The long wait to look inside the new and improved Dubai Safari park is finally over after the gates to a hidden animal kingdom swung open for the first time in more than two years.
Spread across five different zones, Africa, Asia, Arabian Desert Safari, Explorer and Adventure Village, the 119-hectare animal attraction welcomed back its first visitors this week.
Nestled into the vast green spaces surrounded by waterfalls and artificial rock faces, visitors can find a huge collection of some 3,000 animals.
The park in Al Warqa has undergone several management changes since 2017.
Now back in the hands of Dubai Municipality the alterations look to have been worth the delays, with greater focus on conservation, education and sustainability.
Three female elephants and a male elephant from Zimbabwe arrived in 2018 but have gone on public show for the first time in the UAE.
“We have a dedicated team looking after them 24 hours a day,” said Shamshad Alam, a wildlife scientist from India who specialises in carnivore ecology.
“They were first conditioned in a holding area to gradually get used to their new surroundings, with a water misting system to help maintain a cooler temperature for them," said Dr Alam.
“We have planted lots of trees here so we can harvest our own food for the elephants as they eat a lot.”
The elephants named Tembo, Madiba, Zulu and Jijinga are only six years old, but already each weighs a tonne and is likely to grow to three times that size.
They could live to be about 70, with Dubai Safari planning to increase the size of their enclosure as they grow in size.
By the time they are 12, keepers hope they will breed so offspring can be shared with other zoos around the world to continue wildlife education programmes.
The park was billed as the jewel in the crown of Dubai tourism when it first opened in late 2017.
When it closed less than six months later to “enhance the visitor experience” it was expected to re-open the following winter.
When that did not happen, some feared the project could be permanently closed.
Work behind the scenes has since polished the attraction into something resembling what many hoped it would become, with lush surroundings and plenty of space for animals to roam.
Quality rather than quantity is the new directive, according to curators, who said fewer animals gives them more space to replicate similar behaviour as seen in the wild.
A drive-through safari is a welcome addition, with a bus carrying guests through a series of gated enclosures where they can wonder at a pride of lions, tigers and cheetah.
It also takes in lakes filled with hippos and 17 Nile crocodiles, all set within tightly manicured surroundings to mimic the African landscape.
Two west African lowland gorillas rehomed from Dubai Zoo have become an institution at the park.
Although work is not yet complete on their outdoor space, Dr Alam said 20-year-old Diana and Digit seem much more content with life in their new home.
“They are more relaxed and their psychological behaviour has improved,” he said.
“There was limited resources at Dubai Zoo in terms of space and facilities, but there Is a much larger habitat here both outside and an air-conditioned inside area.”
A daily food chart maintains variety in the gorillas’ diet, and includes fruit, vegetables and supplements.
Lettuce and grapes are a favourite, with an occasional treat of honey water.
Education and conservation is at the centre of Dubai Safari, with a learning centre planned to host school visits to teach about wildlife.
A breeding programme is already under way for some of the rarer animals.
A pair of striped hyenas have already produced a cub, while it is hoped the endangered white rhinos and the new elephants will also eventually reproduce.
The park is home to 15 different carnivores and 18 primates – 60 types of reptiles, birds, amphibians and invertebrates.
Other additions to mark the reopening are African drummers and dancers in a new African Tribal show.
The site, a former rubbish tip, once harboured few signs of life, has changed with the landscaped grounds becoming a haven for birds.
“Before the safari was here, there were just two types of birds here,” said Dr Alam.
“Many water birds including ducks and flamingos now fly into the park and have made this their home. We have even seen the rare South American sandpiper here.
"Now we have recorded 112 different species because of the habitat we have created.”
The park is open daily from 9am until 5pm, with tickets priced at Dh50 for adults and Dh20 for children.
To book a visit go online at www.dubaisafari.ae.