Seeing Abu Dhabi’s urban foxes in a whole new light
ABU DHABI // Amid the rising concrete and shimmering skyscrapers of Reem Island, an Australian biologist has found an unlikely ally for wildlife conservation.
Rob Gubiani has spent six months befriending an Arabian red fox and documenting its adaptation to a rapidly changing urban habitat.
“They’re not going to be here for a long time,” said Mr Gubiani, a terrestrial ecologist for Tebodin and former conservation researcher for UAE University.
“From what I can tell, Reem Island is going to end up like JBR. They’re basically just going to disappear into the depths of concrete so I’m hoping that my photos can just bring some light to it and be a record.”
The Arabian red fox (Vulpes vulpes arabica) is a common but elusive subspecies of the European red fox.
“Urban foxes are resourceful. They will eat anything and are very attuned to living among people,” said Mr Gubiani. “Fox survival is the epitome of urbanisation because human encroachment just takes up so much space.”
He spent three months gaining the fox’s trust after studying its home range before he began to photograph it at a distance of 10 metres. He often follows the fox four nights a week, and for hours on weekends.
To establish familiarity, he wears the same clothes and uses identical vocalisations at each encounter, including his usual line, “how’s it going, Mr Fox?”
Reem Island foxes make the most of an island under construction. They use structural walls as perimeter lines to yield prey and rest under bulldozers for shade. Mr Gubiani’s fox found a young female and fathered a litter in February.
Foxes’ adaptability also make them much maligned. In the Emirates, they have a reputation for attacking goats and are killed on sight.
“Anything with foxes is very negative,” said Mr Gubiani. “The old saying ‘cunning as a fox’ says it all, but from what I’ve seen, they have to be cunning because they’ve been persecuted for a long time. It’s a matter of survival. I think that people couldn’t be more wrong, to be honest.”
Mr Gubiani is one for supporting the underdog. For two and a half years, he worked with UAE University on a Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) conservation project. The black bird is reviled by fisherman and long overlooked by conservationists despite a fast-dwindling population.
“I seem to pick the animals that everyone hates,” said Mr Gubiani. “The fox I’ve been following is very patient and very calm. He’s never snarled, he’s never growled. He’s very shy. He’ll run away rather than run towards me. In the three years I’ve been watching foxes on Reem, the mothers are very caring, they watch over their cubs and are very affectionate. There’s never been any aggression towards me or towards other people.
“It’s a bit of a fear of the unknown. It’s not the kind of animal that gets a lot of publicity. A picture just shows that they’re not all blood-licked, ravenous dogs.”
Urban foxes face threats from dogs, poisoning, traffic and competition from cats. Studies in other countries show that due to fewer resources, urban foxes will roam large areas.
Mr Gubiani believes Reem Island’s foxes cover a home range area of three to four football fields, with significant overlap.
He researched urban fox habitat and diet in Australia as an undergraduate. There, foxes are an introduced species. In the Emirates, indigenous foxes play an important regulatory role
“The fox has a place in the food chain, as all animals do, and it needs to be respected,” said Dr Jacky Judas, research manager at Wadi Wurayah National Park (Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF). “By eating rodents they’re regulating the population numbers of wild mice, of gerbils.
“In urban environments you have so many rats or mice, which live close to humans, and foxes could contribute to regulate these populations.”
Red foxes in the Emirates have a healthy population. Mr Gubiani’s photos are a reminder that wildlife can be found in the most urban environments, be it gazelles on Saadiyat Island or picture-winged flies found in back gardens.
“We need to understand we have altered the environment where animals have lived for many, many years and we have intruded into their natural habitat,” said Dr Salim Javed, manager of terrestrial assessment and conservation at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD).
“What we need to do is respect their space and give them what they need to live and coexist with us.”
To raise awareness, the EAD created a GIS (geographic information system) app where people can submit descriptions and photographs of plants and animals to scientists for identification. The app, first developed for the 2013-14 student Urban Biodiversity Challenge, is online for public use.
The Reem Island fox photos can help engagement, Dr Javed said.
“Whatever is there we need to look at it, document it and appreciate it. Any documentation certainly is valuable. We need to sensitise people about certain species, even if they are seen as not good for the environment or as a nuisance.”
For more images from Mr Gubiani, visit www.robgubiani.com.
Updated: April 18, 2015 04:00 AM