The gazelles that gave Abu Dhabi island its name are long gone but an army of volunteers is being recruited across the Emirate to find out what other native species have managed to survive out in the wild or adapt to the new urban environment of the capital. John Henzell reports
With a combination of stealth and luck, it is still possible to see hints of the wildlife that just 50 years ago roamed across the nearly deserted Abu Dhabi Island.
Arabian red foxes have adapted seamlessly to Abu Dhabi's drastic change from being a fishing village of 2,000 people to a sprawling metropolis that is home to more than a million.
But apart from anecdotal reports of fox encounters, little is known about what other species are still present, which is why an army of citizen scientists are being recruited to create the first comprehensive baseline of all the indigenous and exotic wildlife that can be found in the emirate.
Dr Richard Perry, the executive director of environmental science, information and outreach at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (Ead), says the recruits will include everyone from schoolchildren to housewives, and from absolute beginners to skilled amateur ecologists.
"We want to get the public involved and to have ownership of the environment," he says. "There are a whole range of people involved. It's a mix but it's mainly lay people. Some are quite competent field ecologists, keen amateurs."
Ead's initiative mirrors a global trend towards using crowdsourcing to document the natural world.
One prominent site is Project Noah, a mobile phone application in which photographs taken of plants, animals and other life are posted on a website for identification by experts.
One description of the app, launched three years ago, is that it turns smartphones into the butterfly nets of the 21st century.
With one of the highest smartphone ownership rates in the world and a relatively understudied ecology, the Emirates is one of more than 50 countries in which Project Noah is active. So far hundreds of photos taken in the UAE have been submitted for identification.
Dr Perry says Ead had taken notice of the project and was thinking about launching something similar, utilising the agency's expert knowledge. "We're looking at a potential application where you can take a picture on your iPhone and send it in. Things are in motion to get many more sightings," he says.
The aim is to create a baseline for the whole of Abu Dhabi and volunteers in the capital have already undertaken a training course in Al Wathba. Another will be held in the eastern mangroves beside Salam Street in April.
The initial emphasis is on the Western Region.
"That's the priority region at the moment because it's the least known and because of all the development going on there," Dr Perry says. "We want to understand what's there before we lose it."
The research is being carried out through a combination of analysis of satellite imagery and field work by professional observers and volunteeers.
"We've got people out in the Western Region who are starting to do field work. It recently just started to get going in the cooler season," Dr Perry says. "It's primarily terrestrial based. We already have a pretty good idea about most of the marine environment.
"We have Ead staff out there who are grooming the cohort of volunteers. We have a mix of people of all nationalities. We have at least 200 people who are volunteers. Seventy or so are very keen volunteers and we'd like to get them out there.
"We're working with schools. We're cutting the emirate into grids and where schools exist in the grid, we'd like them to survey their locales."
Among the tools available to the volunteers are cameras triggered by movement.
While the survey is under way in the Western Region, plans are already afoot to continue it eastwards across the emirate, including the capital's urban regions.
Abu Dhabi Island represents the zenith of the altered environments in the UAE, going from mostly deserted to being a modern city.
The baseline survey for which volunteers are being trained now will be used to assess what species besides Arabian red foxes have adapted to the changes.
"In the UK, we know species like the red fox have adapted very well to urban areas," Dr Perry says. "Here in Abu Dhabi, we know the [Arabian] red fox is on Lulu Island. There have been some fairly recent sightings.
"How they got there, I don't know. They probably came across on one of the boats but they can also swim. I imagine in Mushrif gardens there might well be something."
While the gazelles that gave Abu Dhabi its "Father of Deer" name are no longer on the island, they can be found on the underpopulated islands in the Saadiyat archipelago but are yet to encroach on more developed areas.
"I've had no records or reports of gazelles in urban areas. They avoid people like the plague," he added.
Some exotic bird species, such as the Indian myna, rock pigeon and rose-ringed parakeet, have adapted so well to the greener Abu Dhabi that they were among 100,000 birds culled by Ead in 2009.
Among the amateur ecologists Ead specifically wants to recruit for the baseline survey are members of organisations such as the Emirates Natural History Group (ENHG), which has branches in Abu Dhabi city and Al Ain.
Members of the group are credited with identifying several new species in the UAE.
Peter Hellyer, editor of The Emirates - A Natural History and a member of the ENHG's Abu Dhabi branch for more than 25 years, said the indications are that apart from Arabian red foxes, few other mammals had managed to adapt to the urbanisation of the capital.
"You used to be able to find Cape hares in open desert near Bateen Airport but they are probably now extinct," he says.
"There were formerly regular sightings of Ethiopian hedgehogs, near Mushrif Palace, for example, and these may survive in well-wooded areas, perhaps in private gardens.
"The Indian grey mongoose could be found in the 1980s in the old Bateen Wood, which is now a housing estate. There may still be some around in less built-up areas.
"Egyptian fruit bats were seen in the late 1990s around the Manhal Palace, though there have been no recent records, and there are certainly some other smaller bat species around.
"For smaller mammals, there are no records of sightings to my knowledge, apart from mice and rats - certainly brown rats and there used to be black rats too, both comfortable in the urban environment.
"Some species have been introduced, perhaps escaped or released pets, like Persian squirrel, seen in at least two areas between 1999 and 2003, but there is no evidence they have become established and have bred."
Reptiles are another area for which the baseline survey is hoped to provide clarity, with several species of geckoes and other lizards on the island but no recent records of snakes.
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