Abu Dhabi and United Nations extend partnership to protect dugongs and birds of prey

Scientists from the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi have been tracking migratory species with satellites since the mid-2000s

Amy Fraenkel, CMS Executive Secretary and Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, Secretary General of Environment Agency Abu Dhabi signing the partnership agreement to save marine animals. Courtesy CMS 
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The Convention on Migratory Species and the UAE will continue initiatives to protect dugongs and other threatened species of wild animals after the extension of an important agreement.

The Secretariat of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) have extended their decade long partnership for the conservation of species like the dugong, marine turtles and many migratory birds in the region.

Following the signing of a partnership agreement on the opening day of the 13th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention, which takes place in India until 22 February 2020, the CMS Office - Abu Dhabi will continue its UAE operations for another four years.

Dr Shaikha Al Daheri, secretary general of EAD said the partnership has given the UAE a strong and clear voice on the international stage.

Dugongs, affectionately known as sea cows because of their reliance on sea grass for food, have been protected under UAE law since 1999.

The UAE – especially in Abu Dhabi – and three other Gulf countries are home to the world’s second largest population of dugongs with Australia holding the top spot.

Twenty dugongs were found dead in Abu Dhabi in 2018. Courtesy EAD    
Twenty dugongs were found dead in Abu Dhabi in 2018. Courtesy EAD    

While previous work was centred on the dugongs themselves, the focus will now be on assessing the sea grass ecosystem that supports them, said Lyle Glowka, head of CMS Office – Abu Dhabi.

Sea grass also provides nurseries for fish, turtles and other marine life.

A new €4.7 million (Dh18.65 million) project, funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German government, will aim to evaluate all the ecosystem services provided by sea grass beds.

The collected information will be used to create better conservation policies and to stimulate local people to protect sea grass beds.

The IKI Seagrass Ecosystem Services Project will run until 2022 in five dugong range states.

The development of “a coordinated approach to conservation and monitoring of dugongs in the Gulf” will be another key priority, said Mr Glowka, explaining that of the four countries, the UAE is the only one which carries out regular monitoring surveys and has a “robust data set”.

The regional population is believed to be 7,500 but it has not been studied in a coordinated, sustained manner since 1986.

“We know a lot has changed in the marine environment since then,” said Mr Glowka, explaining that threats to dugongs include the destruction of their habitat and the accidental entanglement in fishing nets.

“My dream is that we could find a mechanism so that the four countries are working in a coordinated way and we could see what is the conservation status of dugongs in the Arabian Gulf.”

The only regional hub for the Convention outside its headquarters in Bonn, Germany, CMS Office – Abu Dhabi oversees the implementation of two specialised international agreements under the CMS framework: on raptors and dugongs.

Mohammed Al Bowardi, EAD vice chair and the country’s minister of state for defence was one of the UAE decision-makers, who championed the idea of partnering with the UN back in the mid-2000s.

By that time, he said, Abu Dhabi had longstanding conservation interests in a number of marine and bird species and EAD scientists were conducting groundbreaking satellite tracking of migratory species.

“The realisation that the animals, our conservation work, and the conservation work of other countries were all interconnected fuelled a desire to support a UN-based multilateral forum to catalyse country-level efforts and coordinate conservation efforts across migratory ranges,” said Mr Al Bowardi.

Among the achievements of CMS Office – Abu Dhabi is an interactive online tool for dugong researchers which has been used in over 100 countries.

The organisation also works to protect endangered migratory birds of prey.

Previously, the office has contributed to a decision, adopted at the previous CMS Conferences of the Parties, to list ten vulture species and the Steppe Eagle on the list of endangered migratory species — a step which obliges range states to adopt strict protection measures.

“Having a CMS office based in Abu Dhabi has benefited conservation work in the UAE and the region in many ways. It has helped bring together expertise from across the region and has supported regional discussions on species conservation prioritisation,” said Marina Antonopoulou, marine programme head at Emirates Nature-WWF.