x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Sharjah's treasure trove of natural wonders

The emirate's natural history and botanical museum tells the rock, flora and animal history of the world.

The Sharjah Natural History and Botanical Museum has more than 84  varieties of plants and trees that were believed to have existed about the time of the dinosaurs.
The Sharjah Natural History and Botanical Museum has more than 84 varieties of plants and trees that were believed to have existed about the time of the dinosaurs.

SHARJAH // Rupali Karnik's garden of rare and preserved desert plants rarely gets any visitors - aside, that is, from the large but timid desert monitors who bask in the early morning sun before hiding away in their burrows.

Containing more than 84 species of wild desert plants, this expanse is one of the main botanical gardens at the Sharjah Natural History and Botanical Museum. Entry to this museum, and all others in the emirate, is free from today until Sunday to mark International Museums Day. The Sharjah museum houses galleries, workshops and interactive exhibits on the history of the Earth and its people and animals, as well as a section devoted to the life of plants and their relationship to humans.

"People take plants for granted and rarely take the time to visit and learn about them," Ms Karnik said. She has worked as the museum's botanist for 10 years, quietly collecting rare plants until the botanical section officially opened to the public in 2008. The museum was set up in 1995 after the Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, declared that this patch of desert on the road between Sharjah and Al Dhaid should be a natural reserve for the protection for the "al dabb" desert monitor and other desert animals and plants.

She said the desert monitor was "being hunted down unscrupulously and there were fears of it becoming extinct if something wasn't done about it". She added: "Now, you can find them taking a stroll in the garden together with the birds and other creatures that live here and pop over for a visit." Walking through the garden, Ms Karnik recited the Latin names of each of the plants and their benefits that were exploited by the Bedouin.

"This wealth of knowledge is fading away, and plants that cure headaches and infections are being crushed and driven over by cars or simply discarded as garbage," she said. Ziziphus spina-christi, locally known as sedar, was a local favourite. Its long seeds were eaten, and its leaves boiled and used as a hair conditioner. The milky fluid inside the leaves of Calotropis procera - al ashkhar - was used as a disinfectant. The roots of Salvadora persica - the al meswak tree - were used to make toothbrushes. Several of the desert plants, like "al ghaf", were used as a spice in local dishes and food for livestock.

"Perhaps it is their difficult names that prevent people from getting attached to them," Ms Karnik said. Beyond the desert plants is a reconstructed wadi, where the plants are home to birds, fluttering orange plain tiger butterflies and red dragonflies. Also in the wadi: a growing number of sweet-water fish, which were introduced a few years ago from a river in the mountains. "It is a just a piece of heaven here," Ms Karnik said. "Every shrub and piece of grass has a name and a purpose."

Opposite, inside the museum, is a different kind of garden altogether - a prehistoric one. Amid the sounds of storms and growling dinosaurs is a humid and cool Cretaceous-period forest, containing varieties of plants and trees that were believed to have lived around the time of the dinosaurs, more than 100 million years ago, yet survive to this day. Equisetum (horsetails) and cycads, which look like ferns and palm trees, as well as white water lilies, were imported from around the world and planted here to showcase some of the world's oldest types of trees and plants.

Green algae, the ancestor of all plants, is 300 million years old, but flowering plants did not begin to flourish until around 100 million years ago, during the age of the dinosaurs. Various dinosaur footprints are carved into the floor of this area. "The dinosaurs are the most popular section of the museum, and so we incorporated that into the botanical section to draw the full picture of how the dinosaurs may have lived," said Salma al Tayb, the museum's curator.

Children flock to the dinosaur exhibit in the museum, many of them to rub the 2.5-metre leg bone of a sauropod. "They know their names by heart and even have their favourite dinosaur and list everything they know about it," Ms al Tayb said. Even after 10 years as curator, she still gets questions that she has to go back and research. Most of the 5,000-8,000 visitors each month are schoolchildren, she said. She would like to see more adults give the museum a chance. "You would be surprised what you would find here," she said.

Some of the exhibits visitors can expect to see inside the museum include a 173-year-old oak tree, with an explanation on how to interpret its life story and age; halls of fossils from several historic periods; and rare displays of some of the oldest rocks on Earth a gneissic rock from Canada estimated to be four billion years old and the oldest rock in the UAE, a 600-million-year-old lump of volcanic ash from Sir Bani Yas Island.

Ms al Tayb likes to save for the end what she considered the most fun part of a visit there a digital reading on the wall which is measuring a very, very long-term event. "This measures how far Sharjah is moving towards Khartoum [in Sudan]," she said. "We expect in a couple of millions of years for our land to be where Africa is now." Each year, she said, the UAE moves around a centimetre towards the African continent. Since it was set up in 1995, the counter has registered around 15cm of movement.

"Everything is interconnected, and history repeats itself," Ms al Tayb said. "So it would be a shame not to know our own planet's history and where it is heading." rghazal@thenational.ae