Abu Dhabi: Through its five-decade long journey, the UAE has kept a close watch on its biodiversity, with animals and plants remaining a key part of its identity. Images like the date palm, the camel and the falcon are routinely associated with the country, yet there are many other species that the country and its leaders have worked to conserve.
In Abu Dhabi, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) has led conservation efforts, setting up a network of protected areas, and promoting awareness about the various species that call the emirate and its waters their home. It currently manages and oversees 13 terrestrial protected areas, and six marine protected areas, as part of its Sheikh Zayed Protected Areas network.
Here is a look at some of the many species that have benefited from the emirate’s conservation efforts thus far.
Oryxes — Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) and Scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah): Abu Dhabi’s efforts to conserve the oryx have been among some of the most ambitious projects worldwide.
After the Arabian Oryx was declared extinct in the 1970s, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the UAE, launched a successful conservation programme. The UAE is now home to the largest population of Arabian Oryx in the world, with more than 6,900 individual animals.
The Arabian Oryx is a medium-sized mammal weighing up to 80kg. They are mostly white in colour, with darker facial and leg markings. Traditionally, the animals were hunted for their meat and hides. Habitat loss due to construction and development also played a role in the extinction of the species in the wild. Today, they are mainly found roaming around Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area, and the Arabian Oryx Protected Area.
In contrast, the Scimitar- horned Oryx, previously extinct in the wild, can be found roaming in its natural habitat at the Ouadi Rimé-Ouadi Achim Game Reserve in Chad, Africa. Spearheaded by the EAD, the Scimitar-horned Oryx Reintroduction Programme was possibly the world’s most ambitious large mammal reintroduction programme. This initiative aims to create a healthy and viable population of up to 500 Scimitar-horned Oryx in an isolated natural reserve. It was launched in 2016, more than two decades after the species was driven to extinction in the wild by overhunting and habitat loss.
Dugong (Dugong dugon): The EAD has been protecting dugongs since 1999, conducting aerial investigations, mortality investigation and genetic studies. The population in Abu Dhabi now includes 3,000 dugongs, mostly in the waters of Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve and Al Yasat Marine Protected Area. Bu Tinah island in the Marawah area has the densest dugong population in the world.
Dugongs are grey-brown marine herbivores, with powerful fluked tails and small front flippers that act like paddles to stabilise them when they swim. They are air-breathing mammals that are totally adapted to life at sea, and spend much of their time grazing on seagrass. Their numbers were mainly threatened due to entrapment in fishing nets, habitat loss, marine pollution and boat collisions. The largest number of dugongs in the world is today found in Australia, followed by Abu Dhabi.
Dolphin — Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus): Dolphins are mainly threatened by entrapment in fishing nets, vessel strikes, habitat loss from dredging and land reclamation, noise pollution, and construction in marine areas.
Abu Dhabi is home to the largest population of these Indian Ocean humpback dolphins in the world, and the EAD has been monitoring them in order to ensure their protection, as well as that of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin species. They can typically be spotted in shallow waters and channels around the offshore islands, and the mainland of Abu Dhabi.
Arabian tahr (Arabitragus jayakari): This is a species of Tahr native to eastern Arabia. It is the smallest species of its kind, with a stocky build and backward-arching horns.
Endangered as a result of habitat destruction, hunting, predation and climate change, Abu Dhabi launched an assessment and monitoring programme to track the remaining tahrs in 2011. It is estimated that there are only 15 left in the emirate today, which are monitored through a system of remote infrared camera traps on Jabal Hafeet.
Other mammals: Other species have also been monitored and tracked by the EAD as part of conservation efforts, including the Arabian caracal (Caracal caracal schmitzi), the Arabian sand gazelle (Gazella marica), and the sand cat (Felis Margarita thinobia).
Amphibians and reptiles
Turtles — Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate): Abu Dhabi has been exerting widespread efforts to protect turtles, creating awareness about risks like vessel strikes and cold stunning, and urging residents and fishermen to alert authorities when they spot stranded turtles.
The green turtle is one of the largest sea turtle species in the world, and is the only herbivore among them all. It has become endangered because of development and illegal fishing. They are usually found near seagrass meadows, coral reefs and bays in subtropical and tropical seas throughout the world. The EAD monitors the turtle populations constantly, providing safe haven in marine protected areas.
On the other hand, the Hawksbill turtle is critically endangered because of coastal development, marine debris, pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and over-exploitation for meat and eggs. They are protected in the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve. Compared to the green turtle, they are relatively small, weighing a maximum of 50kg. They get their name from their distinct, beaklike mouths, and are typically brown with splashes of colour.
Egyptian spiny-tailed lizard (Uromastyx aegyptica microelepis): These are large lizards that live in areas with sandy but compacted soils, where they can dig burrows. This is one of the key species monitored by EAD during assessment and monitoring surveys. The authority has been running a UAE-wide programme to determine the genetic status of these lizard populations within the UAE, which will help manage populations in developmental projects. They are mainly threatened by developmental activities and competition for grazing.
Dhofar toad (Duttaphrynus dhufarensis): The Dhofar Toad has bulging eyes, and are nocturnal. Their numbers have been threatened by habitat loss. These toads are one of only nine species of amphibians in the Arabian Peninsula, and in Abu Dhabi, they are only found in the wadis of Al Ain. The EAD however recorded a mass breeding event with tadpoles numbering over 1,000 individuals.
Other amphibians and reptiles: The EAD has also worked to track populations of Arabian Gulf sea snake (Hydrophis lapemoides) and the wonder gecko (Teratoscincus keyserlingii).
Falcons — Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), Saker falcon (Falco cherrug), and Sooty falcon (Falco concolor): Falcons have played a rich part in the UAE’s heritage, enabling falconry and becoming indelibly entwined into the national identity. It is therefore no wonder that Abu Dhabi has exerted efforts to protect multiple species of the birds.
The peregrine falcon is one of the fastest flyers in the world, and is one of the world’s most common birds of prey. They have been a major part of traditional UAE falconry for many years. Hunting, habitat destruction and poisoning have, however, been identified as threats. So, the EAD satellite tracks migratory peregrine falcons to find the connections between breeding and wintering regions, and migration pathways, migratory behaviour and the diversity of habitats.
In addition, overseen by EAD and implemented through the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme undertakes ongoing ambitious research to better understand the migratory patterns and breeding habits of peregrine falcons. It has so far released over 1,900 falcons into their distribution range across central Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Iran and Kyrgyzstan.
The saker falcon, on the other hand, is a small, powerful bird of prey with a broad wingspan for its size. It is endangered as a result of frequent electrocution, habitat loss and degradation, illegal trapping, trade, and even poisoning.
For more than two decades, the EAD has studied Saker ecology and movement in Mongolia and other parts of its range. Its efforts to provide 5,000 artificial nesting sites in the Mongolian grasslands created new breeding opportunities for saker falcons in areas where natural nesting sites were scarce, with hundreds of pairs producing thousands of fledglings each year from the nests provided. The Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme has also helped more than 1,000 individual birds return to the wild.
Human disturbance, persecution and predation has threatened the Sooty falcon, which is a summer visitor to Abu Dhabi’s islands. As it is one of the most endangered species in Abu Dhabi, the EAD undertakes monitoring to better understand its trends in numbers, and determine what actions to take when numbers decline. Annual assessment results have revealed that the bird has only three breeding pairs in the emirate; however, successful breeding has been recorded at two nesting sites.
Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata): This dull brown bird can survive and thrive in arid habitats including hot deserts, meaning it is ideally suited to the UAE climate. But the species is vulnerable because of predators, poaching, hunting and habitat decline.
Abu Dhabi has been continuing to work in bustard conservation since 2009. It set up the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, which works to protect bustards from extinction, and has so far bred approximately 400,000 birds.
Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus): The Greater Flamingo has long, thin legs and neck and a downward-bending beak. Habitat loss and disturbance, and direct persecution by humans, have been threats for this species. Abu Dhabi therefore created the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve as the only site in the Arabian Gulf where the Greater Flamingo regularly breeds.
It also maintains the Mangrove National Park and Bul Syayeef Marine Protected area, which are other breeding sites for the birds. In 2018, 10 government entities in Abu Dhabi were also engaged to follow the journeys of 10 flamingoes that were tagged and released from Al Wathba Wetland Reserve.
Other birds: Abu Dhabi has also worked to track and conserve populations of the crab plover (Dromas ardeola), the Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis).
The EAD has cooperated with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment to set up fish management and sustainability plans, including a ban on gargoor, a traditionally-used fishing cage, bans on fishing during spawning season, and a minimum size for catch. Protected species include the orange-spotted grouper or hamour (Epinephelus coioides), the white-spotted spinefoot or safi (Siganus canaliculatus), the spangled emperor or shaari (Lethrinus nebulous), kingfish (Scomberomorus commerson), and painted sweetlips or farsh (Diagramma pictum).
In addition, it has joined international partners to study and track numbers of sharks, which are dwindling across the world due to overfishing, habitat loss and marine pollution. Tracked species include the sicklefish lemon shark (Negaprion acutidens) the great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran), the spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), the whale shark (Rhinocodon typus), the sawfish (Pristis pristis) and the halavi Guitarfish (Glaucostegus halavi).
Cuckoo wasp (Hedychridium anithaae): Unique to the UAE, it was found and collected by EAD on a routine wildlife trapping exercise at Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in 2009, and was declared a new species. Since then, the wasp has been added to a global list of invertebrates that catalogues all known species.
They are found in wetland habitats with vegetation, including inland standing water habitats and habitats of moist ground, and farm areas in Abu Dhabi. EAD is continuing to ensure the effective management and monitoring of the species in various protected areas and outside.
Coral: Various species of coral have been found spanning 350 square kilometres in Abu Dhabi waters. These reefs support some of the most diverse marine ecosystems, playing an important role in providing habitats for important species of fish, and critically endangered marine wildlife such as the Hawksbill Turtle.
However, they have been in severe decline over the years due to anthropogenic activities like coastal development, dredging, wastewater discharge, sedimentation, pollution, anchor damage, landfill, and discarded or lost fishing gear. The EAD, in collaboration with New York University — Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), conducts an annual monitoring and assessment programme to understand the health status of coral communities.
Other invertebrates: The black fat-tailed scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda) and the camel spider (Galeodes arabs) have also been part of EAD tracking and conservation projects.
Mangroves (Avicennia marina): Abu Dhabi’s coastal areas are richly lined with mangrove forests. There are already an estimated 70 square kilometres of mangrove forest across the emirate, and the Mangrove National Park itself has more than 19 square kilometres of forest.
Acting as natural windbreaks and carbon capturers, these trees also provide a habitat for many bird and marine species. Environmental authorities are aware of threats like climate change, construction and dredging, so any stretches of mangrove in Abu Dhabi are protected by law. In addition, the EAD has partnered with universities to study the survival and threats to coral reefs.
Ghaf (Prosopis cineraria): The ghaf is a drought-tolerant tree, which can remain green even in harsh desert environments.
It is the national tree of the UAE, but with increasing urbanisation and infrastructure development, as well as overgrazing, there are threats to it. In the UAE, it is therefore prohibited to cut wild plants, uproot them or collect them illegally.
EAD’s plant nursery also stores the seeds of 58 species of native wild plants, including the ghaf tree. In 2019, 600 ghaf trees were also planted in the Al Faya Region.
Other plants: The EAD has also protected seagrass (Angiosperms), which are the main food for dugongs, and propagated the dwarf palm (Nannorrhops ritchieana). It also monitors the white saxaul (Haloxylon persicum), and stores seeds for nearly 60 native wild plants in its nursery.