Historic Al Wathba fossil dunes granted protected status

The ancient rock formation site is geared up to become a major eco tourism attraction

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One of Abu Dhabi's most remarkable natural wonders will be celebrated for generations to come after a striking fossil dune site stretching back 120,000 years was granted protected status.

The Al Wathba Fossil Dunes Protected Area was inaugurated on Tuesday by Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, Ruler's Representative in Al Dhafra Region and chairman of the board of directors of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

It is the first such protected area in the country and one of a small number to be established across West Asia.

The sprawling beauty spot — about 45 kilometres to the east of Abu Dhabi city — consists of more than 1,700 fossil dunes spread over seven square kilometres.

As well as safeguarding a crucial part of the emirate's heritage, the new status will transform the dunes into a major eco tourism attraction which will open to the public from Saturday.

Sheikh Hamdan enjoyed a tour of the protected area, taking in the main visitor centre that features a viewing area and gallery corner as well as well-lit trails to allow the public to explore the historic site.

He was joined at the inauguration ceremony by Mariam Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, and a number of other senior officials and dignitaries.

"The inauguration of the Fossil Dunes Protected Area comes with the aim of protecting the natural heritage of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and encouraging eco-tourism," said Sheikh Hamdan.

"Abu Dhabi offers a unique diversity in its environments, habitats and natural features with impressive natural formations, including the wonderful fossil dunes.

"These dunes are composed of rare sand formations densely located in Al Wathba area, to the south of Al Wathba Wetland Reserve and can also be found in other areas in the emirate. These fossil dunes have been classified EAD’s Habitat Map and serve as an important habitat for several wildlife species."

He said the environment agency is working closely with partners such as the Department of Municipalities and Transport, Department of Culture and Tourism and Abu Dhabi Waste Management Centre to safeguard the unique site.

The protected area will be open to visitors from 8am to 10pm from Monday to Thursday, with opening times extended by an hour from Friday to Sunday and on official holidays. Entry is free.

Visitors will also be able to enjoy music and light shows from an amphitheatre with a capacity of 200. The area will also be home to food and beverage trucks.

The protected area is to be nominated for listing on Unesco's Global List of Geoparks.

Experts estimate the fossil formations date back to the Ice Ages, which began 2.4 million years ago and lasted until 11,500 years ago. .

What are fossil dunes?

The site was created over thousands of years, when sand swept by the wind mixed with calcium carbonate, causing it to harden and form natural sculptures that rise up from the sand.

Their shape was changed by the wind over time.

The formations in Al Wathba area derive their shape from the interaction between wind force and sediment supply.

The agency has launched a social media campaign to raise public awareness of the site, calling on people to help protect an important part of the capital's history.

It calls on visitors not to climb the fossil formations, throw litter or hold unauthorised gatherings in the area.

EAD stressed the need to keep the area clean and avoid actions that put safety and sustainability at risk.

Last year, authorities stepped up patrols after the ancient rock formation was damaged by vandals.

A carving and message scrawled in graffiti were discovered at the site by volunteers during a clean-up event in April.

A team from the EAD subsequently removed the spray paint.

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Updated: February 02, 2022, 6:50 AM