism is quite high,” he added. “It’s almost as if it’s an airport for birds to stop off and refuel before continuing their journey south. However the importance of this particular flyway has probably been neglected up until the last few years.”

But he said change was afoot and it had been sparked by social media.

“We’ve all seen some of the pretty horrible images of hundreds of birds being lined up on the floor because they’ve been shot while they are migrating, and people are starting to turn their attention a lot more to this region and say ‘come on guys, this isn’t acceptable, let’s do more to conserve them.’

“It’s quite an important place and I think attitudes are changing slowly, it always takes a while to change, but hopefully they will and this will be a key part of it,” he added of the app.

We also hope to introduce it into the national curriculum so that it can be used as an educational tool.

- Rob Sheldon, OSME chairman

“There has already been several thousand downloads, so we think there’s an appetite for it, but we also hope to create one as well by aiming it at youngsters and children and making it more accessible.

“We also hope to introduce it into the national curriculum so that it can be used as an educational tool. That’s the obvious next step, to use it in a structured educational way instead of just an app that you download and have on your phone.”

Sheldon added that from his experience of working on nature reserves in the region, it was important just to have this resource in order to know that he and Arab rangers were actually talking about the same bird.

Abdul Rahman Al Sirhan, who translated the text from English into Arabic, said the app would always have a much deeper purpose.

“From about 20-30 years ago, as soon as it became easy to own a four-wheel drive, and fuel was cheap enough, people began venturing out into the desert, but as soon as they saw animals or birds, they shot them for souvenirs or to show off,” he said.

“It’s going to take time, people still shoot birds to hunt and not everyone who ventures into the desert is a conservationist, but people are becoming slowly interested in nature.

“The pace is sadly still very slow, but wildlife photography is picking up thanks to social media, and although the number of birdwatchers in the Arab world are still very few, apps such as this will help.

“It will be easy for people of all ages to access this app and in 10 years time, when eight to 10-year-olds now have seen birds and get interested in them, hopefully we will see numbers increasing.

“More can definitely be done,” he added. “And I think the government needs to take initiative. They should hold conferences and run campaigns to show people why we should take an interest in wildlife conservation.”

The Birds of the Middle East app is free and available to download now for iOS and Android devices.

Eight amazing birds you can see in the Middle East

Hypocolius

This unique bird, which is not closely related to any other species in the world, is highly-prized by the region’s birders. Blue-grey in colour — the male has a black face-mask — the hypocolius measures around 20cm in length. It is present throughout the Arabian Peninsula and recent studies have shown that it breeds in Iraq and Kuwait. This distinctive bird can be found eating figs and dates in semi-desert areas as well as in parks and gardens.

Slender-billed curlew

Once widespread throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the last verified sighting of this bird was in 1995, making your chances of seeing one as slender as its eponymous bill. Sadly, a combination of factors including hunting and habitat destruction, has probably led to the demise of this species, but many are hopeful that a few hardy survivors live on. Locate the last remaining slender-billed curlew to become an overnight conservation hero! Image Credit: Supplied

Kingfishers

The grey-headed kingfisher sports a salmon-pink beak and an array of grey, black, brown and blue feathers, making it much more impressive than its name suggests. The rare collared kingfisher, which has striking cyan and white plumage, lives in the mangroves of the UAE and Oman. Common, white-throated and pied varieties are widespread the region. Look for them in areas with still or slow-moving water and be prepared to wait patiently to see these reclusive birds. Image Credit: Supplied

Crab plover

A white wader with minimal jet-black markings, this long-legged lovely is the epitome of understated elegance. When it’s not strutting its stuff along our coastlines and mudflats, you will find it pummelling its prey — tiny crabs and molluscs — into submission with an oversized beak or building a network of climate-controlled chambers in the sand to house its eggs at the optimum temperature until they hatch. This shorebird can be found throughout the region, so you won’t have to travel far to see it. Image Credit: Supplied

Hoopoe

A long slender curved beak, bold black and white wing markings and an impressive crest make this unique and exotic looking bird instantly recognisable. Territorial creatures, they are likely to be encountered as single birds or pairs, rather than in flocks. The hoopoe takes its name from its call, which sounds something like ‘hu-pu.’ Listen out for them in your local park, particularly near their favoured ghaf trees. Image Credit: Supplied

Socotra cormorant

Endemic to the Middle East (that means you won’t find this species anywhere else), the Socotra cormorant inhabits marine areas where it breeds on desert islands. These birds are great at hunting fish, partly because of the lack of waterproofing in their feathers; this allows them to dive deep under water to track their prey. After a swimming session, they will stand with their wings outstretched to dry in the characteristic and totally Insta-worthy cormorant pose. Find a reputable tour operator who can take you to a nearby colony to get up close to these artful exhibitionists. Image Credit: Supplied

Owls

These nocturnal creatures make their homes in a variety of habitats including mountains, deserts and large parks and several species can be found across the Middle East. Some, like the evocatively named pharaoh-eagle owl, have piercing orange eyes, while the facial feathers of the pallid scops owl give it a rather distinguished expression. Recently, the Arabian eagle owl was found to have a wider range than previously thought and in 2014, intrepid birders found a previously unrecorded species — the Omani owl. With so much left to uncover about the region’s wildlife, who knows how many other species are out there waiting to be discovered? Image Credit: Supplied

Greater flamingo

Probably one of the most recognisable avians in the world, the flamingo is a very social bird which can be found in large colonies in the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon and Bahrain. Greater flamingos are the tallest of the flamingo species and adult birds can reach between four and five feet in height. They have long, lean, curved necks and black-tipped bills. During mating season, they perform an elaborate courtship ritual, which involves large flocks dancing in unison. Image Credit: Supplied

- With inputs from Sajidah Ahmad