ABU DHABI // When Majid Al Qassimi landed his first job, at Al Ain Zoo in 2011, one word came into his mind – "jackpot".
To young Emiratis more used to seeking high-paid government positions, his reaction might seem strange but, for Mr Al Qassimi, the job was perfect as it enabled him to use the veterinary medicine degree he earned from years of study in Britain and Hungary. It also gave him something more – a reconnection with his national heritage.
Yesterday he recalled his experience in front of an audience at the Sofitel Abu Dhabi for the TEDxWWF conference, hosted by the World Wide Fund for Nature and its UAE chapter, EWS-WWF.
"Veterinary medicine is not directly connected to conservation but caring for all these animals from around the world taught me the importance of protecting our natural environment," said Mr Al Qassimi, one of four Emirati vets.
"In doing so, I understood about the importance of our native environment and I learnt about my culture and my heritage and I wanted to make sure we preserve that."
The UAE's fast development has brought tremendous prosperity but has also distanced the country's young people from the natural environment and the country's heritage, he said.
By establishing a link with nature, young people could get back in touch with their heritage.
"Interaction with the environment these days is more about getting in a four-wheel drive and going dune bashing – it is not the quality time you need to reestablish your connection to your culture," he said. "I am not saying we go back to pearl diving but we have to look at the choices we make to ensure t we stay connected to our culture and preserve our natural environment."
Emiratis can gain such a connection through their older relatives, while Mr Al Qassimi's advice to expatriates is to spend some time exploring the UAE or other countries in the region.
"Planning a holiday within the country or within the region would definitely give you more experience about the culture," he said.
Speaking after his address to the conference, he urged more Emiratis to study as veterinarians.
"As the country is developing we need a solid foundation in veterinary services. This is not just treating dogs and cats, we are talking about biological security, food and health security and for that you need nationals to be involved," said Mr Al Qassimi. "It is our country, it is our health, it should be our responsibility. The way I see it, we have got a lot to do."
Students can take a veterinary assistant diploma in the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain and there are plans for offering higher qualifications locally.
The conference also heard from Andy Ridley, the chief executive and co-founder of Earth Hour, Elham Al Qasimi, the first Arab woman to reach the North Pole and the first Emirati to ski to it.
Ida Tillisch, acting director general of EWS-WWF, said the event aimed to inspire local action.
"What we hope is that people will take these ideas and develop their own, and share them with the wider world," she said. "It is important that we also look outside of Abu Dhabi – the event was live online and people could see that we did not just have local speakers, but international speakers also, and people can now talk about it."
The capital was the third city in the world where the TEDxWWF conference has taken place. It first took place in October 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland, followed by an event last year at the Insead Asia Campus in Singapore.