x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arabian wolf thrives in breeding centre

Hunting and loss of habitat have wiped out the species in the wild but a centre in Sharjah is ensuring they survive.

An Arabian wolf with her pup at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, located in Sharjah.
An Arabian wolf with her pup at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, located in Sharjah.

SHARJAH // As the call to prayer echoes across to their lair, the Arabian wolves howl along. "They do this with every call to prayer," said Dr Jane Budd, the carnivore specialist at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife, in Sharjah. The Arabian wolves, along with other locally endangered wildlife, are housed and protected within open-air enclosures.

On hearing Dr Budd's voice, Madini, a nine-year-old male, runs towards her across the grass, rocks and wood chips of its enclosure, wagging its tail. With piercing yellow-orange eyes, grey fur with light-brown patches, sharp teeth and great agility, Madini is a typical Arabian wolf. Behind, pushing and shoving, its six pups peek out from behind a gravel brick den before being ushered back in by their mother, Skcos, a four-year-old female.

"There are many misconceptions about wolves," said Dr Budd. "They are often portrayed as treacherous, evil and bloodthirsty, through stories like Little Red Riding Hood and Peter and the Wolf. "They are actually very secretive and little is known about them, but the wolf's reputation has resulted in indiscriminate killing," she said, petting Madini through the metal fencing. Scratching a hard-to-reach area behind the animal's ear, Dr Budd teases out a lump of uncomfortable moulting fur, and the wolf growls in appreciation and licks her hands.

Madini is this friendly, she explains, only because she took care of him as a pup when he was brought from Saudi Arabia. "They are absolutely not suitable as pets," she said. "They are very much wild animals and are dangerous." Dr Budd has been working at the centre for more than 12 years and with all kinds of wild animals, many of them ferocious. This year, two litters of Arabian wolf pups were born at the centre - Skcos's litter of six in February, followed by three pups in April from another pair, bringing the number of wolves at the centre to 15.

Once found throughout most of the peninsula, the Arabian wolf inhabited rocky mountains, gravel deserts and coastal plains; the animal largely avoided the sandy deserts of the Empty Quarter. None, however, have been seen in the wild in the UAE for more than 30 years. The centre does receive regular reports of sightings, which usually turn out to be of feral dogs. "Arabian wolves are extinct in the UAE," Dr Budd said. "They died off from excessive hunting and the continued disappearance of their habitats. Most of these older wolves were brought in from Saudi Arabia and Oman as confiscated animals from the illegal trade or donated and then bred here."

The breeding centre was established in 1998 under the patronage of the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, to conserve the region's natural heritage. The centre is run by the Environment and Protected Areas Authority and is off-limits to the public. However, most of the endangered animals bred there, such as the Arabian leopard and other cats such as sand cats and cheetahs, as well as species of mammals, reptiles, freshwater fish, amphibians and invertebrates that are indigenous to the peninsula, can be visited at Arabia's wildlife centre next door.

The two centres are part of the Sharjah Desert Park complex, along the Sharjah-Al Dhaid motorway. The wildlife centre also houses a family of Arabian wolves. The mother mainly stays inside the den with the pups, while the father and the older pups take care of the new pups whenever they come out to play. "We don't go near the new mothers for several months because if she gets stressed, she could abandon the new pups or try anxiously to carry them off to a new location," Dr Budd said.

"They live together as a family, where the parents stick together in a monogamous 'marriage'," she said. "The older litters help out with the new litter of pups." She pointed at a one-year-old wolf, which was hanging hesitantly back. "Like a teenager," she said. "Not as confident as the older wolves. "A wolf is shy, but at the same time, a very inquisitive creature, so it wants to explore but prefers to be safe than sorry." On cue, the young wolf returned to the litter inside.

The Arabian wolf, she said, is "not that different from us. They function as a family and love each other. "They are not that big, bad wolf from the stories of our childhood. They are just trying to survive in our modern world." rghazal@thenational.ae The caption on this article has been amended to reflect the photograph was taken by Dr jane budd, from the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife.