x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Taking paradise public

Sir Bani Yas Island, once the exclusive domain of its wildlife inhabitants and guests of the reserve's founder, Sheikh Zayed, is open to visitors.

The island's herd of Scimitar-horned Oryx is one of the largest in the world, numbering more than 4,000 animals.
The island's herd of Scimitar-horned Oryx is one of the largest in the world, numbering more than 4,000 animals.

Even getting to Sir Bani Yas Island is an adventure. We have come to visit the wildlife reserve, created 20 years ago by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the late founder of the nation, as a private retreat and sanctuary for rare Asiatic and African species and now opened to the public. But we get our first glimpse of animal magic only moments after our boat pushes off from the jetty at Jebel Dhanna for the short voyage to the reserve.

No sooner has our guide mentioned that dugongs live in these waters than we see a flash of light brown against the silver-blue glitter of the midday sea and one of the gentle giants surfaces nearby. The skipper stops the engine and, as we drift, we are surrounded by several of the creatures, swimming languidly either side of the boat. There are five, maybe six of them, including what seems to be a young one, sticking close to its mother.

They are not as graceful or as agile as dolphins, but they have charm to spare and, in a matter of seconds, transform a boatload of professionals into a gaggle of bewitched schoolchildren. Ten minutes later, we set foot on the island teeming with endangered species, including antelope, gazelle, giraffe and emu. Sheikh Zayed visited the place often, frequently bringing with him important visitors or members of the Royal Family. Now this island paradise is being opened up to the public, thanks to an initiative from the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the privately operated development arm of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

An old building on the island has been converted into the Desert Islands Resort and Spa, a 64-room, five-star hotel from which guests can explore the island's 87 square kilometres and visit some of its permanent guests. Beautifully designed in the Arabian style, the hotel is evocative of a hunting lodge, but no one will come here to hunt. Instead, visitors will be able to take wildlife tours and enjoy a range of activities, including mountain biking, kayaking, hiking and snorkelling.

But the main attraction will be the animals; 23 species of mammals live on the island, which is home to no fewer than 10,000 animals. Some, such as the sand gazelle, also known as the reem, roam free; others, such as the hyenas, are restricted to large enclosures of several acres. Few of the animals are shy, making this a perfect place for lovers of wildlife; after all, they are fed and given water by people every day.

The collection includes more than 30 giraffes; blackbuck antelope, native to India, Pakistan and Nepal; the urial, a wild sheep with reddish-brown fur and large horns found in Iran, Kazakhstan and South-west Pakistan; and Barbary sheep from North Africa. There are very few other places in the world, apart from zoos, where many of the animals living on Sir Bani Yas Island can be seen. Take the Arabian oryx. Famous for its white colour and distinctively shaped horns, it once roamed the peninsula deserts in large herds, covering thousands of kilometres as they followed the rains.

It is an all-too-familiar story, but the expansion of man's domain and the subsequent destruction of the oryx's habitat, compounded by widespread hunting and competition from domestic animals, drove the animal from the region, where it was declared extinct in the wild in 1972. More than 300 oryx, however, can be found on the island and the herd's significance extends far beyond its curiosity value; when the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi released 98 last year into a newly protected area near the border with Saudi Arabia, some of the animals came from the Sir Bani Yas herd.

Altogether, there are more than 10,000 animals on the island, and looking after them requires a lot of work - and food. As most are herbivores, feeding on grass and shrubs, they consume a tremendous amount of vegetation. For example, the eland - the biggest antelope in the world - eats the equivalent of three per cent of its body weight each day, and there are more than 500 of them. Even though there are more than three million trees on Sir Bani Yas Island, there is not enough natural vegetation to feed all its inhabitants. Every day about 30 tonnes of food - Rhodes grass, alfalfa, concentrated deer pellets - are brought on to the island, making the reservation an important customer for farmers in Liwa and on nearby Dalma Island.

Between them, every day the island's human and animal populations consume eight million gallons of water. Although many of the animals are roam free, guests will find themselves supervised for the sake of the all-important wildlife and habitat. Marius Prinsloo, manager of conservation and agricultural services at TDIC, manages a team of 35 people who take care of the animals, but in addition there are guides, mostly from overseas, for the visitors.

Knowledgeable and friendly, they stick to the rules and impose them, politely but firmly. Before we set off to kayak through one of the island's several mangrove areas, Yana, the Slovakian woman supervising our expedition, warns us to avoid damaging the trees with our paddles. The roots which rise above the surface of the water help the trees to breathe and disturbing them can damage the mangroves significantly.

We paddle carefully, but a Swiss journalist who recently visited the resort fell foul of her guide for the apparently innocent act of tossing an apple core over the side. Yes, she was told, it may be biodegradable, but it still presented a potential threat to the wild animals which had never encountered such a thing. Not that the animals are always their own best friends. As we admire a herd of Arabian oryx, feeding peacefully on heaps of dry grass, we see that one of the animals is limping. Closer inspection reveals a purple patch on its side. Mr Prinsloo explains that the animal, a male, received a stab wound in a fight with a rival; the purple is the colour of the antiseptic cream with which it has been treated. While in nature there are many more female oryx than male, the ratio in this herd is close to 50/50, which does lead to the occasional disagreement.

The TDIC plans to develop the island further to increase its potential as an eco-tourism destination. Forty of the 87 square kilometres will be set aside and fenced off to create the Arabian Wildlife Park, where rare animals native to the Arabian peninsula will roam free. Mr Prinsloo and his team are currently trying to determine how many can be supported by the natural vegetation of the island alone.

Another step, which will help to create a more natural habitat on the island, will be to introduce carnivores into the ecosystem and, by freeing them to prey on sick and ageing animals, allow nature to control populations. Already, six striped hyenas have been brought over. "They came as babies and we are rehabilitating them and teaching them how to survive," says Mr Prinsloo. They are not dining at will just yet. "It is a whole process of 're-wilding' them," he says. Home for now for the hyenas is a four-hectare enclosure but they are likely to be released into a larger area within 18 months.

Some of the creatures now on the island will not be there for much longer. As the fence for the Arabian Wildlife Park is being constructed, the TDIC is working with the emirate's environment agency to work out what to do with the rare species not native to the UAE. "The obvious choice will be live capture and translocating to a place with similar interest," says Mr Prinsloo. In the meantime, it is hoped that more human visitors will come to the island. In addition to the hotel, there are plans for a small development of lodges and from next year it will be possible to take day trips to the island.