x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Desert litter threatens wild camels

Clean-up volunteers collect one ton of rubbish left by visitors on the dunes at Al Aweer.

AL AWEER // The desert landscape is littered with an array of rubbish: plastic containers, cups, rusty drink cans, plastic bags and even an old shoe are strewn carelessly around the sand dunes. The debris discarded at an abandoned campsite is not only an eyesore in the beautiful surroundings but is potentially lethal to wild camels that roam the region. Ingesting the rubbish left by visitors to the desert, particularly plastic bags, can kill the animals in what one of country's leading veterinarians has dubbed "fatal pollution".

Which was why 60 volunteers turned up yesterday at Al Aweer for a co-ordinated clean-up to restore the desert to its natural beauty. Nearby, a dozen or so camels walked past as the group got to work. Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, in a report published on the Wildlife Middle East website, explained how items left behind could have disastrous consequences. Plastic calcifies, blocking an animal's intestines or releasing toxic chemicals and killing it.

"In the United Arab Emirates, this kind of pollution has reached epidemic proportions," Dr Wernery said in the report. He described a location at Ras al Khaimah with more than 30 corpses of animals that had died because of ingesting plastic, naming it "Death Valley". The clean-up campaign was organised by Volunteer in Dubai, a philanthropic Facebook group with more than 4,800 members. They recently had to launch their own website and close their Facebook group to additional accounts as they approached the social network's limit of 5,000 messages to be sent out at any one time.

"We're just a vehicle for people," said Lola Lopez, the group's founder. "They want to do something, but they just need someone to co-ordinate." The clean-up crew found plastic containers littering the desert, and at the rubbish-strewn campsite animal droppings suggested camels had been there before them. While it may have been too late for some of the animals, the site was cleared. Ms Lopez estimated the group collected about one ton of rubbish in two hours of work. Their haul included tyres, a traffic cone and even a chair. But the campaign, which Ms Lopez hopes is a dry run for at least six to 10 clean-ups a year, was not just about saving the camels.

"It's about trying to encourage a new community spirit, to get people to go out of their homes and do something beneficial," she said. "People pass the buck on. It's everyone's responsibility to do something. Not just the government. Not just the companies. Look at the different nationalities we've got around here, they probably normally wouldn't mix." One French couple, who had their three children along for the clean-up, said they liked helping out. "They probably hate mama at this point though," the mother laughed, pointing to her children picking up plastic cans.

The rubbish was unsettling for others, however. "You can see how inconsiderate people can be when they come to the desert," said Abdullah Arif, a Saudi volunteer. "A person should be aware that even if he just throws one bottle in the desert, it is this mentality when it's used by a lot of people that causes the problem." Ms Lopez said Volunteer in Dubai had already completed 5,000 hours of community work since the beginning of the year.

Before the group dispersed, she pointed out a herd of camels descending a nearby dune. "See the camels coming down, and knowing that area is clean for them - that right there is my highlight." kshaheen@thenational.ae