x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Bu Tinah reminds us of our past and a future we share

An isolated sanctuary reminds us of what we must preserve the UAE environment, which is a wonder of nature, and why.

When I repeat this statement I'm usually met with an expression of silent amusement or disbelief: the UAE's environment is indeed a wonder of nature. For starters, take the sea. Our relationship with this force dates back to the Stone Age. Today it is home to some of the world's most extensive seagrass beds and has the highest density of dugongs in the world. Then take a look inland. Once you've experienced the stillness of the desert and felt the cool grains of sand between your fingers, it is difficult to not fall in love.

As beautiful as they are, these natural wonders aren't immune from their share of problems. Our seas are plagued with overfishing and pollution. Our deserts are strewn with debris and are threatened by the race for development. One can't help but think that one day, it won't just be footprints in the sand that we will see disappear but the beauty of the UAE's natural wonders. Reminders remain of what our region looked like for millennia when it was wild and undisturbed. Imagine an island with shallow sparkling blue waters and sandy beaches, visited by critically endangered wildlife and musical with birdsong. Add colourful coral reefs and Seven-metre high mangrove trees to that picture and you'll start to get an idea of the peace and tranquillity of Bu Tinah Island, just 130km west of Abu Dhabi.

Arriving on that island recently, after a painfully early departure from the capital, a feeling of immense pride quickly overwhelmed me as I watched flamingos take flight. The organisation I work for has defied the odds and managed to protect this island so far. The island is closed to the general public and this has helped it remain an undisturbed haven for wildlife. I wasn't the only one enjoying the island, however. The spectacular osprey, an expert fisherman, had already set up an impressive nest and was ready to breed. The male osprey flies in a few days ahead of the female to take care of the "business", fishing in preparation for the family's arrival. When autumn arrives, the birds will fly away to various destinations, including Oman.

Bu Tinah is also an important roosting site for around 25,000 Socotra cormorants who are a threatened species. The surrounding waters provide enough fish for all of them, where they put on an amazing display of diving into the sea, adept at managing the water's depths. As I explored the island on foot, I came across two graves submerged in the intertidal zone. I'm told that they may have belonged to pearl fishermen who sacrificed their lives at sea. There were many others like them at the turn of the 20th century, when the UAE was gaining its reputation for producing some of the best natural pearls in the world.

Bu Tinah Island is quickly attracting the world's attention, as it should. It is a core area of the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, which is managed by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD), and was the first marine biosphere reserve in the region to be recognised by Unesco. The island is considered a miracle of nature. In spite of the UAE's harsh temperatures and salinity, its habitats and species remain healthy.

In March, EAD launched an international campaign to raise awareness about the island and to encourage people to vote for it as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. Competing against the likes of the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef in an international poll to become one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, Bu Tinah stands a chance because of what it can teach us about environmental protection and survival. Its thriving habitat and species have formed a unique living laboratory with significance for climate change research all over the world.

As I set my gaze on the sun setting on Bu Tinah, I watched the cormorants fill the horizon. The silence was broken by the sounds of a few ospreys, whose calls only added to the serenity. I was removed from the craziness of the world. That gets my vote every time. Laila Yousef Al Hassan is communications manager at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi and is an Emirati commentator on environmental issues.