x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Back to nature

Feature The Emirates Natural History Group reveals the desert was once a lush rich mangrove swamp and a vast grassland with elephants and gazelle.

The Abu Dhabi Natural History Club observe giraffes at a group outing to the Al Ain Zoo.
The Abu Dhabi Natural History Club observe giraffes at a group outing to the Al Ain Zoo.

One Friday morning not too long ago, I drove to an Adnoc station on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and added my little hatchback car to a convoy of vehicles that was assembling there. My fellow drivers and I discussed our route over the hood of a 4x4. Then we snaked out of the petrol station and onto Motorway E11, angling towards the flat, uncharismatic salt plains of the Western Region, maintaining our single-file line like a class of fuel-combusting schoolchildren on a field trip.

And a field trip it was. This was my first excursion with the Emirates Natural History Group, Abu Dhabi's oldest environmental organisation. A few weeks before, I had attended an introductory lecture by the group's chairman, Drew Gardner, who made an enthusiastic pitch to attract new members. "The Qatar Natural History Group this year discovered a new species of sea slug!" he said excitedly. He added that no one - no one! - had ever conducted a comprehensive study of the UAE's scorpions or spiders.

Though I was pretty sure I didn't have it in me to become the authority on Emirati scorpions, I signed up to the group there and then and paid my Dh100 in annual dues, which entitled me to attend the group's twice-monthly lectures and frequent weekend excursions. So now here I was, part of the caravan on E11, already feeling lulled by the hypnotic swoop of the power lines. I had driven across the Western Region a few times before, and considered it an exercise in sensory deprivation. I am someone who harbours rather romantic ideas about cultivating a sense of place, and I have spent some of the happiest years of my life in deserts. But Abu Dhabi's Western region had already strained my affinity for subtle landscapes. Driving along that morning, I struggled to find anything to look at.

Our convoy's destination was something called Hajr Al Qurm, though I had no idea what sort of landmark the name denoted. After 100 kilometres or so, the leader of our caravan - an Englishman with an Ahab-like beard and a warmly professorial manner named Alestree Fisher - turned off the motorway onto a nondescript side track that pointed us straight toward a pair of heavily eroded hills. We stopped the cars and got out. The sun bore down. We hadn't been on the ground for more than three minutes when Alestree's wife Pamela picked up something from the sand. "Piece of ostrich egg shell," she said matter-of-factly, handing me a bowed yellowish fragment. "They're all over." And sure enough, several members of the group began poring over the ground and popping up with their own, slightly curved shards. "When was the last time these ostriches were running around here?" I asked. "Oh, around eight million years ago," came the reply.

As the group wended its way to the back of the rocky outcrop, Alestree described how the Emirates, in a wetter era, once resembled a vast African savannah. Another member of the group chimed in about the fossilised elephant tracks that could be found elsewhere in the Western Region, and the gazelle that still roamed the desert. Soon we reached our destination: a boulder that had tumbled from the hill's rocky crown onto a sand bank in a manner that recalled a scoop of ice cream dropped from its cone.

Alestree led us to the boulder's underside, which was covered in ? tentacles? "Rhizoliths," he said. "Fossilised mangrove roots." As a hot wind blew sand and grit into our faces, he explained how our immediate surroundings had once been covered in water and mangrove swamp. "What does Hajr Al Qurm mean?" I asked. "Rock of Mangrove," Alestree said. And with that, staring out at the Western Region from our sandy slope, I finally found something to look at: in my mind's eye, an expanse of green mangrove swamp giving way to an open grassland dotted with elephants, ostriches and gazelle.

The Emirates Natural History Group was founded in 1977 by a handful of amateur naturalists, most of them British, who arrived with the country's first oil boom - "people coming here who wanted to get out and about and to look at the desert, look at the mountains," says Peter Hellyer, one of the group's longest-standing members and an adviser to the National Media Council. But traipsing the desert was not their only interest; the amateur founders were also keen to start documenting the plants and animals indigenous to the UAE.

"At that stage there was no other organisation that actually recorded anything. The UAE was still very young," says Hellyer. "There was no Environmental Agency, there was no Ministry of the Environment. The Emirates University hadn't been founded. There was no local body that was undertaking scientific research into the fauna, flora and archaeology of the UAE. So they started going out collecting records."

The most legendary of the group's founders was an oil company man named Bish Brown. Along with several other early members, Brown set up relationships with the Royal Botanical Society and the Natural History Museum in London. Natural-history buffs in Abu Dhabi would go out, collect specimens, and then mail them back to the experts in England for identification. Quite often, the specimens would be new to science.

"There was a guy who was a British diplomat, and for some reason he got interested in ants. He just went out and collected ants. There was a colleague of his who I think was an engineer, who was also interested. They collected all the ants they could find," Hellyer says. "They sent them off to the Natural History museum in London, and over the years the museum kept on writing back saying, well, that's a new species, that's a new species, that's a new species."

In sending their specimens back to London for identification, the founders of the Emirates Natural History Group were performing a well-worn ritual. At the height of the colonial era, British civil servants posted in various far-flung, tropical destinations began doing much the same thing. Indeed, the rise of amateur natural history societies in Britain in the 19th century was partly fuelled by this new class of well-travelled, pith-helmeted Britons who saw themselves as part of a great enterprise: to organise knowledge of the natural world.

It is worth noting, however, that the practice of natural history was an Arab phenomenon long before it was a European colonial phenomenon. During the medieval period, the field was advanced almost solely by Muslim thinkers such as al Jahiz, who introduced the idea of the food chain, and Ibn al Baitar, whose pharmaceutical encyclopaedia of plants, foods and drugs was still being referenced in translation by European biologists until the 19th century.

Today, the Emirates Natural History group has roughly 600 members - many of them career expatriates and their families. Ever since the creation of the Emirati Environmental Agency and other official organisations, Hellyer says, the natural history group has taken a somewhat less central role in the documentation of new species in the Emirates. Many members are simply looking for a recreational way of getting to know the Emirates and a reprieve from tower cranes and shopping malls. Accordingly, some of the group's excursions - including a recent evening visit to the Al Ain zoo - are pitched to families.

But Hellyer and Gardner insist that there is still plenty of work to do in recording the Emirates' flora and fauna. To document those discoveries, the group publishes a peer-reviewed, biannual journal of its findings called Tribulus. "There's still a huge amount we don't know about natural history in this country," says Gardner, a professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi and an expert on the region's reptiles, whose office cubicle is decorated with dolphin skulls and reptile specimens.

"In almost every order of the natural world," says Hellyer, "there's a chance of making discoveries." jgravois@thenational.ae