Dubai: It’s 44 degrees Celsius outside - 47 inside the car - but Dr Reza Khan, 76, is oblivious to the scorching heat. He is at the Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve in Dubai engaged in what he does best: The waiting game.
Ask him what he is waiting for this time, and he says, “Mummy Egret.”
The camera he has fixed on his car’s windowpane is sharply focused on the nest of a Little Egret, whom Dr Khan has been following for days. The painstaking effort pays off as he eventually drives away with a recording of the bird’s nesting activity.
Delightful tales follow as Dr Khan tells you how unusual the shape of the nest is - rectangular as opposed to roundish; how he climbed a Ghaf Prosopis tree to take notes earlier; and how the first nests of the Little Egret, which he discovered during COVID-19, have now spawned a heartening flock in the man-made lakes and trees on the islands.
That’s Dr Reza Khan for you: A ready-to-share repository of information on anything and everything to do with birds, wildlife and conservation.
Principal Wildlife Specialist at the Public Parks and Recreational Facilities Department at Dubai Municipality and former in-charge of the Dubai Zoo, he is also an author with a huge following. But few know that this distinguished man is marking 40 glorious years in the UAE this year. What’s more, it’s also the golden jubilee year with his college sweetheart and life partner Nurun Nahar Huda.
Dr Khan vividly remembers the fortuitous circumstances that brought him to the UAE in 1983.
“I received a post card in 1982 that simply said ‘Petrodollars calling you’,” he recounts.
The message was from his professor in India, Dr Salim Ali, under whom he had done his doctorate thesis in ornithology. Two years earlier, when Dr Ali happened to visit Dhaka, Bangladesh, from where Dr Khan hails, they had had a chance conversation where Dr Khan had expressed his fears about teaching not being very remunerative. At the time, Dr Ali had apparently asked him jokingly if he were looking for petrodollars.
Little did Dr Khan know what lay in store for him. Dr Ali, who had been invited to the UAE on an official visit, had been asked to name three ornithologists as potential candidates for a job at Al Ain Zoo. Dr Khan’s name was one of them. As luck would have it, he was chosen and appointed as the Curator of Birds at Al Ain Zoo.
First job in the UAE
“That was my first job here in the UAE. I undertook the travel just a day after I got married to Nurun back in Dhaka,” he says.
He fondly recalls how Nurun, although a biologist herself, found a new calling in the UAE when she joined him. “She was so heartened to find many Urdu-speaking students in Al Ain, something she felt very strongly about. She wanted to keep the Bengali language tradition alive and managed to convince The Central School, Dubai, to introduce it as a subject. It was a real breakthrough and she became the first Bengali language teacher in the UAE,” he says with pride.
Dr Khan and Nurun, who have three children and six grandchildren, all settled in the UAE, have come a long way since the early years. Five years after his stint in Al Ain, Dr Khan worked – and lived – at Dubai Zoo until 2017 when it was shut down.
Talk about life in the zoo brings back a flood of memories. As Dr Khan lets on, he was once summoned by his daughter Zeenath’s school after she had been reprimanded by her teacher for saying that she resided in Dubai Zoo. “But it was the truth. Dubai Zoo founder Otto J. Bulart had constructed a six bedroom villa within the premises of the zoo, which was first built as a private zoo in 1967,” he says.
The extraordinary time spent by the family on the zoo premises is deeply cherished by Dr Khan. The flashbacks being vivid and precious: Zeenath and her two brothers Nesar and Razib hand-raising lion cubs; nursing tortoises; walking around with a black bear; playing with a chimp that would swing in the villa veranda - the anecdotes are aplenty.
Personal moments apart, Dr Khan’s contribution to the development of the zoo and the Dubai Safari Park which it gave way to is well-documented. He was a trendsetter in more ways than one. He is credited with bringing many changes to the zoo when he took over, including the zoo’s first full-fledged drainage system, a maintenance team in place, more light for the animals and a rich tree cover.
In fact, right from when he arrived in the UAE, his efforts were said to be pathbreaking.
“When I landed in the UAE in 1983, l found there were virtually no wildlife biologists working with the wild fauna and flora of the country. I made it a point to keep notes and conduct field studies with both these disciplines. The strenuous field research helped me publish three books - The Wild Cats of the UAE, Indigenous Trees of the UAE and Pictorial Guide to the Birds of Dubai, all of which were published by Dubai Municipality. My fourth book was titled Dubai Zoo Guidebook,” he says.
Dr Khan, who also noticed that there was very little news on local flora and fauna, wildlife and nature conservation in the local media, embarked on another mission. “I was determined to popularise these issues as well as raise public awareness. Thus, l often appear in the local press, Dubai TV and old Dubai Radio highlighting matters of concern. Almost all births of wild animals, especially those of rare and endangered ones in Dubai Zoo and Al Ain Zoo would draw newspaper headlines,” he points out.
Dr Khan, however, counts his bird and plant sightings as his biggest achievement.
He is credited with recording for the first time a hitherto unknown plant species called Qafas in Arabic (Oriental Acridocarp, Acridocarpus Orientalis) in the UAE in the isolated Wadi Tarabat, on the east flank of the Jebel Hafit Mountain in Al Ain. “Along with this, l also recorded the Giant Skipper Butterfly partial to this Acridocarp tree because its larvae only eats leaves of this tree/shrub,” he tells you.
He also talks of the first recording of an American resident gull named Franklin’s Gull in the UAE and the sighting of the Radde’s Accentor. Both carry fascinating tales. “As a part of regular monitoring of wild animals, especially birds, l was in Fujairah Port Beach on May 11, 2011, when l photographed a seagull that looked different. Later, it turned out to be the Franklin’s Gull that lives along the Atlantic Coast of Canada and the US. It migrates to Chile, Argentina, Peru, and the Caribbean. At that time, my sighting was the sixth record outside the US-Canada,” he claims.
Similarly, the rare Radde’s Accentor, which someone had seen only once at the Safa Park in Dubai in 2012 but could not photograph it, was captured by Dr Khan at Wadi Shees Park under Sharjah in December 2021. “It stayed there till February 2022. It lives in the mountain areas of Yemen and Northern Southwest Asia,” he tells you.
Ask Dr Khan what he does outside the realm of his sightings and writings, and he has no qualms admitting that little else interests him.
“My life revolves round this and I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything else in the world,” he concludes.