Havoc on the horizon

Foreign species brought into the UAE are causing damage to businesses and threatening indigenous plant and animal life across the country, according to an environmental survey.

ABU DHABI // Foreign species brought into the UAE are causing damage to businesses and threatening indigenous plant and animal life across the country, according to an environmental survey.

Scientists have been looking at terrestrial and freshwater species that have made their way to the UAE in an attempt to find out which are a threat to local flora and fauna.

The nationwide study was conducted on behalf of Abu Dhabi Environment Agency’s Terrestrial Marine Biodiversity sector.

The study recorded 146 species in seven major taxonomic groups. The highest number of alien species were birds, making up 49 per cent of the total, followed by invertebrates, at 34 per cent. Plants, and reptiles and amphibians made up 5 per cent each and mammals made up 4 per cent, with freshwater fish making up 3 per cent of all alien species in the country.

Almost a third of recorded species were listed as “accidental introductions”, with the remaining 68 per cent having an “unknown” pathway into the country. Some species have escaped into the wild after being kept as pets.

Foreign imports can pose an economic threat, such as to the production of a national treasure – dates, according to Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, executive director of the Terrestrial and Marine Biodiversity sector at EAD.

“The date palm weevil is an insect that attacks the UAE’s date palm plantations and can cause great damage to the trees, thus affecting date production. This species is also an important economic pest,” she said.

“The common iguana, which is a large, herbivorous reptile kept as a pet, has also established itself in some places with abundant vegetation, such as in irrigated parks. They could easily spread to other areas where the right conditions exist.

“Tilapia freshwater fish are an African species that are also classified as one of the most prolific alien invaders worldwide. This species has been found in wadi ecosystems and freshwater bodies.”

Tilapia also pose a threat to native UAE fish species by eating their food and invading their habitat and introducing exotic diseases, said Dr Al Dhaheri, who leads the team working to protect and enhance ecosystems and to support species conservation. Species arriving in the UAE from abroad are defined in two categories. Alien species are non-natives and include common carp, leopard tortoise, sacred ibis and the prickly pear plant. Invasive alien species are those that have become established, have a breeding population and can now pose a threat to native species.

Crows are a threat because they often eat young fledglings and eggs of native birds and compete with native species for food and nesting sites, eventually driving them away.

These species also scavenge in rubbish dumps and can transmit diseases through ticks or mosquitoes. Populations of Indian house crows have become a menace on golf courses across the UAE, particularly in Dubai where they hunt white grubs in fairways and greens, causing costly damage.

Greenkeepers have taken steps to try to control numbers of white grubs using pesticides but a more unusual method has been taken to control crow populations. Emirates Golf Club in Dubai has employed hawk handlers Wild Flight to visit the course for a couple of hours each day, at a cost of about Dh5,000 a month, to help keep crow numbers down.

Luke Partridge, a senior assistant golf course superintendent at Emirates Golf Club, said: “The hawks hunt the crows and go into the nests themselves. It has restricted them to particular areas, rather than have them all over the golf course”