SHARJAH // A study of the UAE east coast's only remaining natural mangrove area will be used in decisions on what tourism development will take place there.
Khor Kalba, in an enclave along the Indian Ocean that belongs to Sharjah, is one of the country's most important bird areas and conservationists have long called for its protection.
An announcement this spring that the area will be a nature reserve was welcomed but many were worried at the effects of tourism development.
While combining nature conservation and tourism in a sustainable manner is working well in some countries, the UAE's track record is weak, the experts said.
But the priority in Kalba will be conservation, said Paul Vercammen, operations manager at Sharjah's Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.
"This certainly is being taken seriously," Mr Vercammen said. "We will give them [developers] the limits of what they are allowed to work with."
The breeding centre operates under the emirate's Environment and Protected Areas Authority, which is working on the Kalba project with other government departments including the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq).
The mangrove and its adjacent mudflat and acacia forest are being surveyed by staff from the Sharjah branch of an international engineering company.
The scoping study will inform officials of all the components needed for a more detailed investigation, called an environmental impact assessment.
"We will know what kind of information we need to collect," said Mr Vercammen, explaining that some elements were already clear. The study, he said, should look into how sediments are deposited on and from the mangrove, the effect of fresh water coming from the mountains in winter, water quality in the area and the expected impact of air, noise and light pollution.
The impact assessment will start about the end of summer. It will take between three and six months to complete.
Once the document is ready, it "will define the limit of what can be allowed and what not", Mr Vercammen said.
The Khor Kalba protected area consists of a core section where there will be no development and limited human presence.
That area includes 6 square kilometres of mangrove, 2 sq km of beach, 3.5 sq km of acacia forest and 4.5 sq km of mountains.
The area will be surrounded by two buffer zones where some low-scale development will be allowed.
The project includes building a visitor centre along the acacia-tree alluvial plane bordering the mountains.
The centre will have a display of native animals such as the Arabian leopard, Arabian tahr and Gordon's wildcat.
Although it was declared protected many years ago, the acacia forest was used by Kalba residents who used to take camels and goats to graze there.
The area supported about 200 camels and 500 sheep and goats. It has been fenced off and a herd of 16 mountain gazelles was released last month. The animals are settling in and the centre is planning to release more next year, said Mr Vercammen.
The project also includes the construction of a small heritage centre within one of the buffer zones of the protected area.
There, visitors will be able to see and interact with birds of prey such as falcons and owls. The heritage centre is expected to open before the end of this year.
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