Visitors to Sharjah Safari will need a keen eye to spot one of the 600 or so animals wandering the property, for the park is four times the size of Monaco.
And that is exactly the spirit of discovery the new attraction’s designers are hoping for in a bid to replicate a real African safari.
Visitors to the Albridi Reserve, almost an hour from Dubai in Al Dhaid City, are in for a treat – as long as they have the patience and an eagle eye to look out for lions, giraffe and rhino roaming the vast landscape.
The 800-hectare park claims to be the largest outside Africa, and has been seven years in the making. It will welcome its first paying visitors this weekend.
Developed by the Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA) in Sharjah in partnership with Maguari-One Zoo and Wildlife Consultants, Sharjah Safari will feature 12 different environments that represent the life and terrain in Africa.
It is the new home for animals and birds with a special section for giraffes, 15 of which were released in the wild to adapt to the safari atmosphere, and another section for rhinos and lions.
South African Kevin Budd is the operations manager for animals at Sharjah Safari and has worked for the EPAA for 24 years.
“In terms of the UAE it is big, but the design and layout is accurate to what you would see – it feels like you are in Africa,” he said.
“Our key species are the eastern black rhino, but there are others also important for conservation. like the giraffe, tortoises and a few unique bird species."
Through the EPAA, the park will become a centre for international captive breeding programmes for key species, and will partner with the European association of zoos and aquaria.
There are areas not on display to the public that will house some of the animals during the hot summer months, but others will remain outside all year round.
"Places like Botswana and the Sahel are hot, but we know it can be even hotter here in the summer, so we have had to be sensitive to that," Mr Budd said.
The park's inhabitants have enough shade, water and food for them to live all year. The more sensitive species will be brought inside for the summer.
Currently, about 600 animals are roaming the park, with about 300 more expected to arrive later this month and in March.
By the end of the year, the numbers are expected to grow to more than 1,000.
“By the time we reopen in October after the summer, we hope to be fully stocked,” Mr Budd said.
"A lot of animals are coming direct from South Africa, or from elsewhere in Europe from zoos we have partnerships with.
“We don’t have the full complement of animals because several shipments have been repeatedly delayed because of the pandemic.
“There was a shortage of cargo freight and a big increase in the associated costs."
When it came to the experience of visiting the park, Mr Budd said that you might feel as though you have travelled abroad.
“This safari is authentic. When you drive around early morning or late in the afternoon, you forget you are in the UAE – it feels as if you are in Africa.”
Depending on the package visitors pay for, there are protected areas where they can leave their vehicles and visit crocodiles and lions on foot.
A bronze ticket for a three-hour walking tour of the park with a guide costs Dh40, and just Dh15 for under 12s.
A silver ticket offers one seat on a six-hour bus tour of the park for over 12s at Dh120. Children under 12 pay just Dh50 for a silver ticket, while groups of 20 or more pay Dh100 each.
For a ride around the park in a luxury car, visitors can buy a gold ticket for Dh275, Dh120 for under 12s or Dh1,500 for a group of six people.
There is a safari camp for vehicles to stop, where guests can buy refreshments and visit other animals.
Security and animal welfare key concerns of designers
A perimeter fence secures the animals inside Sharjah Safari, with each section having its own security boundary to stop animals from leaving the park.
Dr Koen Brouwer of Maguari-One Zoo and Wildlife Consultants, a specialist design company that works with animal enclosures, said the project is unique.
“This was unlike anything we had done before,” he said.
“People can go on a journey to Africa when they visit.
“It was quite challenging, and not just about fencing off 800 hectares and releasing animals – this took seven years of work to create this feeling where animals are comfortable and respected, and guests can have a pleasant and educational visit.
“We had to work with lions and rhinos, so security was very important.
“From day one, we decided to create a separate area for lions where they and the visitors would be safe.”
More than 50,000 browse trees have been planted to provide food for giraffe and antelope, while each area has its own security fence to stop animals breaking out on to the nearby E611.
One animal to look out for is Bridi, the first African female giraffe born at Sharjah Safari, whose parents arrived from South Africa five years ago.
The vastness of the park will make it tricky to spot animals lurking in the undergrowth, but the possibility of snatching a glance of a rare marabou stork or radiator tortoise will make it all worthwhile, Dr Brouwer said.
“Animals have a lot of space in these areas, and a lot of choice, and that is very important for their welfare.
“Safari is supposed to be an adventure of discovery, you are lucky if you see something.
“It is the thrill of driving through the park, with a good guide who can talk about landscape and conservation, as well as the animals.
“This does not happen in a regular zoo, we did not want to create a feeling of seeing nothing but of something totally different – a real adventure.”
Sharjah Safari will be open daily from 8.30am until 6.30pm. Last entry is 2pm for gold and silver ticket holders and 4pm for those with bronze tickets.