Umm Al Quwain mangroves illegally cut down by ‘camel farm labourers’
UMM AL QUWAIN // Labourers thought to be from camel farms are illegally cutting down mangrove trees at the Khor Al Beidah wetlands, putting the area’s delicate eco-system and wildlife at risk.
Wood from the trees is being harvested and driven away by men in pick-up trucks, said Zahidah Zeytoun Millie, who lives near the site and has observed the activity for a year.
Foliage from mangrove trees is useful as camel fodder. “Sometimes they cut the branches, other times they cut the whole tree if it is small,” she said.
The pick-ups usually have UAQ licence plates, although some have Dubai plates. Federal law forbids cutting down trees without the permission of authorities.
The mangrove and its adjacent mudflats are home to diverse wildlife and attract tens of thousands of rare migratory birds each year.
As the felling of trees intensifies, its impact on the mangrove is becoming increasingly more destructive, said Zahidah, an artist who exhibits under her first name. “Trucks now drive on the roots to go deeper in the forest,” she said, referring to aerial roots which protrude above the soil and should not be disturbed as they allow the trees to breathe.
“When I talk to the workers about the damage they are doing, they reply ‘it is not us, it is our boss’.”
Zahidah worked with other artists from around the UAE to produce the Mangroves from the Water exhibition that showed in Abu Dhabi last year and will open in Dubai next month. Among those whose work is being shown is Geraldine Chansard, who has also witnessed the damage.
“They go deeper in the forest, opening the forest and they are cutting some very big trees,” said the French visual artist.
Oscar Campbell, a keen birdwatcher and chairman of the Emirates Bird Records Committee, also has seen the trees being brought down. He visited Khor Al Beidah in November last year.
“I saw several pick-up trucks and I had never saw more than one previously,” he said.
Federal law 24 of 1999 prohibits “any activity that damages the quantity or quality of flora in any area”. It is forbidden to cut, uproot or cause damage to any tree, shrub or grass without authorisation from a competent authority.
Zahidah has contacted Umm Al Quwain Municipality on numerous occasions but the activity persisted.
In January, the municipality’s environmental control department caught Asian workers cutting down trees. Photos and videos were handed to police. The case has been transferred to the UAQ public prosecution.
UAQ Municipality did not respond to requests for information.
Mr Campbell said the best way to preserve the site would be to give it protected area status, allowing in visitors but ensuring their behaviour was not disruptive.
“Khor Al Beidah is easily the most important accessible inter-tidal site in the country,” he said. “This is in terms of both numbers of birds and variety.”
Dr Jacky Judas, research manager at the Emirates Wildlife Society World Wide Fund for Nature, said Khor Al Beidah was an excellent candidate to join the prestigious international network of protected sites under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The UAE has five such sites and is hosting the convention’s conference in 2018.
A well-designed protected area would have a management plan that typically includes environmental monitoring and regulations that manage human activities, reducing disturbance and littering and controlling activities such as fishing, hunting and plant collection, said Dr Judas.
“With more sites receiving protection status, the UAE should aim to create a network of connected and well-managed protected areas where biodiversity thrives and best conservation practices are followed,” he said.
The area is home to a variety of birds – including the reef heron, the greater spotted eagle and the crab plover – that attract birdwatchers to Umm Al Quwain.
“Almost every visiting birdwatcher from overseas who comes to the UAE will visit Khor Al Beidah,” said Mr Campbell.
Khor Al Beidah - what is at stake?
The list of birds that call Khor Al Beida home or visit it to feed is long, conservationists say. The mangroves are home to colonies of Reef Herons, said Dr Jacky Judas, research manager at the Emirates Wildlife Society - World Wide Fund for Nature. The site is also important for the wintering of the Greater Spotted Eagle, a species classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
A big draw for birdwatchers is the Crab Plover, said Oscar Campbell, chairman of the Emirates Bird Records Committee. Although the birds breed in neighbouring Iran, up to 400 of them are present in Khor Al Beidah each year.
“There is also an internationally important population of Socotra Cormorants that breed on Sinaiya Island, the barrier island across the mouth of Khor Al Beidah,” he said. “These mostly fish on the open sea but big numbers occasionally occur in the actual estuary.”
The variety and number of birds al already attracting a good number of international visitors to Umm Al Quwain.
“Almost every visiting birdwatcher from overseas who comes to the UAE will visit Khor al Beida” said Mr Campbell.