Camping in the desert can be one of the great pleasures of life in the UAE, with a night or two under the stars making for the perfect winter weekend.
While in the desert – or even in urban areas – there is a small risk of encountering a venomous snake, scorpion or spider.
Johannes Els, head of herpetology (snakes and reptiles) and freshwater fish at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, said snakes and scorpions will not attack and will remain still or flee if they feel threatened.
He said keeping a safe distance from the animal will allow it to continue with its activity.
Here, we highlight what to look out for and what to do in the event of a bite or sting.
Which venomous snakes are in the UAE?
The UAE has 13 native species of snakes, but the four viper species are of concern. Medical attention after being bitten by one of these is particularly important, even if death is unlikely.
The four vipers have triangular heads that are clearly distinct from the neck, and a thick body.
The Arabian horned viper (Cerastes gasperettii gasperettii) – also known as the sand viper – is common in sandy habitats, even those with the lowest rainfall, between sea level and 400 metres elevation.
The Sindh saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus sochureki) lives in higher-rainfall areas in sandy and gravel bed habitats north of Abu Dhabi city up into Ras Al Khaimah, and in a narrow strip along the east coast.
“It’s also frequently encountered in urban environments, where it takes advantage of the abundance of water and refuge, often going undetected in close proximity to human activity for years or its entire existence,” Mr Els said.
The Oman carpet viper or Hajar saw-scaled viper (Echis omanensis) is restricted to the rocky and gravel habitats of the Hajar Mountains and Jebel Hafeet and is found from sea level to 1,000 metres.
“This species is particularly abundant in wadis with permanent surface water and is relatively common in other areas,” Mr Els said.
Rarely encountered, the Persian horned viper (Pseudocerastes persicus) lives in the Hajar Mountains from sea level up to 1,400 metres.
Mr Els said there have been no recorded deaths in the UAE from snake bites for more than a decade, and incidents are rare.
Resembling a snake, the Zarudny’s worm lizard (Diplometopon zarudnyi) is often persecuted in the belief that it may be dangerous, but is actually a harmless lizard without legs.
It lives underground but may be encountered at night, when it comes to the surface, or found when dug up during ground works.
Which spiders and scorpions should residents look out for?
Of the UAE’s numerous scorpion species, there are two that people are most likely to encounter.
The Arabian thick-tailed scorpion (Androctonus crassicauda), which is found in the sandy deserts and the Hottentotta jayakari, which is more abundant and typically located in mountainous areas, sometimes found under stones.
Both are nocturnal, so are active at night and seek shelter during the day.
Tailless whip scorpions (members of the order Amblypygi) are also found in the UAE. Living in the Hajar Mountains, they look frightening but are harmless.
“Scorpion stings during summer months do occur, especially when they go unnoticed crawling around or taking refuge in shoes or underneath material placed on the ground,” Mr Els said.
However, for most healthy people, these do not cause serious complications unless there is an allergic reaction of the type that can happen after even a bee or wasp sting.
Spiders to look out for are nocturnal and live closer to settlements. Generally shy and fragile, they can bite for defence.
Red-backed spiders (of the Latrodectus genus) can cause bites that result in pain, vomiting or sweating.
Mr Els said antivenom is not kept in this region, but a study by Australian researchers, presented at a conference in Dubai in 2013, found that the antivenom was no more effective than paracetamol.
The violin spider or brown recluse spider (from the Loxosceles genus) is the most venomous spider in the Middle East and has been reported in the UAE several times.
The bites of the violin spider can cause tissue death or necrosis, and press reports from August reported that a 19-year-old Briton bitten by one of the spiders in Ibiza was going to have two fingers amputated. Deaths are rare, however, and no bites have been recorded in the UAE.
More common than the red-backed spider and the violin spider is the yellow sac spider, which lives in parks, gardens and houses and is active at night.
“It is uncomfortable to get bitten by these spiders. The pain stays for a day or a few days then heals itself,” Mr Els said.
The UAE has two toad species, the Arabian toad (Sclerophrys arabica) and the Dhofar toad (Duttaphrynus dhufarensis). Neither is poisonous, but Mr Els said they should not be touched, as this could harm the creatures.
How much of a risk are spiders in the UAE and what should you do if bitten or stung?
While the prospect of being bitten or stung by a snake, scorpion or spider can be frightening, the risks are low, especially if the creatures are left alone.
“All of these animals will not attack and prefer to remain motionless or flee if they suspect they have been detected by a potential threat. Maintaining a safe distance and moving away and around the animal will allow it to continue with its activity,” Mr Els said.
The advice is to be vigilant when outdoors and to look before touching things or stepping anywhere.
After a bite or sting, the advice is to seek medical attention and avoid “home-made” treatments, such as cutting or sucking the bite area, as this may cause infection. Also, only medicines prescribed by a doctor should be taken.
Snakes or scorpions found in urban areas should not be harmed and Mr Els advised relocation by a wildlife expert to prevent an accidental bite or sting.
“In most cases, these animals are attracted by the presence of water or the abundance of a food source,” he said.
While certain animals in the UAE can pose a risk to people, human activity can harm wildlife.
Mr Els advised anyone visiting the desert to take rubbish home because plastic waste particularly can pose a risk to animals. Sticking to existing roads reduces environmental harm.
“This avoids damaging or destroying vegetation, which provides a valuable refuge for several species,” he said.
This article was first published on February 12, 2022.