x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A network of life: we can each help to save wild species

Scientists and conservation workers are on the frontline of helping animals in Arabia, but a veterinarian reminds us that there is plenty each of us can do to save the environment.

As a veterinarian working in Dubai, I specialise in the care of wildlife. But while I work in a technical position - a very hands on job of fixing sick animals from turtles to falcons - it has always been clear to me that the wildlife of the region needed more help. 

News about conservation in Arabia is often depressing. So in 2006, after attending a conservation workshop in Sharjah and listening to tales of wildlife woe, three colleagues - fellow veterinarian Chris Lloyd, wildlife manager Declan O'Donovan and environmental educator (and my wife) Theresa Bailey - and I were stirred into action.

The pressures on wildlife in the Middle East are increasing. The Arabian Peninsula, at 3.5 million square kilometres, is seven times the size of France. But this vastness has not protected the environment from the effects of an increasing human population, which has more than doubled from 30 million people in the late 1980s to 78 million in 2010. The rapid pace of economic development, the fragility of the natural ecosystems and low animal population densities make indigenous species vulnerable to extinction.

This decline of Arabian wildlife has been recent. As late as 1845, explorers described herds of gazelle, oryx, ostrich, ibex, hyenas and wolves in northern Arabia. But this was before European nations began exporting cheap, mass-produced guns to the peninsula. Guns, combined with motorised transport, ensured that all species could be easily hunted. The last Arabian ostrich died near Petra, Jordan in 1966 and on October 18 1972, the last wild herd of Arabian oryx was shot in Oman. Today the open plains and wadi beds of Arabia are almost devoid of animals.

Year after year, conservationists working in every corner of Arabia come together to report their tales of woe in a kind of Ground Hog Day for environmentalists. There are so many species teetering on the edge of extinction and at the end of that gloomy conference in Sharjah, we realised that something needed to be done - we just weren't sure what. Then, in a kind of Eureka moment, we saw an untapped niche. There was no source of technical information on wildlife conservation, management or care in the Middle East for English and Arabic speakers. And so the idea of a bilingual information resource to help regional wildlife was born - and we established Wildlife Middle East News, an information resource to raise awareness of conservation issues and to promote better management and welfare of wildlife in the region.

Our first job was to design our newsletter. A friend referred us to Promoseven, a local advertising company that offered to help us as part of their corporate social responsibility programme. Promoseven gave our newsletter a make-over and an identity, with a design template, a logo and a new name. We also needed a sponsor. After many fruitless meetings we got lucky and met the head of public relations for RAK Bank. The timing was fortuitous - RAK Bank was looking for a project with an environmental theme. We fitted the bill and the bank has generously supported the production of the newsletter since 2006.

Finally, a website was designed. The first issue of Wildlife Middle East News was sent out to 350 colleagues and, five years later, we have more than 7,500 members in 72 countries. Since its launch in 2006, our newsletter has raised awareness on many important issues, such as wildlife smuggling, the devastating impact of infectious disease on wildlife populations and the persecution of predators. We have included articles on a wide range of species from sea slugs to turtles and spiny-tailed lizards to cheetahs.

Optimism is important in the field of conservation outreach and we publish many positive stories. These have included biological studies carried out by budding national scientists and the establishment of local organisations such as the citizen scientist Sharkwatch Arabia group, the Kuwait Turtle Conservation Project and the Arabian Leopard Recovery Programme. Our most notable successes have been to support and publicise the creation of the Arabian Leopard Recovery Programme in Yemen, and the initiation of Spotty Day, a fund-raising initiative by Dubai schools to raise funds for their conservation programmes.

We are conscious that our small efforts are dwarfed by the scale of the environmental problems in the region, but I think that as well as taking steps to raise awareness of wildlife conservation problems in this area, we have shown that people with an interest in wildlife really can make a difference, even in their spare time. So what can you do to help the wildlife of the UAE? Join a local or regional conservation organisation. The Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the Worldwide Fund for Nature, for example, are involved with local conservation projects.

Get involved with the organisation that you join. Attend meetings. Go to activity days such as the mangrove planting days and beach clean-ups organised by the Emirates Marine Environment Group. Sponsor wildlife on a special occasion. For my son's birthday, my wife sponsored a turtle instead of buying "goody" bags. The children can monitor their radio-tracked turtle in their classroom via the internet. If you are a parent or teacher consider setting up a "Green Group" at your school.

Join a local natural history group, go to their talks and sign up to one of their camping trips. Enjoy the desert and mountains. Get connected to nature. Once infected by the nature bug you will want to do your bit. 

Dr Tom Bailey is a veterinarian based in the UAE For more information on the Wildlife Middle East News visit www.wmenews.com