Camel overgrazing a 'major risk' to desert biodiversity

Environment experts are working with camel owners to devise 'sustainable' solution to the growing problem

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - May 21, 2019: A camel grazes near a road on a hazy dusty day in Dubai. Tuesday the 21st of May 2019. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The rising popularity of camel ownership across the UAE risks wiping out rare desert plant life, conservationists have warned.

A new survey has identified an “urgent need” to tackle the impact of camel overgrazing to ensure the protection of species.

In a report published on Wednesday, researchers described camel overgrazing as “one of the Emirate’s main environmental challenges”.

They also set out extensive measures already being taken to help protect Abu Dhabi's under-pressure groundwater reserves, monitor and enhance air quality in the emirate, and protect marine life.

“The camel is part of our tradition and culture in the UAE, so we have a lot of interest in owning camels,” said Ahmed Al Hashmi, acting executive director for biodiversity at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, which published the annual report.

“They might be used for racing, for breeding, for milk and many other reasons. They have a big value.

“People use the desert as a grazing area for camels and without the proper management of these resources, we could lose them.

“So always, we are looking for sustainable grazing. We’re not against grazing; grazing is part of nature. But we’re looking for sustainability.”

The number of camels in Abu Dhabi has soared over the last decade, according to official figures. There were more than 408,000 in the emirate in 2017, a rise of almost 50 per cent since 2010.

The mammals typically enjoy eating wild grasses and desert shrubs - including crotalaria and afezu - and have adapted to consume some species avoided by other animals.

Speaking to The National, Mr Al Hashmi emphasised that camels were clearly an important part of Emirati culture and heritage, as was desert flora.

He said historically, desert plants in the country had been used for food, medicine and building materials.

As part of the survey, researchers took samples of plant species and discussed how best to protect biodiversity with camel owners.

A film about the project is set to be released by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi soon, with possible solutions to the issue including the rotation of grazing areas to allow plant life sufficient time to recover.

“Because of the harsh environment, we have quite little vegetation cover in the desert," Mr Al Hashmi said. "But this vegetation is very unique and very diverse.

“The [camel owners] are very knowledgeable about our culture, and when we visit them, they are very cooperative, very supportive of our team.

“In some places, grazing areas have been sustained for a long time - for 60, 70, 100 years - so in some locations it’s managed very well.

“In the past people used the natural resources in a very sustainable way. We need to continue that.”

Intervention from government agencies has been welcomed by camel owners, said Salim Javed, acting director for terrestrial biodiversity at the Environment Agency.

“It works in their interest also,” he said. “They know things aren’t the same as they were 50, 60 years back - things have changed.

“They would like some intervention from government agencies and other stakeholders. It’s in their interest and in our interests.”

Other milestones achieved by the agency in 2018 were the completion of the UAE Sustainable Fisheries Programme, which helped increase the country’s understanding of its severely overexploited fish stocks and devise policies aimed at recovery by 2030.

The Emirate’s first groundwater wells inventory was also drawn up last year, resulting in a comprehensive record of over 118,000 wells that were documented in a first-of-its-kind groundwater atlas.

This year will see the agency focus on building awareness and public support for conservation projects and policies.

“We will continue our efforts to improve air quality, protect our natural resources, and enhance our biodiversity,” Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dhafra region and Chairman of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, said.

“We will also focus on stepping up environmental awareness in society to make a difference through adopting a more sustainable lifestyle.

“In doing so, we are confident that we will shape a better environment not just for our generation, but also for the generations that come after us.”