x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

In Remembrance: A lover, and great observer, of the natural UAE

Simon Aspinall, who lovingly recorded vast amounts of information about the birds and other wildlife of the UAE and the region, has died in England. He was 53.

Simon Aspinall doing a survey in Jebel Akhdar, Oman in 2005. Photographer Nick Moran / Courtesy Peter Hellyer
Simon Aspinall doing a survey in Jebel Akhdar, Oman in 2005. Photographer Nick Moran / Courtesy Peter Hellyer

Simon Aspinall, a leading environmentalist and author of books related to research on and protection of wildlife in the UAE, died at his home in Norfolk, England on October 31 after a valiant struggle against motor neurone disease. He was 53.

Mr Aspinall came to the UAE in 1993 to work at the National Avian Research Centre, now part of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) after working with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

Throwing himself into field research, he soon joined the Emirates Bird Records Committee. He quickly began publishing, and by late 1994 he had written or co-authored 10 papers and book chapters, including the UAE chapter in BirdLife International’s Important Bird Areas in the Middle East, establishing the Emirates on the map of regional ornithology. In 1996, came his first book, Status & Conservation of the Breeding Birds of the United Arab Emirates.

In 1997, he struck out on his own as an ecological consultant. He also led studies for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey,or  ADIAS, relying on his keen eye to identify many new archaeological and fossil sites.

As environmental surveys became increasingly a matter of standard practice, Mr Aspinall rapidly built up his consultancy business, working with BirdLife International and Unesco on plans for nature reserves and biosphere reserves in Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq.

But his primary interest remained birds. In the last two years alone,  his books included a third edition of Breeding Birds of the UAE, and, with colleagues, the highly-acclaimed second edition of Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East, the official Checklist of the Birds of the United Arab Emirates, Birds of the UAE and, to be released this month, the Field Guide to the Birds of the United Arab Emirates. All were sponsored by EAD.

More than an author, Mr Aspinall was also a relentless observer. He was the first person to have recorded 400 bird species in the UAE, out of a current total of 448, and was  the finder of first record for a remarkable 23 species.

Mr Aspinall was never, however, interested only in birds. He was fascinated by terrestrial ecology and by palaeontology; he made several major Late Miocene fossil finds in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. And this led to more books. In 2004, he was co-editor of Jebel Hafit – A Natural History, followed the next year by another joint production, The Emirates: A Natural History.

His books and more than 100 reports and papers have done much to introduce the country’s environment to an international audience. In 1997, with most of his career in the Emirates ahead of him, he was presented with the Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Award, the UAE’s premier environmental award. And as an engaging and inspiring colleague in the field, he was ever ready to share his expertise with others.

Increasingly crippled by disease, Mr Aspinall last visited the UAE last  November. He remained actively engaged, however, completing his UAE Field Guide in August, serving on the bird records committee until September .

In her introduction to the Field Guide to the Birds of the UAE, the Secretary General of EAD, Razan Al Mubarak, pays this tribute: “I take particular pleasure in acknowledging the contribution made by Simon Aspinall over the last two decades to studies of the UAE’s environment ... His books on the topic, including this one, provide the foundations on which others will be able to build for many, many years to come.”

Other tributes have come from senior UAE officials, conservation organisations throughout the region, from bird watching friends and from those inspired by his books and his conservation efforts.

“We are lucky that we had someone like him,” the Emirati birdwatcher  Khalifa Al Dhaheri said recently. “We are proud that he dedicated himself to document the wildlife of the UAE. RIP, Simon.”

He never married and is survived by his parents, Jack and Sylvia, his brother, Richard, and his sister-in-law Marsailidh.