Our flora sometimes need protection from our fauna

Dozens of rare species of plants have been found thriving outside areas where camels and goats graze

May 19, 2014, RAK, UAE: 

A Wadi in Ras Al Khaimah  risks being flattened. No official reason has been given yet but evidence of quarrying is abundant throughout this rare piece of nature in the UAE. 

Wild goats take shade under a tree.

Lee Hoagland/The National

While I have enjoyed the cooler temperatures, clouds and occasional heavy showers that have characterised my summer in my other home of Jersey, I am a bit disappointed to have missed the summer rains that have lashed parts of the Emirates. They’re not unusual, particularly in or close to the mountains, but appear to have been more frequent and heavier this year.

That’s all to the good. Anything that replenishes our over-exploited groundwater resources is to be welcomed. There will be a short-lived spurt of growth by plant life in the areas affected by the rains, even if the continuing heat will burn much of that off fairly quickly. In turn, a variety of species of wildlife, bugs, butterflies and more will also benefit.

Taking a longer term view, though, any benefits for the UAE’s environment and to our plants and animals that arise from the rainfall are likely to be quickly outweighed by the continuing negative impacts from a wide range of factors. Some are obvious – like the continued and inevitable expansion of towns and cities or the building of new roads across previously pristine mountains and deserts.

Other impacts are less well-known to the general public. Subsidies for the keeping of camels, for example, have meant that the fragile vegetation in desert areas is being heavily overgrazed. In the mountains and adjacent plains, grazing pressure from goats has meant that much of the natural vegetation has simply disappeared, not just in terms of quantity but also in terms of its diversity.

In the 1970s, when, if asked, Abu Dhabi Municipality would provide shrubs and plants, free of charge, to anyone living in the growing city who had a little garden, or even a balcony

The figures here are quite remarkable and really rather shocking. A couple of years ago, Tribulus, the scientific journal of the Emirates Natural History Group in Abu Dhabi, where I have been editor for more than 25 years, published a study of part of the Wadi Ghalilah in Ras Al Khaimah, written by Dr Mohammed Shahid of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). In five small farms, no longer cultivated but still fenced, Dr Shahid found a total of 74 species of plants, about 9 per cent of the total number known in the country. At least one was not known of anywhere else in the country.  Outside those farms, in areas to which goats had access, only two species, unpalatable to the goats, had survived.

Against a backdrop of depressing statistics such as this, it was good to read the other day that the Liwa city services division in Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra region has launched a programme to grow more than 20 species of local trees and other plants for distribution to the public and for use by other government bodies. That reminded me of a programme in the 1970s, when, if asked, Abu Dhabi Municipality would provide shrubs and plants, free of charge, to anyone living in the growing city who had a little garden, or even a balcony.

The programme in Liwa, though, has one difference. It is focused on native plants, whose numbers in the wild are shrinking because of development, over-grazing, a declining water table, or a combination of those and other factors.

Once planted away from the nursery in which they are raised, these species, including the UAE’s national tree, the ghaf, should help to replenish our native stocks – provided, of course, that, in their young and tender years, they are protected against marauding goats and camels.

The Liwa programme is further evidence that the government clearly recognises the threat to the UAE’s environment.

Over recent decades, knowledge of the broad biodiversity of the Emirates has expanded enormously. Research by bodies such as the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, the ICBA and universities has been complemented by the efforts of many volunteer citizen scientists, such as members of various natural history groups. Indeed, the groups in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain have been collecting data for more than 35 years, before any official environment department was even created. As a result, the UAE’s flora and fauna is one of the best-studied in Arabia.

That doesn't mean that there is nothing new to find. Tribulus frequently publishes notes on species newly discovered in the country.

There is, however, sufficient knowledge of our plants as well as of most of the various groups of animals, including birds, to provide a baseline of information. Building upon that, a properly informed strategy for conservation has been developed. Further work is under way. The Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment, for example, recently held a workshop, attended by both UAE and foreign scientists, to assess the conservation status of a range of plant and animal species.

The future of the UAE’s biodiversity, both onshore and offshore, is far from secure. Studies carried out over many years have meant that we can recognise the key challenges. The task now is to tackle them.

There’s a clear need to reduce the numbers of goats and camels ravaging our plant life. There is plenty of information about the decline in stocks of fish such as hammour because of overfishing. Effective, long-term conservation of the environment requires some tough, unpopular decisions. Perhaps we should anticipate their eventual arrival.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Peter Hellyer

Peter Hellyer

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