The protected area helped bring the Arabian Oryx back from the brink of extinction
The protected area helped bring the Arabian Oryx back from the brink of extinction. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

Dubai: It’s 4am on a Tuesday. While most of Dubai is still asleep, Gerhard Erasmus is ready to leave for work. The South African expat who manages the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve heads a team of 15 conservation officers.

His team including Spanish conservation officer Maria Jose Martin must reach the reserve before daybreak for today’s mission – surveying the population of spiny-tailed lizards.

It’s not an easy task, because spiny-tailed lizards are shy creatures and the conservation reserve spans 225 square kilometers, almost five per cent of Dubai’s total land area.

Classified as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list, these reptiles are among the many other native species being protected on the reserve.

The Gulf News team joined Erasmus and Martin on one of their daily visits, to find out more.

The fenced area, which lies about 40 kilometers away from the city, is not open to the public. Camels are also kept out of this reserve because, for many species like the spiny-tailed lizard, competition for grazing is a reason they are on the threatened list.

With 12 years of experience, Erasmus swiftly and excitedly pointed at what looked like a dead log lying in the sand, a few 100 meters away from our vehicle.

“Look, there’s a spiny-tailed lizard,” he said.

Why and when was the DDCR set up

“The reserve has been running for the last 23 years, it started way back in 1999, when it was called the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa,” Erasmus told Gulf News.

The resort was opened in 1999, when it was called the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa.
The resort was opened in 1999, when it was called the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

“The original land about 27 square kilometers was handed over to the Emirates Group by the Dubai Government to set up a nature reserve.”

He added that the main reason it was set up was to protect the Arabian Oryx.

The Arabian or White Oryx (Oryx leucoryx) is a large species of antelope endemic to the Arabian Peninsula. Locally known as Al Maha, this mammal features heavily in Arabic poetry and paintings. It is uniquely adapted to living in an extremely arid desert environment.

The mammal does not have many natural predators, but was going extinct from the region in the early 1970s, as per the IUCN.

Seeing this, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar started captive breeding and re-introduction efforts.

According to the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, in the 1970s, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, launched a successful conservation programme for the Arabian Oryx.

Erasmus explained that around the same time, in Dubai, the then Ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ensured that the last remaining populations were trans-located to the United States, to be bred under secure conditions.

Taking this legacy forward, in 1997, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, funded the first reintroduction of the Arabian Oryx to the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa reserve, he added.

Back in that time, there were still some farms with camels inside the fenced area.

With the effort of the resort managers and researchers, it became a protected area in 2003. It was proclaimed as a National Park by Sheikh Mohammed. It was named as the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve with the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa contained within it.

“When DDCR was set up, the Arabian Oryx was still ‘Extinct in the Wild’ on the IUCN Red List,” said Erasmus.

The DDCR re-introduced, as free-ranging animals, 70 Arabian Oryx along with Arabian Gazelles and planted around 6,000 indigenous species of plants and shrubs. In 2008, all domestic livestock were removed from the reserve.

From here, all the work towards the research of the reserve started and, eventually, the Arabian Oryx was brought back from the brink of extinction.

In 2011, thanks to successful captive breeding and re-introduction efforts of the Arabian Oryx, for the first time a species saw its IUCN status improving by three categories. The Oryx had finally qualified for a move from the ‘Endangered’ category to ‘Vulnerable’.

While the reserve is not open to the public, there are ways in which people who are interested to learn more about indigenous species can pay for guided tours. The reserve also gets tour requests from wildlife photography enthusiasts.

“Visitors can’t come in by themselves but inside the reserve, we do have The Al Maha Resort and Spa and six tour operators with their own areas to carry on their environmentally friendly activities. This is the way visitors can access the protected area, or at least, parts of it. There are different tour operators, from an ultra-luxurious resort to camping in the desert. Each one of them has an allocated area to carry out their activities. You can find out more about them on our website,” Martin explained.

Success in protecting indigenous flora and fauna

“The success of the DDCR in conjunction with the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa and the Emirates Group, resulted in the Arabian Oryx being the only animal to be downgraded from ‘Extinct in the Wild’ to ‘Vulnerable’,” Erasmus said.

The success of the DDCR in conjunction with the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa and the Emirates Group, resulted in the Arabian Oryx being the only animal to be downgraded from ‘Extinct in the Wild’ to ‘Vulnerable.

- Gerhard Erasmus, Conservation Manager of DDCR

Conservation officer Maria Jose Martin added: “Today, the DDCR has 800 Oryx, 200 sand gazelles, and 420 mountain gazelles.”

Species protected by DDCR
The DDCR houses 18 mammal species including the Arabian red fox (Vulpes vulpes arabica), Arabian hare (Lepus capensis), Ethiopian hedgehog (Paraechinus aethiopicus), and the Cheeseman’s gerbil (Gerbillus cheesemani).
It has more than 300 arthropods, including the Black scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda), Camel spider (Gelodes Arabs), and the Arabian darkling beetle (Pimelia arabica); 142 bird species, including the Asian Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii), Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos), Pharaoh eagle-owl (Bubo ascalaphus), long-legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus), and the Arabian babbler (Argya squamiceps).
The reserve protects 26 reptile species, including the Leptien’s spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx aegyptia leptieni), Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus), Common sand fish (Scincus mitranus), Arabian Horned Viper (Cerastes gasperettii).

“Together, the protected species live in three habitats – Gravel plains, sand dunes, and valley dunes,” Martin said.

But, that’s not all. Martin explained that to ensure that the animals exist in their natural habitat and behave as they would in the wild, the team also ensures that the flora is native to these species.

“The conservation team introduced many species of native plants. Today, the reserve has 74 species of plants, including the Ghaf tree (Prosopis cineraria), Umbrella thorn acacia (Vachellia tortilis), Zahar (Tribulus arabicus), Broom bush (Leptadenia pyrotechnica).”

In fact, if you visit the reserve, you will see some of the oldest Ghaf trees in Dubai. “Some of these are nearly 100 years old,” said Martin.

According to an article on the website of the Government of Dubai Media Office (GDMO): “In excess of 31,000 native trees flourish in the vast area [DDCR], which includes the Ghaf tree, native to the desert and known for its ability to survive its extreme climate conditions without irrigation.

“Since its inception, the reserve has been immensely successful in growing the population of sand gazelles, Arabian gazelles, and the Arabian Oryx... A further 171 Arabian Oryx have been relocated to other protected areas in the UAE. Also amongst its other milestone achievements is the re-introduction of 2,800 Houbara, or Macqueen’s Bustard, which roam freely within the safe environment of the reserve.”

The article added that the DDCR operates under the supervision of the Dubai Conservation Board (DCB), which is chaired by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Chairman of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, Chairman of Dubai Airports and Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group.

According to Martin, some clear indicators of how healthy the DDCR is, are the steady growth in the population of ungulates (hooved animals like the oryx and gazelles), the increasing population of Lappet-faced Vultures visiting the reserve, the first sighting of a Keyhole Glider dragonfly in the UAE.

According to the GDMO website: “The Emirates Group has invested more than Dh28 million in the reserve since its establishment, to fund and support the conservation of the natural desert landscape and its indigenous fauna and flora. The protected inland desert habitat is currently home to over 560 different species of plants and trees, birds, mammals, reptiles, and arthropods - more than double the original 150 indigenous species.... The reserve’s effective management strategies have helped promote the natural processes that lead to rewilding of the desert habitat and its rehabilitation.”

Open to researchers

“A lot of groups from worldwide universities and other entities have been coming year after year to do research about different topics in the reserve. This allowed the managers and researchers of the DDCR to have a better understanding of this ecosystem and to maintain a balance between all the species living in it. We conduct several surveys with different species of animals and plants. Some examples are: radio-tracking with collars of the Oryx, population surveys of Pharaoh Eagle Owls, and rodent community structure,” Martin added.

A lot of groups from worldwide universities and other entities have been coming year after year to do research about different topics in the reserve.

- Maria Jose Martin

Cameras placed near multiple watering holes at the reserve help the DDCR team monitor the health and population of the animals without too much human intervention.

Erasmus explained: “Researchers who apply to work at the reserve have to send in a proposal with a research list. This is then submitted to a research committee that reviews the application before approving it.”

Visiting the reserve

The best time of day for activities is early morning or late afternoon. Visitors who book a tour can go on a guided nature walk led by one of the guides, who will give you an in-depth understanding of the conservation area and the animals protected within its boundaries.