An ecologist at Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office has suggested new roles at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary for the animals. But every new worker has to start at the bottom, and for the camels that means chewing back unwanted mangroves. Colin Simpson reports
DUBAI // For centuries they have carried their masters across the desert sands and provided them with dairy products, meat and hair for weaving.
Now it appears the camel may also do a spot of gardening for them.
An ecologist has suggested that camels be brought in for controlled grazing on mangrove trees that have harmed the ecology at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary since they were introduced in 1990.
The ecologist Kevin Hyland, who works for Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office, said one advantage the camels would have over two-legged gardeners is that they are less frightening to the flamingoes and spoonbills that call the reserve home.
"Camels were a common sight at Ras Al Khor before the reserve was fenced off in 2002," Mr Hyland said. "The key phrase in the whole proposal is 'managed camel grazing'. It's not, 'let's just chuck in 100 camels', because we don't want to destroy the mangrove canopy.
"We do want to destroy it in places but the actual mature canopy? That can stay, that's beneficial. It's doing the spoonbills good, the spoonbills counts have come right up.
"The alternative is you put 20 workers in there who disrupt the birds."
Under the plan, the herds would be closely monitored by camel-riding rangers to ensure they do not stray into ecologically sensitive areas.
A gift shop at the visitors' centre would also stock products such as camel milk.
And just as lambs raised on the salt marshes of Wales are considered a delicacy, the city's top-end restaurants may soon be queuing up for Dubai salt-marsh camel.
The mangroves are native to the UAE but did not grow at Ras Al Khor before they were introduced in 1990. They have since overwhelmed the main wader feeding area.
"That area is gone, it's now under five metres of mangrove," said Mr Hyland. "In 1994, BirdLife International said we were doing the wrong thing putting mangroves in. It was done to make the site green.
"What's happening now is we have proliferation of the canopy, so we're actually losing feeding grounds all the time. The mangrove was offered virgin territory and it's taken over."
He said similar projects user other types of livestock had been successful in other parts of the world.
But Mr Hyland's plans for the Arab world's most beloved animal does not end there.
"Why do rangers need to be in a four-wheel drive, particularly in winter?" he asked. "Put them on camelback. It's easy, it fits in with the environment and it causes far less disturbance.
"There would be potential for green tourism. We could run bird tours on camelback in the early morning or the late evening."
Talks are under way with Dubai Municipality, which runs the reserve, about a pilot project to introduce camels. The animals would be removed when ground-nesting birds were breeding.
The proposal forms part of an overall management programme for the reserve, which is under consideration by the municipality. A key element would be a visitor centre to help the public understand the site, support education and raise awareness, said Mr Hyland.
The Central Veterinary Research Laboratory has offered to ensure the camels do not come to any harm.
"They would vet the animals in advance but the other thing is to see if access to too much mangrove fodder going to damage the animal in any way," Mr Hyland said. "Will it need supportive nutrition?"
Greater flamingoes began to appear at Ras Al Khor after mallards were introduced for falconry training in 1985.
Mr Hyland was speaking at the Veterinary Outlook Forum, held alongside the VET Middle East trade show.
VETME continues today at the Dubai International Convention Centre.
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