Breaking the camel's back

Litter is threatening the lives of some of the UAE's most celebrated species

epa08841019 People  ride a camel at a beach in Karachi, Pakistan, 25 November 2020.  EPA/REHAN KHAN
Powered by automated translation

It can start with a single straw, discarded on a beach in Ras Al Khaimah or perhaps left behind after a desert picnic in Dubai. Plastic bags, bottle caps, ropes, textiles and other stray objects all pose the same danger. Indistinguishable from food, they are frequently swallowed by local wildlife, becoming compacted in the digestive tract to form "polybezoars" – hard lumps of synthetic material that can cause serious injury and often death.

A recent paper published in the Journal of Arid Environments by a team of UAE-based researchers investigates the threat of polybezoars caused by pollution to UAE wildlife. The phenomenon, the researchers note, has been found in the digestive tracts of local cattle, sheep, goats, Arabian Oryx and other grazing animals. The most vulnerable among them is the camel.

The waste forms huge lumps inside the animals' stomachs called "polybezoars". The photos show some of these lumps found inside camel skeletons in the desert in the UAE. courtesy: Dr Ulrich Wernery of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai. (To go with Daniel Bardsley)
Synthetic waste forms huge lumps inside the animals' stomachs called polybezoars, such as the one seen here inside a camel skeleton in a desert in the UAE. Courtesy: Dr Ulrich Wernery 

There are over 390,000 camels in the UAE, including wild and domesticated populations. They are the Emirates' pre-eminent grazers, spending up to nine hours each day foraging the country's arid landscape.

As a consequence, they are among the greatest victims of pollution and littering. Of 30,000 camel remains surveyed by the researchers, 300 were found to contain polybezoars. The camels either died suddenly, over period of weeks due to organ failure or over even longer periods as a result of starvation. One in 100 camels in the UAE, the data suggests, may die this way.

Even domesticated camels are susceptible. In recent years, UAE authorities have taken considerable steps to curb the problem of overgrazing, in which domesticated livestock are allowed to forage beyond designated areas. That practice has posed problems for the wider ecosystem, exacerbating desertification. But it also increases the likelihood of domestic camels feeding on pollutants. In July, the Abu Dhabi government instituted grazing permits to help put an end to these practices.

But the core of the issue is not where camels and other animals range. It is rather what they encounter. Littering is a common problem not only in the UAE, but around the world. As Dr Ulrich Wernery, one of the researchers who authored the paper on polybezoars, notes, "It is a worldwide problem and people should be aware about the consequences of leaving litter behind."

In October, Dubai Municipality commenced a five-month desert clean-up operation, deploying over 100 personnel to the effort. In six weeks alone, municipality staff collected approximately 130 tonnes of general waste from the natural landscape.

As the UAE weather cools for the winter and residents escape to nature, the level of waste in the desert is at risk of increasing. As Abdulmajeed Saifaie, Dubai's director of waste management, told The National last week, municipality workers are on alert for refuse left behind from barbecues and hiking trips.

The responsibility to care for the environment and to protect wildlife, however, must not rest with government alone. As Mr Saifaie points out, visitors to the desert have a duty to demonstrate social responsibility by cleaning up after themselves. We are all responsible for taking care of our environment.

The Emirates is a refuge, with people drawn from every corner of the earth to seek opportunity and a better life. But it is a refuge for its wildlife, too. Camels, like other animals evolved in the deserts of the Gulf, are as hardy as they are adaptable. Nonetheless, even they cannot withstand the pressures created by the negligence of a few.