x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Faraway eyes watch over rare birds and beasts

The future of rare animal species in the UAE depends on technology hundreds of kilometres up in space, experts say.

A satellite image of the Arabian Gulf and the GUlf of Oman and surrounding land masses.
A satellite image of the Arabian Gulf and the GUlf of Oman and surrounding land masses.

ABU DHABI // The future of rare animal species in the UAE depends on technology hundreds of kilometres up in space, experts say. Data obtained from satellites has revealed the migratory paths of animals from the UAE and provided conservation experts with detailed data on species at risk. The information is now being processed to determine how best to protect UAE breeds close to the brink of extinction.

At the Global Space Technology Forum in Abu Dhabi last week, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) said satellites would play a crucial role in protecting animals indigenous to the Arab world. The houbara bustard, a migratory bird poached to the edge of extinction, is one of the animals being tracked by the French Argos satellite system. Entesar al Hosani, the manager of the environment information management department with EAD, said: "Three months ago we started using a Google Earth-type function to monitor the direction they are travelling and understand their behaviour.

"We noticed that, in certain places, they migrate according to the position of the moon." This sort of information helped her department better understand the species and put policies in place to protect it, she said. "The houbara is one of the species that is most endangered here and we are making a real effort to protect it from being made extinct. The vision of the agency involves creating a sustainable environment and that can be achieved only when you can study and understand the species. And we can do that only with this technology."

The technology, placed on a satellite following the polar orbit and using GPS tracking technology similar to that found in car mapping systems, showed that the houbara migrated from the Arabian peninsula in summer to Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Mongolia and northern China. Return journeys to the Middle East in winter can take anything from two weeks to two months. Close to 30 tagged birds are being monitored and are in places as diverse as Yemen, the UAE, Iran and Uzbekistan.

The bird's Asian population has decreased by 63 per cent in the past 10 years and has fallen significantly since it started being hunted as a sport on the Arabian peninsula. Among other animals tagged are flamingo, falcon, oryx, sailfish, dugong and turtle. EAD also uses satellite technology to monitor oil spills, coral reefs and land use. Ms Hosani said the agency may start obtaining such information through the UAE's first home-grown satellite, DubaiSat-1, which is scheduled for launch from Kazakhstan next year.

Olivier Combreau is director of the National Avian Research Centre, which processes the satellite information for the EAD. He said: "If we did not have this technology we would be struggling to understand the connection between the houbara population in winter and summer. "We would not be in a position to know what exactly we were measuring when it came to trends and population. Space technology is critical for the survival of the species.

"Before such a system existed, the tracking of animals was very difficult - especially with migratory animals. We are now learning a lot about the important places animals are using during their migration. "We are learning about their speed, paths, survival rate and the time they stay in one area more than others." rhughes@thenational.ae