Battle to save Dubai desert's wonders

Human intrusion has put the UAE's delicate ecosystem at risk, but conservationists are fighting back.

DUBAI // When the air is moist and the landscape is damp and dark, mushrooms are commonplace. If you spot one in the desert, however, common sense should tell you it must be a mirage. Yet the long white shape protruding from the sand at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve was, without a doubt, a mushroom.

"We had a lot of rain last March and in certain areas there were fields of mushrooms," said Greg Simkins, the conservation manager at the reserve. The clues are there. A little further down the Dubai-Al Ain highway, next to the reserve, is a small town called Fugaa, meaning "mushroom" in Arabic. It is famous for the fields of fungus that grow around it whenever there is enough rain. "The Bedu collect them and eat them," said Mr Simkins. The desert, he says, is full of surprises like these. "We have so many things here that you do not expect to see in a dry environment."

But these small wonders are becoming harder to spot. Increased human presence in the delicate desert ecosystem is wiping out its incredible diversity just as fast as the rapid change in lifestyles is erasing the collective memory of the desert's first inhabitants. Many plants in the reserve are difficult to spot in the sand dunes outside its fence. There is, for example, dune grass, a species of sedge known to grow in waterlogged soils but which also survives in the UAE's soft, shifting dunes.

It manages this by having a very shallow root system. As the dunes shift, sand covers the plant but exposes its roots, allowing them to absorb the mist that settles on top. In the not-so-distant past, these plants and the lives of the Bedouin were intertwined. One small shrub, Al Ara' (Aerva javanica), was prized for its whitish flowers. "The Bedu used to collect them and use them to stuff cushions and camel saddles," said Mr Simkins.

The preservation effort started in 1999, when 6,000 indigenous trees were planted in what was then the Al Maha desert reserve. At that time, the area was 27 square km. In 2003, it was expanded to 225 square km, almost five per cent of Dubai's territory. The aim was to create a source of food and shelter for the animals, including the Arabian oryx and several species of gazelle, that were introduced at the reserve.

Another goal was to establish a natural seed bank. As the planted trees mature, they blossom and produce seeds that disperse naturally to colonise new areas. This approach has seen success with a tall shrub known locally as arta and to scientists as Calligonum comosum. "It is a favourite species for grazing," said Mr Simkins. "That is why there were none out in the desert." The team planted 500 of them and now the shrub is starting to appear naturally elsewhere on the reserve.

The track meanders through gravel plains, covered by a layer of green grasses, shrubs and soft sand dunes, their orange pattern interrupted here and there by ghaf trees. With 65 species of plants on its territory, not only is the reserve more varied in species compared with the areas outside, it also appears a lot greener. "When we first started, there was nothing growing in these gravel plains," he said, pointing to a small valley surrounded by sand dunes, now green with grasses growing in green tufts.

Of course, the area will look different in the summer. "In July or August, you will see these plants that are annuals die," he said. "The important part is that here the plants have the time to flower and spread their seeds before they die." The main threats to desert plants are overgrazing by camels and goats, which have rocketed in numbers beyond what the desert can sustain, and off-road driving.

Vehicles can easily crush plants or seedlings in an important stage of development, said Mr Simkins. There is also the visual impact of vehicle tracks. While in shifting dunes, the tracks are easily covered by new sand, but in gravel plains they can stay for up to an year, he said. This is why only three per cent of the reserve's territory is available for off-road adventure drives. This is what Mr Simkins calls the high-utilisation areas. There are also medium-impact areas where only guided walks or horse and camel rides are allowed.

These two zones take up not more than 15 per cent of the reserve's territory. The rest is comprised of areas off-limits to people, where only visits that have a scientific research purpose are permitted. Once grazing animals and cars have been removed from a desert area, one of the first species to move in is a shrub, known to scientists as Heliotropium. As this pioneer species grows, it forms sand mounds around itself. These mounds will eventually attract the seeds of other plants, like firebushes, that will take over the area.

Most of the trees, with the exception of the ghaf, Prosopis cineraria, famous for its ability to tap groundwater, are irrigated. The water, obtained from a source underground, is given to the plants for an hour every second day. The long-term aim, however, is for all the plants to be weaned off irrigation. To achieve this, Mr Simkins sometimes has to push the trees beyond their comfort zones. "What I do in summer is I stress the trees," he said. "I do this intentionally to push them to start looking for their own water."

If the trees rely on irrigation, they will form roots that are too shallow and that, he said, meant they could never be independent. While some areas in the reserve are still recovering from overgrazing, Mr Simkins said he was happy with the progress so far. "The overall habitat improvement is what I am proud of," he said. "With vegetation, we do not really know what we should be aiming at. There is no example of a pristine area that has not been grazed."

While the focus of discussion has been the flora restoration programme, the reserve features quite a few rare and interesting animals as well. There are more than 300 oryx, 350 gazelles and 400 spiny tail lizards. There are also two species of gerbil and two foxes, as well as the Gordon's wildcat. The animals' fate is linked directly to whether the plants survive. If there is healthy vegetation, there will be plenty of food for the oryx and gazelles. There will also be insects, lizards and gerbils. The latter will be eaten by owls, foxes and wildcats.

"Our approach is an ecosystem approach that makes the gerbils and insects as important as the oryx and gazelles," he said. Will it ever be possible to have more areas in the UAE look as green and diverse in plant life as the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve? "Overgrazing will have to be managed in some way," said Mr Simkins. "This is a sensitive issue because of the cultural implications." One way it can be achieved is to rotate areas where grazing is allowed, thus keeping certain areas off-limits for some time and giving the plants a chance to regenerate.

"Off-road driving is even more difficult to solve because there is a culture among all residents of being able to drive wherever you like," said Mr Simkins. "It will require a mindset change."

Ghaf or Prosopis cineraria A flagship plant species of the UAE, the ghaf tree was of central importance to Bedouin herdsmen. It provided shelter, food for camels and goats, and is an indicator of the presence of groundwater. Because of its deep roots, it is able to sustain long periods of drought, sucking moisture from deep underground. Overgrazing and groundwater depletion are the main reasons the once abundant ghaf tree is now endangered. Calotropis procera Because of its bitter sap, this plant is avoided by camels. This also makes it an indicator of over-grazing. Too many of them in an area show it has been overgrazed, with other vegetation destroyed by camels and goats. Usually a shrub, this specimen at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is shaped like a small tree, due to the fact that gazelles are feeding on it. Al Ara' or Aerva javanica This perennial herb growing in erect clumps was once very popular with the Bedu who used to collect its flowers. The soft fibres of the flowers made them a popular filling for cushions and camel saddles. The desert plant grows in North Africa and parts of Asia and is also known in some places by the name of desert cotton.