Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

A dedicated research centre can bring the UAE's natural glories to the world

Across the world, more than a million species are under threat. To protect our flora and fauna, we must learn everything we can about it

The semaphore gecko is one of several species we have learned a great deal about in recent years. Getty Images
The semaphore gecko is one of several species we have learned a great deal about in recent years. Getty Images

Last week an awkwardly named UN committee – the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – issued a report warning that one-eighth of the world’s species of flora and fauna are under threat of extinction, owing to human activity. With an estimated 8.7 million extant species, that means more than a million are in peril.

It is clear that efforts to preserve global biodiversity are up against enormous challenges. This is not simply the result of climate change. Other factors such as shrinking habitats, over-exploitation of natural resources and pollution have all played a part in creating the situation we now face.

“It’s not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now, at every level, from local to global,” says Sir Robert Watson, chair of the IPBES.

I will not even try to discuss the changes in political and social attitudes, and in economic systems, needed to address this impending global calamity. Doing so would require far more than a single column.

It is, however, worth noting that the UAE has already established a number of programmes to preserve biodiversity, both locally and further afield. They deserve more attention.

It was good to see a few days ago that the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation have launched the Al Maha Initiative to promote more awareness abroad of the country’s biodiversity.

If we are to protect the UAE’s natural wonders, it isn’t just a matter of tackling threats to them. It is also necessary to increase the amount of scientific research under way to identify exactly what and how many species of plants and animals exist here. After all, we cannot conserve what we do not know about.

Over the past few years, research has identified more than 2,500 insect species not previously known to be present in the country. More than 400 were entirely new to science. Insects are small and easily overlooked, but larger animals are still being found for the first time. Last year, porcupines were found in Abu Dhabi emirate, following their discovery a couple of years earlier in Fujairah.

Once identified, continued research can show how the presence of a species can change. The collared pratincole was once considered a migratory bird in the UAE – until 2010, when a pair was confirmed to have bred here. Earlier this week, at least 17 breeding pairs were found at a single location in Abu Dhabi emirate.

Even dedicated observation is not sufficient. Advances in science have meant that new discoveries are being made in the laboratory, which may not be visible in the field.

Last weekend, a friend asked me to identify a gecko he had found and photographed. That would have been pretty easy until a couple of years ago – the rock semaphore gecko or Pristurus rupestris, has been recorded widely in the UAE, throughout the Arabian peninsula and beyond.

It was long thought that a single sub-species was present in the UAE and Oman. The latest study, however, suggests that there are actually 14 closely related, but different, sub-species here. The one photographed by my friend hasn’t even been formally described yet.

It is clear that, despite the amount of work that has been done so far, there is still much to be learned about the UAE’s biodiversity. Certainly, those who are involved in the research are well aware of the need for it to continue and of the need for a greater degree of collaboration between all of the institutions and individuals concerned.

Earlier this month, a scientist with nearly 20 years’ experience of research and of teaching in the Emirates discussed with me the concept of a dedicated museum and research centre, perhaps called a Biodiversity Hub, which would focus on the UAE’s natural history.

Partners and stakeholders in such an institution could – and, indeed, should – include the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the various environmental agencies and departments, universities, colleges and schools. Perhaps donations could be sought for endowments, and the public could become involved, via a membership or supporters’ scheme.

Such a centre would have little difficulty in establishing partnerships with leading institutions overseas, such as the Natural History Museum in London and the Smithsonian in the US.

When I first discussed a similar idea, more than a decade ago, the time wasn’t right. Now, as warnings of an extinction crisis grow louder, perhaps the idea can gain some traction.

In launching the Al Maha Initiative, Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency said that, along with its partners, it had “a shared commitment towards enhancing collaborative efforts between federal and local government entities”.

How nice it would be if one such effort was to support the establishment of a Biodiversity Hub not just for the UAE, but for the whole region.

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

Updated: May 13, 2019 06:20 PM

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