The need to control the introduction of alien species

They can damage both the environment and the native plants and animals that live within it

Every few years, there’s a major change in the nature of the UAE’s development or, at least, in how it is implemented. The process takes place gradually, building up impetus as it goes.

Later, looking back, that change seems immutable. It is now 18 months since the Covid-19 pandemic first arrived here. For many, working from home has become normal, along with remote meetings. These will become part of everyday life, even if other features of the Covid-19 world, such as less travel, may slowly disappear.

That change has happened because the UAE had already embraced another great change – the adoption of modern technology, computer skills and the internet. One change emerged because of technological advances, and the other made use of such advances to cope with a new world.

The way in which the UAE has embraced change, of course, is part of the country’s strength. Many years ago, the country’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, called for an openness of mind in the way that we looked at the rest of the world. It was essential, he noted, that we should study the civilisations of others, and select for ourselves those aspects that were suitable. Not an ad hoc adoption of the ways of others, but a process of careful choice.

That’s been a fundamental element of how the UAE has moved forward. Indeed, in an increasingly interconnected world, it not only helps us to grow but we now have innovations of our own that other countries seek to adopt.

I do believe, however, that there is room for some of the lessons learned elsewhere in a field in which the UAE is already actively involved – the protection of our environment – to be more effectively implemented here.

Over the years, we have made great strides in terms of environmental conservation. When the UAE’s oil industry got under way, over half a century ago, lengths of drill-pipe and masses of other waste were discarded as scrap. Natural gas was flared into the atmosphere.

Adnoc and its subsidiaries have expended great efforts to clean-up the waste that had been left in the desert. The flaring of gas has ended. The Founding Father Sheikh Zayed stopped that practice and the UAE was among the first countries to take action against gas flaring. Now, environmental studies are carried out before any major projects can be approved. That practice has spread from the oil industry to other sectors of the economy.

Out of that and other steps has emerged the objective of trying to achieve sustainability, a balance between exploiting resources and preserving the environment, in line with global targets. “Sustainability” may seem like a “feel-good” objective, but it is a difficult one to achieve. Studies and impact assessments are all very well, identifying what there is of value in our environment and what is worth protecting. Being realistic, though, we cannot hope to protect everything. Years ago, when I worked on environmental studies for oil and water pipelines across the Hajar Mountains to Fujairah, I knew that some things of value were being sacrificed. That was sad, but necessary.

epaselect epa07244602 A snorkler identifies species growing on the hull of a ship during a marine biology survey in the Indian Ocean in False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa, 22 December 2018. Lead by Professor Colin Attwood from the University of Cape Town (UCT) a marine biology survey has been running each year for the past seven years by marine biology students and interested snorklers. In a designated area of the Simonstown harbour marine species are identified and logged. This information helps establish a pattern of change in the marine ecosystem over the years. Of particular interest is the vast number of alien species which proliferate in the harbour due to foreign visiting vessels which carry species from across the oceans into Southern African waters.  EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA ATTENTION: This Image is part of a PHOTO SET *** Local Caption *** 54856401

Having recognised the importance of protecting our environment, authorities are doing their bit to limit the dangers of introducing any new species, plants or animals, into an alien environment. But more can be done.

It is an issue that's long been recognised, here and in other parts of the world. In the 19th century, when British settlers immigrated to New Zealand, they took with them numerous species of fauna and flora from home. One result was the devastation of much of the local wildlife. Many native species became extinct, others survived only on offshore islands.

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The UAE’s commitment to conservation and protection of the environment is laudable

There are numerous other examples. Rabbits in Australia, introduced from Britain, for example, which cause millions of dollars of damage a year to crops. In Britain, introduced grey squirrels threaten the survival of the native red squirrel while introduced mink have nearly wiped out the native water vole and threaten some native fish populations.

Alien introductions have had an impact here, too. Numerous species of birds from Africa, Asia and elsewhere are still being released without attention being paid to the potential long-term effects.

Introductions such as these are best avoided. On that, the scientific evidence is quite clear: it can damage both the environment and the native plants and animals that live within it.

The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, EAD, has carried out campaigns to reduce the numbers of crows and common mynas, introduced birds that compete with our own native species. That’s an important step. It has also drawn up a list of introduced plants that are now spreading in the wild, and is monitoring their spread.

The UAE’s commitment to conservation and protection of the environment is laudable, both locally and internationally. There remains, however, a gap in terms of the introduction of alien species of plants, birds or other animals. I hope that even tighter controls can be established, and effectively implemented.

Published: August 17th 2021, 9:00 AM
Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National