x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 August 2017

Al Ain Zoo marks 45 years with further expansion plans

Home to more than 3,700 animals, Al Ain Zoo is celebrating its 45th anniversary this December.

Lady, a gorilla, is 39 and the oldest animal at Al Ain Zoo. The zoo is celebrating 45 years this month. Delores Johnson / The National
Lady, a gorilla, is 39 and the oldest animal at Al Ain Zoo. The zoo is celebrating 45 years this month. Delores Johnson / The National

Lindsay Carroll

Al Ain Zoo celebrates its 45th birthday this month – more than four decades of protecting some of the natural wonders of the UAE.

It started life in December 1968, when the founding President, Sheikh Zayed, requested a wildlife centre be founded in his home city.

He was concerned that indigenous species such as the Arabian oryx were at risk of becoming extinct.

His centre has flourished and become a successful tourist attraction and major player in worldwide breeding programmes.

The zoo is also credited with changing people’s attitudes towards wildlife and the environment.

Muna Al Dhaheri, chief conservation and education officer, started working at the zoo 11 years ago. Back then, the concept of wildlife education was lost on many.

“They thought that the only thing people were doing in the zoo was to clean the animal enclosure or to feed it, and they didn’t know that there is a science being managing a zoo,” she said.

Outreach and education programmes now take place in many schools, teaching children to have more respect for wildlife.

Many youngsters have since said they want a career working with animals.

“Kids are saying that they want to be vets or animal trainers,” Ms Al Dhaheri said. “So we see that the kids now, they change the way they think of the zoo or animals in this area.”

A change of attitude is also evident from the growing number of visitors to the zoo.

It set a goal of attracting a million visitors by the end of this year and had welcomed 800,000 by the start of this month, according to Rashed Al Saadi, spokesman for the zoo.

There is also more demand for education programmes, with waiting lists for pupils eager to take part in the zoo’s summer and winter camps.

Ms Al Dhaheri believes these programmes help to encourage children to pursue careers working with animals, and in environmental and science sectors.

“There is a lot of attention now from people towards the environment,” she said. “The UAE is taking a big step, trying to be a leader in the world when it comes to environmental projects.”

Sheikh Zayed called for a zoo when numbers of the Arabian oryx started to dwindle.

A conservation programme began and an Austrian expatriate in Dubai donated his private animal collection.

In the coming decades, Sheikh Zayed added animals he received as gifts from various countries.

The land he chose for breeding is now the site of the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, part of the ongoing expansion project to turn the zoo into Al Ain Park and Wildlife Resort.

The centre, which has been shortlisted for an international sustainability award, is due to open next year and will offer educational programmes and environmental exhibits.

An investment campaign helped a reptile house and a bird house be built in 2002. Three years later, administrators decided to modernise, reducing the number of fences, hiding walls, and adding more landscaping to naturalise the animals’ new habitats.

A giraffe feeding area has been added, with a children’s play area and petting zoo expanded.

The recently built mixed animal exhibit has creatures from various regions living together in the same space.

In the African exhibit, giraffes, gazelle, ostriches and rhinos live in areas that replicate their natural habitat.

“This is the way we want to teach people, instead of just telling them, ‘This is an African animal, this is what their habitat looked like’, we try to imitate the habitat ... so they can take knowledge by themselves on how these animals live,” Ms Al Dhaheri said.

lcarroll@thenational.ae