It has been over four decades since I started to study the UAE’s environment, fauna and flora. When I began, the few others who were out in the field were mainly members of the country’s first environmental non-governmental organisation, the Emirates Natural History Group. An even smaller number were campaigning for conservation.
There was, it is true, encouragement from the very top. The UAE's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, had already emerged as a powerful advocate of conservation. This included measures on land such as the commencement of a captive breeding programme for the Arabian Oryx, which had become extinct in the wild. However, there were also steps being taken to conserve the marine environment.
I recall a speech Sheikh Zayed gave at the first-ever International Conference of Falconry and Conservation in 1977, when he announced a suite of measures designed to protect the environment.
One was an immediate ban on the use of dynamite for fishing, a highly-destructive practice introduced a few years earlier and which was causing severe damage to all native fish species.
In those early years, before there were any government organisations devoted to the environment, being an advocate for conservation was often a depressing task. Yes, those of us who were involved had the thrill of being able to discover and record species of plants and animals in the Emirates. At the same time, however, we observed practices that were enormously damaging to the environment.
In recent decades, much has changed. A large share of the credit goes to the various government agencies, like the Ministry for Climate Change and the Environment and local bodies like the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), and Sharjah's Environment and Protected Areas Authority. While the latter is responsible for carrying out a raft of legislation, they also encourage research programmes.
Scarcely a month goes by without a discovery, whether it be finding one of the rarest birds in the world, a Steppe Whimbrel, another new plant species for the Emirates or the arrival and rescue of an endangered whale shark in Abu Dhabi's Al Raha area.
The protection of our environment continues to gather pace as our nature reserves prove their worth in mountain areas like Wadi Wurayah in Fujairah or in the desert Baynuna area of Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra region. At the same time, programmes to reintroduce endangered wildlife are flourishing, like that for the Arabian Oryx, of which the UAE now has a large proportion of the global population.
Conservation is no longer a niche interest of concern to a few. It is, instead, as Sheikh Zayed wished, not just a part of policy but an interest for many in the country.
Two recent announcements also show how the UAE’s engagement with conservation has broadened, both locally and internationally.
At home, the Baynuna conservation area was initially declared as a protected area to enable the reintroduction of captive-bred houbara. Recent studies by EAD have shown, however, that it is also home to another locally-endangered species, the sand cat. Now it has been selected as the release site for another batch of Arabian Oryx.
The Baynuna area is a good example of the way in which conservation of a habitat can be beneficial across a whole range of species, not just the one for which it was originally designated. Further discoveries will no doubt follow.
Conservation, though, is not just something that can be viewed through the lens of a single country. It presents a global challenge.
I was therefore delighted to read recently that this is to be recognised at next year's Dubai Expo, thanks to an alliance between DP World and the Zoological Society of London.
The Society, whose director Dominic Jermey was British Ambassador to the Emirates between 2010 and 2014, is perhaps best known because of its flagship projects like London Zoo. It also has a worldwide scientific and conservation programme.
Announcing the collaboration, Reem Al Hashimy, director general of Expo 2020 Dubai Bureau and Minister of State for International Co-operation, noted that the Society’s “global work on animal and habitat conservation will help shape our thought-provoking content and conversations,” engaging participants and visitors “on the greatest climate and biodiversity-related challenges of our time to create a lasting legacy of global environmental conservation for decades to come.”
Initiatives at home have seen the UAE rising up the global Environmental Performance Index, where this year the country is the top-ranked performer among the Arab countries of the Middle East.
Initiatives overseas have shown that the UAE recognises that the topic is of global, not just local concern.
It is a far cry from the days when I began to study the local environment, but one which I heartily welcome.
Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National