x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bird tracking safeguards breeding grounds

A programme to track the movement of birds is putting wildlife ahead of development.

ABU DHABI // A government programme tracking the movement of local birds has twice led to the reconsideration of proposed developments in breeding grounds.

A windmill project was cancelled and another scheme relocated in recent months after data showed the potential sites were habitats worth protecting, said Salim Javed, the biodiversity manager at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi.

"We are also talking to some of the developers in order to realign a proposed railway," he said.

Mr Javed discussed the bird programme yesterday at a conference on Yas Island, a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission.

The Environment Agency started the bird programme in 2005 to document migration routes and identify habitats.

There are more than 440 species of birds in the country. The majority are migratory, and about a quarter breed locally.

The Environment Agency used GPS monitors to tag flamingos and sooty falcons, among other birds. Researchers found that the sooty falcons fly from the UAE "all the way to Madagascar", with stops in Ethiopia and Kenya, Mr Javed said. They were also able to identify local habitats that serve as breeding grounds.

"The urban landscape is changing rapidly," Mr Javed said. Data from the programme has helped the agency make a case that certain areas should be protected from development.

The windmill project proposed for Jarnein Island was cancelled because of information from the programme, he said.

"That island is the most important island in the country for birds," Mr Javed said. Five species of tern breed there.

In addition, a proposed development in Faziya was relocated after the programme's data showed the site was a sooty falcon breeding ground, he said. The agency plans to work with the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council to incorporate information about habitats in town planning, Mr Javed said.

"If we are using the information and knowledge we gather from the work, we can protect areas," he said.

At the end of his presentation, he showed a photograph of a flock of flamingos against the Abu Dhabi skyline.

"This is not a photoshopped image," he said.

Mr Javed's was one of several presentations yesterday on local species conservation projects.

Rima Jabado, a PhD candidate at UAE University, spoke about sharks in the Arabian Gulf. Like sharks around the world, they are threatened by overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution, she said.

"The fishermen have been telling me that they have seen declines in sharks during the past five to 15 years."

Ms Jabado said there was no definite species list of sharks in the Gulf and no shark protection strategy.

"There is no data that is actually available to be able to put anything like that together," she said.

She began her doctoral research from scratch, surveying fish landings and markets and interviewing fishermen. She found 29 species of sharks.

Shark fishing is banned from January to May, and there are two protected species of shark here, including the whale shark.

Some fishermen disregard the rules though, she said, displaying a photo of a whale shark she said was sold for Dh500 at a fish market in Dubai last week.

"There is a lack of enforcement and compliance ... there are no logbooks or observer programmes," she said.

Ms Jabado said it is "extremely difficult" to find funding to support research on shark conservation.

vnereim@thenational.ae