Danger ahead: UAE's vibrant wildlife faces fight for survival

The country's rich array of species are battling a number of challenges, including increasing development, pollution and climate change

From geckos to sharks, from cormorants to sand cats – the UAE's vibrant wildlife is magnificent in its diversity.

Much of it is, however, is under threat, as the pressures of development, fishing, pollution and even climate change, create uncertainty over the future of rare species.

Indeed the Arabian leopard, for example, is believed to be extinct in the wild in the UAE, although a captive-breeding programme is helping to maintain a population.

There are many native UAE creatures still found in the wild here that are benefiting from conservation efforts through government organisations such as the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) and non governmental organisations (NGOs0 such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

As reported this month, three Arabian sand cats were born recently through a breeding programme involving Al Ain Zoo and specialists in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sadly, the kittens died, but their birth was hailed as a breakthrough after research into sand cat reproduction lasting more than 15 years.

The sand cat is not yet threatened globally, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorising it as “Least Concern” – but is very rare in the UAE. It is a concerning pattern seen with a number of creatures.

Another example is the Carter's Rock Gecko, which also has an IUCN “Least Concern” rating.

This species, which likes sparsely vegetated gravel plains, has only been found in the UAE in a location near the Omani border, so could disappear from the country completely if this habitat is damaged.

Research in recent years, often using the latest genetic analysis techniques, has highlighted conservation risks to UAE wildlife that had not been apparent before. In a number of cases, what had been seen as a single species distributed over a wide area has been reclassified as several species, each having a limited range that makes it especially vulnerable to habitat loss.

The Emirati leaf-toed gecko, which has the scientific name Asaccus caudivolvulus, is classified as being of "Least Concern", but a 2016 study involving Professor Salvador Carranza, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, found that the populations thought to come from this species actually represented three species. A. caudivolvulus itself, which is the UAE's only endemic vertebrate, meaning that it is found here but nowhere else, is actually thought to exist only in the Khor Fakkan area.

“This one is critically endangered. In Khor Fakkan it's only known from a couple of places. It's restricted to a very small area, which is being developed,” said Prof Carranza.

Indeed development is a major factor behind the decline in numbers of a number of land-based UAE species.

Illustrating the challenges for marine life, in UAE waters the sea cow or dugong faces threats from boat strikes, fishing net entanglement and habitat degradation, according to Kirk Duthler, a UAE-based official with The Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project, an organisation managed by the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund which is involved in conservation projects outside local waters.


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The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi has been monitoring dugong numbers here since 1999 – they are stable at about 3,000 – and is promoting efforts to conserve the seagrass meadows on which the species depends.

“The UAE is very committed to protecting dugongs both locally and internationally,” said Mr Duthler.

Although some species have faced declines in their numbers, others are enjoying growth because of conservation efforts.

One of the most notable successes involves the Arabian Oryx, which for more than two decades was listed by the IUCN as “Endangered”. With numbers increasing, in part thanks to reintroductions in the UAE, it was reclassified in 2011 as “Vulnerable”, indicating a lower level of threat.

There are now around 500 individuals in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and the Al Wadi nature reserve in Ras Al Khaimah.

A potential looming threat is climate change, which could impact on both terrestrial and marine animals, the latter because the top layer of water in the world's seas is getting warmer by about 0.1°C per decade.

On land, Prof Carranza said many reptiles should be able to adapt by altering their behaviour, but other creatures may be less able to cope with the upheaval.