Desert conservation efforts go hand-in-hand with tourism

oryxA desert conservation program on the outskirts of Dubai has managed two very different business goals, side-by-side. It’s achieved great success breeding local endangered species, while simultaneously developing a marketable tourism product.

Fifteen years ago there were no known Arabian oryx left in the wild in the UAE.

Hunting and over development had seen populations wiped out.

Today however, thanks to a successful breeding programme, and the preservation of their habitat, there are 350 oryx in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

It was established in 1999 as Dubai’s first conservation area and right from the start it involved building an eco-style hotel within a 27 sq. km reserve.

As well as protecting a piece of desert from development the area would house the breeding programme for the Arabian oryx.

simkinThe Centre’s conservation manager, Greg Simkins, says it plays a major role in local conservation efforts.

“I think if we didn’t create that protected area – the Dubai Conservation Reserve – at the time we did I think we wouldn’t have much natural areas left within Dubai. The rapid development that’s happened, the city’s grown exponentially really over time since then so we’ve been able to create this representative of the Dubai desert,” he says.

Captive oryx were brought over from the United States. At the time it was a revolutionary idea and the first of its kind in the UAE.

“So after the initial area had been set up we also looked at the surrounding desert areas and we saw there was massive impacts happening onto the natural environment there through things like vehicles out in the desert, rubbish and then over grazing as well. We then looked at creating this large protected area,” says Simkin.

Three years later, 200 sq. km of land was added to the reserve which now makes up five per cent of the emirate of Dubai.

More than 35,000 indigenous trees have been planted, and apart from protecting several endangered species the reserve is a major contributor to local scientific research and conservation efforts.

camelTo ensure the programme’s commercial viability, the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa was established, to appeal to high-end travellers from both the UAE and around the world, according to their general manager, Arne Silvis.

“We find also that people who stay with us often return. We have a fairly high repeat guest percentage,” says Silvis, “and many of these guests on the second and third trips or visits to Dubai they come straight from the airport to us for five or six nights and just relax in the desert. I think the peace and silence and tranquility is what really sets us apart.”

Gmahauest activities focus on educating visitors about desert ecology and the UAE’s bedouin traditions and culture and 100% of all visitor revenue is spent on conservation and wildlife care.

It’s the largest national park in the UAE and is officially protected under the constitution, to ensure it continues to operate as a National Park well into the future.

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UAE zoo protecting East African bongo

Image Credit: UAE Interact / UAE National Media Council

A new plan has been developed at Sharjah’s Al Bustan Zoological Centre to save an East African antelope species.

The bongo, as it’s known, is nearly extinct and international conservationists fear time is rapidly running out to save it.

That’s why it is so important that researchers in the UAE has taken the lead in this fight.

Al Bustan houses seven of only 700 mountain bongo held in captivity world-wide and fewer than 50 bongos exist in the wild in their native Kenya which puts them firmly into the critically endangered category.

Of the zoo’s vet nurses, Kate Burns, says every individual counts.

“There are only 47 left in the wild so yes, breeding, we need to maintain the genetic diversity of the species and that means swapping – swapping animals, swapping experience,” says Burns.

The Sharjah park has held a two-day workshop to establish a captive breeding programme to increase the population of the dying breed.

Conservationists from the US, Europe, and Africa took part in discussions to form a solid plan of action.

“It was a very exciting workshop, definitely,” says Burns. “Al Bustan is going to be creating a website for the Eastern Bongo so collections in the Middle East will be able to access this website where there will be expert advice, husbandry guidelines, all of that.”

Animal biologist and specialist researcher of endangered species, Doctor Anas Idriss, was one of those invited.

“They were primarily concerned with what the most successful means to preserve this animal are and what efforts are being made ​​at state level and by scientists and environmental and biological experts,” says Dr Idriss.

Al Bustan Zoological Centre is a 17-hectare privately owned zoo that houses 856 animals of from around the world, including those from Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia. 

Its 101 species  include giraffes, ostriches, zebras and pink flamingos but about 90 per cent of the animal collection is endangered or critically endangered.

Their track record with breeding these endangered species is well-established, with successful programmes for the Dama Gazelle and the Scimitar-horned Oryx.

Ultimately the breeding programme will aim to introduce the captive-bred bongos into their natural wild environment.

“Ideally animals would live in their original environment, says Dr Idriss. “However, if this original environment is threatened by man himself as a result of urban expansion, hunting and climate change then all these reasons make the animal’s natural environment an inappropriate place for it to breed and increase.

Story originally featured in Emirates News, 24 May 2013.

Jumping by Numbers

Originally broadcast on Emirates News 2 January, 2013

Skydive Dubai has only recently finished staging the World Parachuting Championships, but already, they’re back hosting another big event.

World record holding skydiver, Olav Zipser, completed his 21,000th jump today at Dubai Marina, and we were there.

Olav ZipserOlav Zipser is one of the world’s most experienced skydivers. He’s devoted a lifetime to parachuting, and between his first jump, in 1986, to now, he had leaped from a plane 20-thousand, 900 and 99 times. Until today.

“I’m doing my 21,000th flight, from the sky, here over Dubai and we’re going to be landing here in this landing area,” says Olav.

“I’m really happy to be here again in Dubai. My 20,000th jump I believe you covered, two years ago, it’s been two years since I’ve been here. Wow!”

Yes, we certainly did. It was back in November 2010, when we joined him last time, for number 20,000. He’s returned this time to a bigger, better Skydive Dubai for his next career milestone

Olav’s professional highlights are not only measured in numbers either.

He’s mastered just about every aspect of this discipline there is. He’s a qualified instructor, examiner, safety expert and awardwinning mid-air cameraman. He’s set up his own freeflying school and is actively involved in pushing the boundaries to their limits and beyond, with groundbreaking research on the potential for human flight.

So in a career that has seen him jump in beautiful locations all around the world, why is the UAE such a special place for Olav?

“I like the spirit here, of Dubai because it’s a growing city there’s a lot of people from all over the world,” he says.

“All the best spirits, the best flyers together and they get a chance here to develop new flying. And it’s a beautiful place with a backdrop of the Palm, the buildings of Dubai Marina. It’s a fantastic place to do this celebration flight.”

So 21,000 jumps, what now?

“More further faster, higher! Going into space, that’s the ticket. We will take freefly into space and that’s this is all jsut a stepping stone. One day we will have 40,000, 50,000”

The only question that remains now is whether Olav will join us for his 22,000th jump.  Noni Edwards, Emirates News.

UAE slams EU resolution on human rights in the Emirates

The UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash has expressed disappointment in this week’s European Union resolution concerning the human rights situation in the UAE.

The European Parliament responded to a motion put by the UK member Dr Charles Tannock concerning the treatment of political detainees; freedom of expression.

The resolution acknowledges that jurisdiction does not lie at federal level in many cases, but nonetheless “expresses severe concerns for the well being of approximately 62 political detainees arrested this year, whose whereabouts are unknown to the international community”.

It seeks to remind the UAE that they are entitled to a fair trial and due process.

Further, it calls on the UAE “to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and association as provided for under the Constitution of the UAE.”