x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

A trip to the zoo points the way towards excellence

The positive changes made to the once-faded Al Ain animal park demonstrate how words can be translated into deeds.

It’s become almost routine to read about the need for the UAE to seek excellence in performance. Speeches are given, exhortations are made, awards are presented, partly to urge us all to strive to reach that goal, partly to reward those who have made some steps towards it.

How does one measure excellence? Is it something that, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder? It is certainly often a matter of personal judgement. Moreover, in this ever-changing world of innovation, it is often the case that, as one seems to be approaching the goal of “excellence”, it appears to move yet further away, like a mirage in the desert.

There are, though, rare occasions on which one can identify, without fear of contradiction, a process where it is evident that a march towards excellence is well under way.

Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to observe such a process. It wasn’t buried within the labyrinthine corridors of a large government department or in a far-flung industrial installation to which access is restricted for reasons of national security. Instead, this process of striving towards excellence can be witnessed by all, old and young alike, for the payment of a modest entrance fee – at Al Ain Zoo.

Like many long-term UAE residents, I’ve made a few visits to the zoo over the years. Rarely, though, in recent times, for my memories from past visits had, simply, left me depressed.

It was established in the late 1960s with great aspirations. The largest zoo in the Middle East in terms of its area, set in a striking location adjacent to Jebel Hafeet, it had a wide variety of wildlife on display.

For many years, though, it lacked proper management, both in terms of looking after its collections of animals and birds and in terms of providing a stimulating experience for its human visitors.

Prior to my most recent visit, the last time I had been was as part of an investigation into what had gone wrong, with enclosures poorly-maintained, with the animal collections obviously suffering from a lack of care and attention, with litter scattered around and with nothing in the way of a modern “visitor experience”.

Now, though, everything has changed. It’s clean and tidy. The animals look fitter, in enclosures that have been redesigned to provide them with a more suitable environment. A programme of development of three distinct safari parks is well under way which, when finished next year, will permit visitors a magnificent drive-through experience.

Nearing completion, the stunning Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is full of exhibits and touch-screen displays that shed light not just on today’s environment and wildlife, but also on that of the past, back to the four-tusked elephants that roamed the Western Region of Abu Dhabi six million years ago and beyond.

Among the zoo’s many objectives are the provision to visitors of education and entertainment, of information and inspiration.

The intention is that it should become a centre of attraction not just for UAE residents, but for tourists too, and remarkable progress is clearly being made on that front already – I was told that a target of one million visitors a year is well in sight.

The zoo’s pursuit of excellence is not something that it wishes to keep confined within its own, very extensive, grounds. At the moment, a wide-ranging programme of staff training is being undertaken in collaboration with the world-renowned, Jersey-based, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Once that’s completed, the intention is that training will be offered to others from throughout the region, whether working in public zoos or private collections, spreading the skills and knowledge – the excellence – far and wide.

My memories had been of an institution that had sadly, and obviously, failed to meet the expectations of its founder, the late Sheikh Zayed, whose vision was that it should be an example to the world of conservation in practice. On this latest visit, though, from the moment I entered the zoo, accompanied by Durrell’s chairman and by Jersey’s minister of external relations, until we left, several hours later, we were delighted, inspired and enthused.

For young and old, for newcomers and old-timers, for visitors and residents, I recommend not just one, but many, visits. If you want to see how the UAE can strive for, and achieve excellence, the new Al Ain Zoo provides an object lesson in how it can be done.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture