x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Be a conservationist for a day

For about Dh1,000, tourists can go on excursions with conservationists, which offers them a unique insight into the emirate's wildlife.

Greg Simkins, a conservation manager, shows a lizard hole in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve area.
Greg Simkins, a conservation manager, shows a lizard hole in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve area.

DUBAI // Tourists who fancy a break from the beach, sights and shops can now try a day in the desert with a difference - the chance to root around for lizard droppings and bait a camera trap with quail guts.

The organisers of a new range of exclusive excursions into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve area, believe ecotourists will jump at the chance to be a conservationist for a day.

"We know there is a certain type of clientele out there that will always look for something special," said Adam McEwan, the operations manager of Arabian Adventures. "So with this type of thing we're not aiming for mass tourism, we're aiming for those who are interested in conservation, who are interested in going a little more in-depth.

"The average ecotourist is 35 to 54 years old, and 82 per cent are college graduates, so we're aiming at a more educated tourist than someone who just wants to lay their towel on the beach."

A four-wheel drive vehicle takes customers deep into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where they spend several hours with the conservation manager Greg Simkins. The 225-square-kilometre reserve is home to hundreds of species, including the Arabian oryx, Arabian and sand gazelles, Gordon's wildcat and foxes, plus many types of lizards and birds.

"We believe this is the only excursion in the UAE where you can be one-on-one with the conservationist and really learn about the conservation efforts in the country," added Mr McEwan.

"The way that the UAE, and particularly Dubai, has been marketed is glamour, beaches, restaurants, shows, everything's man-made, yet there's this beautiful natural wonder 45 minutes' drive from the centre of the city. I think that without truly understanding the natural environment, you don't really see the destination."

Mr Simkins said: "I think Dubai has underplayed its desert environment. You can do beaches and shopping malls in a number of places around the world. What makes Dubai unique is this desert environment, which people should get out and see."

Visitors going on the excursion are able to play a hands-on role in some of the important work under way at the reserve - hence the lizard droppings and quails' guts. One project involves investigating the population of Leptien's spiny-tailed lizards, also known as dhubs.

The lizards live in burrows in gravel planes, and in 2009 conservationists carried out a survey of all the suitable sites across the reserve. They noted signs of life that indicated whether a burrow was being used, such as the presence of fresh droppings, and are now revisiting the sites.

"There's quite a lot of information we can learn about how long the lizards use the burrows, whether they're moving, whether they're being preyed on," said Mr Simkins. "The dynamics of the population is what we're looking at now, how its changing."

The quails' guts are leftovers from what is fed to the reserve's collection of falcons.

The guts, along with the heads of the small birds, are then used to bait camera traps, which attracts other animals that are then photographed as they pass through motion-sensing and infrared beams.

The guts are frozen, and the key here is to get them to the camera site and out of the vehicle before they thaw out.

Visitors also take part in observation programmes, recording all the animals they encounter as they travel across the reserve and contributing to a separate oryx herd survey.

The morning ends with lunch at Al Maha, a luxury resort in the reserve that is not normally open to non-residents. The trip costs Dh2,250 for a couple.

Mr Simkins said he thought the excursion was a good way to help people understand what he and his team of conservationists were doing.

"I think there are a lot of people in Dubai who don't even realise there is a big conservation area out here and this is a way of showing them the actual work we're doing, as opposed to just the product of it," he added. "If they visit Al Maha or go on one of Arabian Adventures' regular trips to the reserve they see the product of that protection, but not the actual work we are putting in."

Mr McEwan added: "I think the tourism industry in the UAE needs to take a lead role in environmental initiatives and conservation."

For more information visit www.arabian-adventures.com

csimpson@thenational.ae