x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Great deserts at your doorstep

The Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort hopes to replicate some of the world's most magnificent landscapes.

An artist's impression of what the new Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort will look like, the first phase of which will be completed in two years' time.
An artist's impression of what the new Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort will look like, the first phase of which will be completed in two years' time.

AL AIN // An ambitious project is under way here to transform a traditional zoo into a wildlife park that will replicate the world's great deserts. It would be the largest wildlife park in the Middle East and the only one of its kind in the world.

"It's the hottest thing going on in the zoo world," says Mike Maunder, director of collections, conservation, horticulture and education at Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort, formerly known as Al Ain Zoo. The project promises to display the animals, plants and landscapes of the North Kenya, Kalahari, North Sahara, Arabian and Central Asian deserts, as well as a resort and residential project, in a non-profit operation to be spread across 900 hectares. Another exhibit, the World's Deserts Zoo, will present wildlife from the Sonoran, on the US-Mexican border, and from Australian deserts.

According to Dr Frederic Launay, executive director at the wildlife park, the development was envisaged by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. It also has the backing of the Government of Abu Dhabi, which is financing the project at an undisclosed cost. The scheme was conceived in 2005, and in 2007 was folded into the Al Ain 2030 plan. It broke ground last month, launching a three-phase development expected to be completed within five years. It will offer three safari parks, each with an accompanying four- or five-star hotel, a residential lodge, 1,000 villas, a natural history museum, an arid botanical garden, small encampments and a commercial complex featuring stores, office space and residential apartments - all to be powered by solar panels.

When the first phase is complete in two years, 200 villas will border on replicas of the Central Asian, North Saharan, North Kenyan and Kalahari deserts. "Imagine being in the backyard barbecuing and having giraffes and elephants walking past you in their natural habitat," Mr Maunder said. Some villas, which can be bought, will have swimming pools. Holidaymakers will be able to rent bungalows. Invisible barriers will be installed to keep the animals separated from the public.

The second phase, scheduled to be completed in four years, includes further development of the African and Arabian desert safari areas and the World Deserts exhibit. It also visualises the building of more villas and the commercial complex. The final phase, taking five years, should mark the completion of all the deserts, Asian safari and Asian residential areas. When construction is complete, the resort will be the largest wildlife park in the Middle East and one of the top 10 in the world, Mr Maunder said.

The original zoo at Al Ain will remain open during the building work and has been upgraded with additional exhibits including night openings. When the first phase is completed, the zoo will be turned into a conservation and breeding centre and the new wildlife park and resort will be open to the public. "This project," Dr Launay said, "is about conservation, and supporting the animals and plants."

The wildlife park already has 183 species under its care. There are 4,300 animals, of which 30 per cent are endangered. The project will continue the tradition of breeding endangered species, which has characterised Al Ain Zoo since it was founded by the late Sheikh Zayed, founding President of the UAE. Animals bred at Al Ain park are being exchanged for captive breeding with zoos around the world, with an increasing number returning to their natural habitat.

"We will continue with the work we have been doing to breed animals that are endangered and reintroduce them into the wild," Mr Maunder said. Working with Environment Abu Dhabi, Al Ain Wildlife Park recently bred a number of Arabian oryx and flew them to Jordan. There they are free to roam, as they were before they were hunted almost to extinction. In keeping with the Government's commitments, the park will aim to educate its visitors on wildlife, sustainability and conservation.

"The purpose of this park is to exhibit and interpret scientific, cultural and emotional links for visitors and residents as to why the desert is important," Mr Maunder said. "The wildlife park and resort will teach visitors about conservation and sustainable living and will allow them to experience it. Through it we hope to develop answers for the future." Prior to the first phase, staff removed trees and boxed them to be replanted elsewhere. They also went to the construction area and painstakingly removed all of the spine-tailed lizards so they would not be crushed by bulldozers.

The first phase will see the construction of the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre, a 12,000-square-metre subterranean natural history museum where visitors can learn about palaeontology, archaeology and the anthropology of the UAE. The park team recognises that the desert is home to millions of people worldwide who depend upon its fragile soils, water and grazing, so the new reserve will be a testing ground for conserving and restoring deserts.

"The learning centre is a tribute to the late Sheikh Zayed, who saw and spoke of the importance of the connection of the people with the land," Mr Maunder said. "The desert is home to 80 million people. Civilisations have been born in it." The chief of development for the project is Halima al Hamadi, an Emirati woman working with a number of companies including Valley Crest, EDSA Designs, CH2M HILL and Wade Adams General Contracting. Also involved are the Zoological Society of San Diego, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

ealghalib@thenational.ae