SHARJAH // The tiny black snakes hiss and hide behind their two-metre parents whenever they hear a sudden noise.
There are 16 of these Arabian cobras at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife (Bceaw) in Sharjah Desert Park. The largest venomous snake in Arabia, they are the first of their kind to be born in captivity in the UAE.
At barely three weeks old, they have yet to master the cobra’s trademark defence tactic – the expanded neck.
“They are actually quite shy,” said Paul Vercammen, operations manager at the centre.
There are about 45 species of snakes on the Arabian Peninsula and 10 sea snakes in the surrounding waters. The Arabian cobra, Naja Arabica, possess an extremely neurotoxic venom used to catch and kill prey – usually small mammals and birds. A single bite can deliver 175 to 350mg of deadly poison. Until recently they were considered to be a subspecies of the Egyptian cobra, Naja haje, but in 2009 taxonomists proved that the Arabian cobra is a separate species.
“The Arabian cobra is a secretive snake,” said Mr Vercammen. “We don’t know much about their biology and behaviour.”
The staff at the centre have gained valuable information from this batch of newborn cobras. It was back in mid-March when their mother laid 16 eggs that were then transferred to an incubator, where the temperature and humidity levels were monitored and valuable scientific data was collected. After 59 days all 16 of the eggs started to hatch, revealing miniature replicas of the adults.
The baby cobra are just one set of infants born this spring at the centre, which was set up in 1998 under the Environment and Protected Areas Authority (Epaa), Government of Sharjah. Among the babies are two Arabian Tahr, three Arabian wolves, six jackals, two Arabian Leopards, four cheetahs and one Arabian Porcupine.“We have to save and preserve all Arabian wildlife, including the not-so-cute and cuddly ones like the cobras,” said Hana Saif Al Suwaidi, the general manager of Epaa. “They are part of our natural history, and we need to make sure they are around for future generations to love and appreciate.”
Since opening, the centre has received regular calls from people across the UAE trying to discard an exotic animal that either got “too big” or “too difficult” to care for.
“Earlier this year someone called in and said he wanted us to take his crocodile, and if we didn’t, he threatened that he will just throw it in the street,” said Ms Al Suwaidi.
With no official legal mechanism in place to rescue and prosecute owners of smuggled animals, the centre ends up with an unusual assortment – it has taken in 18 baboons in the past two months – rather than risk them being killed by an owner.
“We would rather get these calls and save the animals then scare owners off by threatening legal action and they end up killing these animals,” she said.
Outside the centre, Ms Al Suwaidi often gets calls about abandoned cats, which she rescues and keeps at home. She has more than 16 now, most rescued from a life on the streets. “I really love animals,” she said. “I always try to gently advise people on how to treat their pets, and what exotic animals not to turn into pets.”
One frequent victim of attempted domestication is the cheetah. The centre has been a refuge to more than 48 confiscated and rescued cheetahs, often in critical health.
“No matter how good the intention of an owner, the animals always suffer and come in with something wrong with them and in great need of medical attention,” said Ms al Suwaidi.
A cheetah that was rescued after roaming the streets of Sharjah last December, for example, is still recovering. The animal suffers from weak, almost deformed, legs and is nervous around people and other animals.
“We keep the new rescues separate from the pack, leaving a wooden door between their enclosures, so they can communicate and hear each other before they are introduced to each other,” she said. “It is a long process and it is heartbreaking to see what these animals go through.”
The centre has many plans to raise awareness on the issue, including a campaign to launch in schools in September.
Ms Al Suwaidi looks forward to the day when a child says: “No, baba. Don’t get a cheetah for us. It is not a pet. Leave it in the wild.”
Bceaw is closed to the public but most of the animals there can be seen from next door, at Arabia’s Wildlife Centre. It is open every day except Tuesdays from 9am to 6pm.