x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A campsite, a dart and some oryx

Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve has a new eco-tourism initiative that allows campers to become ecologists.

Stephen Bell, left, and Tamer Khafaga, are two of the professional conservationists at Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. They have welcomed the new eco-initiative as a valuable support to their work. Pawan Singh / The National
Stephen Bell, left, and Tamer Khafaga, are two of the professional conservationists at Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. They have welcomed the new eco-initiative as a valuable support to their work. Pawan Singh / The National

DUBAI // Animal lovers will have the chance to turn conservationists for a week and gather valuable data on three rare species at Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

The new eco-tourism initiative at the reserve will allow visitors to spend the week at a campsite there.

During their stay the visitors will study the Arabian oryx, Gordon's wildcat and the houbara bustard.

One of their tasks will involve assisting with the sedation of oryx with tranquilliser darts to fit radio collars that will then allow conservationists to establish the size of the animals' territories.

The volunteer scheme has been welcomed by the reserve's professional conservationists.

They say it will result in the collection of information that would otherwise never be gathered. The details will be collated and used in scientific papers.

"They will have data sheets," said the conservationist Stephen Bell. "They will be, let's say, studying the oryx day after day for the whole time - noting down the ratios of males and females in herds, what they're feeding on, et cetera.

"We wouldn't be able to do it without them because we just don't have the time to sit and watch oryx for a day. They'll do all that work and then we'll take all the data and analyse it.

"They'll be normal people, you don't have to be a scientist, you don't have to be a biologist - it's for people who just want to help."

Those taking part will receive training at the start of the week to ensure they know what to look for and what to do.

The conservationist Tamer Khafaga said: "They'll be accompanied by a local scientist, there will be one of us living with them the whole time. If they need any help identifying a plant the scientist will help them, so the data will be correct.

"The scientist, or us as conservation officers, will add more data and then publish a pure scientific paper."

The reserve has teamed up with Biosphere Expeditions, a non-profit UK company that organises conservation holidays around the world, for the eco-initiative.

The company has organised other trips in the region, including an Arabian leopard project in Oman, and teams of volunteers are this week studying coral reefs off the coast of Musandam.

However, the Dubai visit will be the firm's first venture in the UAE and the first in a sandy desert.

The founder Matthias Hammer said: "It's great to have an expedition running in an area that is like the Middle East used to be.

"It's a glimpse of what the region was like in terms of natural history, the landscape as well as the animals in it.

"When you think of Dubai, you think Burj Al Arab and five-star hotels, or an indoor ski slope when it's 50°C outside, but this will give people a chance to see another side.

"We're not a safari company so it's not about seeing the animals, but the great thing about Dubai is that you do get to see them, unlike some of our other expeditions. When we have a snow leopard expedition you never see the snow leopard.

"It reminds me of expeditions we have in reserves in Africa because you've got sand gazelles running around and the oryx, and that's a very unusual experience for the Middle East, where everything has been shot out basically."

Badher Al Shehi took part in a coral reef expedition at Musandam, where he lives. He said: "I really learnt a lot. Even though I am a divemaster, I discovered a lot of new things about Musandam and its marine life."

The first visit to the desert reserve will take place in January, and volunteers will each pay $US1,490 (Dh5,513). The 225-square-kilometre reserve near the Al Ain Road covers nearly 5 per cent of Dubai's total land area and supports hundreds of species including rare mammals, reptiles and birds.

 

csimpson@thenational.ae