x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Be a voluntourist at Dubai's Desert Conservation Reserve

Nick Leech joins an international group of volunteers for the first UAE research project by Biosphere Expeditions.

Conservation officer Peter Roosenschoon baits a live trap for Gordon's wildcat. Sarah Dea / The National
Conservation officer Peter Roosenschoon baits a live trap for Gordon's wildcat. Sarah Dea / The National

There is a technique for driving a 2.5 tonne Land Rover up and over particularly steep dunes. Apparently, it involves accelerating only to the point at which the car's momentum carries it over the dune's crest, but no further. As our car sits, nose in the sand, vibrating from the shock of impact, it's clear that our technique may need a little polish. Alarmingly, my seatbelt creaks. It is the only thing holding me in place on the back seat. "Is the car OK?" asks Anne Crauser, our driver, audibly shaken. "Don't worry," replies Greg Simkins, conservation manager of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), and our guide for the day. "We are driving well within the operational limits of the vehicle."

I begin to wonder about my own operational limits, but there is simply too much else to see and learn for anybody in the car to dwell on the incident. I have joined a group of six international "voluntourists", each of whom has paid £980 (Dh5,650) for the privilege, on the first UAE project organised by Biosphere Expeditions, a UK-based not-for-profit company that organises international conservation holidays. They provide cash-rich, time-poor "voluntourists" with the opportunity to "give something back" by contributing their cash, time, and labour toward serious scientific research in the field. My group has come to the DDCR to help observe three of Arabia's most endangered desert species: Gordon's wildcat, the Arabian oryx, and Macqueen's Bustard.

For the past few weeks, a steady stream of emails has been populating my inbox. These outline the logistical nightmare of setting up a base camp in the middle of the desert and are accompanied by a dizzying array of manuals, work schedules, data entry sheets and a dossier that includes sections entitled "Read this now and start getting ready" and "Get fit, kit yourself out, and do some preparatory reading". It's little wonder then that I feel neither prepared, ready nor fit by the time I arrive - late - at the expedition's initial rendezvous in Dubai's Silicon Oasis.

My first meeting there, with Dr Mattias Hammer, MA (Oxford), PhD (Cambridge), Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, former paratrooper and international rower, triathlete, divemaster, mountain leader, survival skills instructor, wilderness medical officer, and founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, does nothing to dispel this sense of trepidation.

"You are late!" he booms. The Teutonic accent is laid on thick and the phrasing is arch. "I'm terribly sorry." I offer, weakly. "You will be," he continues, in perfect Oxbridge English and it is only as he shakes my hand that there is even the vaguest hint of a smile. I decide that now is not the time to confess that I've arrived without the sleeping bag, rucksack, walking boots or head torch that were listed as essential items of personal equipment in the expedition dossier.

But only 50km later, my city-dweller angst is momentarily forgotten as we spot our first oryx within minutes of heading into the reserve. It is a strange sensation to come so close, so quickly, to the main object of our expedition and an iconic animal more normally associated with corporate identities and logos. Other Biosphere Expeditions - tracking Arabian leopards in Oman, wolves in Slovakia and snow leopards in the Siberian Altai - are known to pass for weeks without actual sightings, but here the oryx are, close enough to touch with their brilliant white hides, long, gracefully tapering horns and distinctive facial markings.

We drive on and the terrain becomes even more challenging until we suddenly reach our base camp in a welcoming grove of shady Ghaf trees that nestle among tall, rampart-like dunes. A Biosphere Expeditions flag flies piratically from a homemade but expert-looking flagpole; an Omani wedding tent, khaki drab on the outside but colourfully appliquéd within, serves as our meeting and mess tent, along with an ingenious toilet and shower block constructed from arish panels, recycled palettes and scaffolding poles. Our first task is to pitch our own tents and, thankfully, these are of the easy-to-use, high street variety. Putting mine up isn't a problem but, unfortunately, having the common sense necessary to place it in the shade of a tree is. After 15 minutes mine is the only dome that stands shining in the midday sun. Mercifully, Biosphere has provided spare sleeping bags and mats and I quietly help myself to these when nobody else is looking. Not for the first time I'm reminded of how ill equipped I am for this trip, and how glad I am that we're in the relatively benign surroundings of the DDCR.

Introductions reveal an international group of volunteers from France, Germany, Australia and the US, as well as Evelyn Brey, an Austrian osteopath and long-term resident of Dubai, who leapt at the opportunity of being able to holiday so differently while staying so close to home: "When I read about this expedition I thought, this is fantastic! I don't have to travel anywhere, I get to experience the desert, and I'm going to learn something in the process."

The group's experience is equally varied but most are already well travelled. Tess Sansome, an insurance broker from San Francisco, is a Biosphere veteran from a previous leopard-spotting expedition in Oman while Vanhan Nguyen, a Vietnamese IT administrator, makes regular trips to the wilderness. "I live in Paris. I am not stressed, I do yoga, but I cannot live in big cities all year round."

Our first day is spent learning about the skills, tools, and techniques we'll need to identify, locate and record the wildlife we'll be encountering in the field. We start gently with compasses, rangefinders, and a GPS before moving on to the more complex procedures for setting the motion cameras, bait and live traps that will hopefully provide us with data on Gordon's wildcat, the most elusive of our target species. Nothing is too good for these kitties, and even though Biosphere policy confines us volunteers to a vegetarian diet, we'll be using tinned, chilli-flavoured sardines, frozen quail entrails and cat-intoxicating valerian spray as bait in our attempt to get a closer look at this species whose survival is threatened with extinction in the wild.

By the end of the afternoon, I'm dizzy from the day's vertiginous learning curve and it's clear that I'm not the only person incapable of absorbing any more information. As if on cue, Simkins ends the session with some timely words of encouragement for the week ahead. "We are all trailblazers on this project because we haven't done an intensive survey of our oryx before. Gather as much data as you can, come back each evening, we'll chat about it and see how we can improve our survey technique as we go along."

Our first evening's camping introduces us to some of the reserve's shyer nocturnal residents. Steve, a DDCR biologist with an ultraviolet torch, walks around the campsite shining the light over seemingly empty and innocuous patches of sand. This reveals small, fingernail-sized purple flecks of light that on closer inspection turn out to be baby scorpions. They are harmless and look like the kind of child's toy that might come free in a packet of cornflakes, but are quite unlike their 15cm-long mother whom we find later the same evening, nestling at the base of a toilet. Thankfully, fatigue is a powerful thing and the sighting is a source of interest rather than alarm. I am careful to prop my shoes upright when I crawl inside my tent but nothing interferes with my much-needed sleep.

The pattern of our days quickly establishes itself. Dr Hammer wakes us the following morning by banging saucepan lids together and we eat breakfast, gather our equipment, and pack lunch before heading out into the reserve in small groups in our Land Rovers. Each morning the live traps will be checked to see if we have caught anything - Gordon's wildcat, feral cats, desert foxes or otherwise - and each evening we'll reset these with fresh bait and spray. During the intervening hours we'll observe the oryx, record any other species we come across, and try not to get stuck in the sand. My first day is near perfect, but it sets a precedent that's impossible to sustain. After an intensive training session on using the Land Rovers in the desert, we head into the southern sector of the reserve. We are in the best company - Simkins has spent the past 13 years at the DDCR - and we encounter species so often that we are soon forced to omit sightings from our species encounter sheets to achieve our main goal of the day. Our challenge is to set seven live traps and five camera traps before sundown.

We manage this, just, but in the meantime, we also see oryx, desert foxes, hares and even bustard, an animal I've only ever previously seen stuffed.

Simkins is a keen birdwatcher, and at one point, he sprints off across the dunes toward our Land Rover as a very large bird takes to the sky. As Simkins trains his camera on the target, the excitement in his voice is contagious. The bird is a juvenile golden eagle, this is maybe only the 14th sighting of the species in the UAE, and I have rarely felt so privileged. Unfortunately, not every day is so glorious and many are defined by the more mundane realities of expedition life. By the end of the week, the group has spent considerable time stuck in the sand, GPS devices have malfunctioned and some of the live traps have proved impossible to relocate. However, more than a month's invaluable data has been collected and on the night after the group leaves, a Gordon's wildcat is finally captured in one of the traps that we have set.

To the untrained eye, the landscape on either side of the DDCR's 92km long chain-link fence seems almost identical, as both are sides are defined by steeply undulating dunes, baked gravel plains and patches of scrub, but in reality the truth could not be more different. To spend time inside the reserve, volunteering, is to take a trip through the looking-glass, from a landscape depopulated and degraded by hunting, urbanisation, overgrazing and reckless off-road driving, to one that sustains fragile desert habitats and wildlife in comparative abundance. The more I look the more I see and I'm not quite sure if this is an image of the desert as it was, never was, or how it might be, but I know I will never be able to look at it in quite the same way again. Maybe I am overtired, but the effect feels like an epiphany and, as I leave, I vow that this is an experience I will have to repeat.

The camp

Biosphere Expeditions will be running two week-long projects in conjunction with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in 2013. "Ways of the Desert: conserving Arabian oryx, Gordon's wildcat and other species of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve", will run next year from January 12 to January 19 and January 20 to 27. A place on either project costs £980 (Dh5,710) per person for seven nights.

The contribution covers direct field costs such as transport, board and lodging as well as the post-expedition publication of research results. Six to 12 months after an expedition comes to an end, volunteers will receive a report with full details on how their contribution supported the programme and research work, as well the resulting scientific findings. Visit www.biosphere-expeditions.org/emirates for more information