x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Emirati with a passion to keep UAE's rare bird alive

A post-office worker changed careers to head for the dunes and help boost the numbers of the rare houbara bustard living in the wild.

Houbara bustards at the International Fund for Houbara Conservation Park. Jaime Puebla / The National
Houbara bustards at the International Fund for Houbara Conservation Park. Jaime Puebla / The National

ABU DHABI// As he navigates his 4x4 vehicle expertly through the sea of white sand dunes in a protected area to which few get access, Hamad Al Reisi's days as a post-office clerk are far behind him.

"It was not a bad job, but it was not my thing," says the 25-year-old Emirati.

That was his life until five years ago, when he heard about the work of the National Avian Research Centre in his hometown of Sweihan. The facility is one of several in the UAE and abroad supported by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation.

The organisation, based in Abu Dhabi, works to preserve the endangered houbara bustard, a species that has been pushed to the brink of survival in many countries by hunting, poaching and habitat destruction.

The centre breeds the rare birds in captivity and, since 2004, has taken part in a programme to release birds back into the wild. Mr Al Reisi's job for the past four years has been to monitor how the birds are surviving.

Surrounded by a tall concrete wall topped with barbed wire, the site is kept secret to protect the animals living there. Once allowed in by security, Mr Al Reisi drives through a small, flat valley. Patches of it have been turned into forest with row upon row of local trees, such as damas and acacia, irrigated by groundwater.

"In the summer, the houbara live under the trees, because there is irrigation and shade," he says.

After several minutes, the small road he had been driving on disappears. It is time to take to the dunes, and the complexity of his job starts to become apparent.

He may get to spend a lot of time driving off-road in beautiful areas, but he has to take care not to damage the shrubs and grasses growing on the dunes.

The lack of fresh water and extreme summer temperatures in the desert are challenge enough for the plants, and it is their presence that the houbara bustard's well-being depends on.

A shrub with small, rounded leaves growing alongside the dunes, Haloxylon salicornicum, is essential in providing habitat for the beetles and insects the birds eat. Another, Dipterygium glaucum, is a source of food itself, with houbara snacking year-round on its flowers and fruit.

Mr Al Reisi reaches for a cable behind his seat and plugs it into a receiver which picks up radio signals.

On release, some of the birds bred in Sweihan are fitted with radio transmitters. Each bird transmits on a unique radio frequency, so its identity is known before the researchers have seen it.

Mr Al Reisi and his five colleagues in the field spend their days tracking the birds and recording their exact location, their behaviour and whether they are interacting with other birds.

Standing on top of a dune, Mr Al Reisi holds a directional antenna that can detect a signal from 5 kilometres away. As he gets back in the car, having found a bird about 1.5km away, his driving skills are tested. He is driving with one hand and holding the antenna with the other. A sound like the ticking of a clock, coming from the receiver, suggests the presence of the bird.

"We will see it any minute now," he says, and the houbara is quick to prove him right.

As the vehicle goes down a sand dune, the bird appears in full view - a female released into the wild in November 2011.

The fund released 1,400 birds in the UAE during the last season, which lasted from October 2011 to March last year. This year, the centre aims to breed 12,000 birds, and the number released will be disclosed only after the effort is complete.

vtodorova@thenational.ae