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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Global wildlife conservation efforts focus of major conference in Al Ain 

Protecting giraffes in Kenya, butterfly gardens and penguin awareness at Ski Dubai all up for discussion

Giraffes roam around Al Ain Zoo. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
Giraffes roam around Al Ain Zoo. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Protecting giraffes in Kenya, penguin awareness at Ski Dubai and improving access to zoos for people with disabilities are just some of the topics under discussion in Al Ain this week.

Representatives from zoos, aquariums and conservation groups from across the globe have gathered in the garden city for a major event dedicated to their work.

The biennial International Zoo Educators Association (IZE) conference was launched on Monday by the Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi.

Hosted by Al Ain Zoo, it is taking place in the UAE for the first time with Al Ain seeing off stern competition to host the event.

“It was not easy but we are really happy,” Ghanim Al Hajeri, director general of Al Ain Zoo, told The National. “The dream started a long time ago but now we have the reality.”

More than 40 countries are participating including Nepal’s Central Zoo, South Korea’s Seoul Grand Park, India’s Central Zoo Authority and other groups from the United States, Australia, Japan, India, Nigeria and Uganda.

Among the talks on Monday included a reflection on butterfly conservation and a programme at Ski Dubai in Mall of the Emirates to raise awareness about penguins.

Ski Dubai, for example, has introduced a “professor penguin” programme for school pupils in the UAE.

Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates has a 'professor penguin; programme for school pupils that encourages conservation. Sarah Dea / The National
Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates has a 'professor penguin; programme for school pupils that encourages conservation. Sarah Dea / The National

“Our hope is that having a one-on-one encounter will inspire them to protect penguins in the wild,” said Sarah Pillay, head penguin trainer at Ski Dubai.

Thirteen of the 18 species of penguins in the world are endangered or threatened and the idea is that this will encourage conservation efforts, cut sea pollution and ultimately help penguins thrive.

Regarding some concerns about having penguins at Ski Dubai in a mall, she says most people who watch through the glass do not realise how much space they have.

“Our penguins are the luckiest penguins in the world. What penguin has a ski slope to play on? We also take them for walks up the ski slope before people come in.”

Al Ain Zoo was established by the founding President, Sheikh Zayed, in 1968, just three years before the formation of the UAE. He was a firm advocate for conservation and central to the decision to hold the conference in Al Ain was this long commitment.

“There has been a huge change towards conservation in the past 50 years,” said Mr Al Hajeri, who has been in the role for nine years.

“You can see the difference. Abu Dhabi wants to be a player in conservation and education.”

Today, Al Ain Zoo attracts close to a million visitors a year. People can see Arabian sand cats, Arabian leopard, lions, oryx and gazelle.

Fifteen expansion projects are also in the pipeline over the next five years including a plan to introduce elephants, koalas and a safari resort. The zoo also runs programmes for university students and school pupils and has volunteer opportunities. Two Emirati tour guides were recently sent to Kenya to study issues such as poaching.

For Isabel Li, the IZE president, Al Ain Zoo is one of the best in the region.

“Al Ain Zoo is really committed. And in the Middle East, we feel they are one of the leaders,” she said. “They are committed to welfare.”

The IZE was founded in 1972 by a group of European zoo professionals and its aim is to conserve global biodiversity through effective zoo and aquarium programmes.

The conference runs at Al Ain Convention Centre until Thursday.

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Read more:

Hope for Arabian sand cats despite death of three kittens

'Extinct' oryx on the rise thanks to Abu Dhabi-led initiative

Endangered animals of the UAE — in pictures