Island life suits vulnerable UAE birds

Scientists found the UAE is host to one of the biggest cormorant populations but have experienced a loss of conducive habitat and are particularly vulnerable without concerted conservation efforts in place.

Overexploited fisheries in the Arabian Gulf and loss of habitat throughout the emirates could still spell doom for the Socotra cormorant. Sarah Dea/ The National
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ABU DHABI // They are the rare Arabian birds whose very existence has been put at risk by the oil exploration that sparked the country’s dramatic economic growth.

Now scientists believe the Socotra cormorant’s numbers have stabilised after they migrated to a small island off Umm Al Quwain several years ago.

Once native to the Abu Dhabi islands, the natural habitat and food resources that sustain them has long been eroded, but there is hope for the population if their environment can be protected.

Overexploited fisheries in the Arabian Gulf and loss of habitat throughout the emirates threaten the birds, often described as nature’s teenagers – lazy, hungry and reluctant to leave home.

Scientists, writing in The Waterbird Society Journal, said the UAE hosts one of the biggest populations, nine out of 14 breeding sites in the Gulf, mostly on Siniya Island off Umm Al Quwain.

Over the last five years of study, scientists estimated there are breeding pairs numbering up to 41,500. Five years ago, the figure was 38,000.

Despite that, however, United Arab Emirates University has said that 900 adults die every year, reducing the population to extinction in 20 years from it’s current status as vulnerable.

The erosion of their food stocks – fish that they dive for in impressive fashion – has led to reports of cannibalism, with adults eating chicks.

“The Abu Dhabi islands, with breeding populations ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand pairs, have suffered significantly due to oil exploitation and persecution over the last three decades, and 12 colony sites have been abandoned completely by breeding birds,” said the report.

Siniya Island shows signs of resilience in the face of depleting fisheries.

Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi follows a similar prediction in that the bird is under threat and that more needs to be done.

“A total of 8,888 breeding pairs were recorded from three sites, the highest of 5,592 pairs was recorded on Umm Qasr island.

“The lowest number of 900 nests was recorded on Yasat Judairah.

“Socotra cormorant remains one of the most threatened bird species in the emirate and persecution is still taking place,” EAD said in its Biodiversity Annual Report 2014.

“Cormorants breeding on Siniya could have surpassed the size of the breeding colony in the Hawar Islands in Bahrain, considered to be the largest breeding colony in the region, and the Saudi Arabian colonies in the Gulf of Salwa,” said the report.

Scientists studied the population of the island and found that the bird’s population health reflected food availability.

However, they also noted that the bird is sensitive to environmental upheaval and invasive species.

Their global population has declined by 60 per cent due to general degradation of breeding sites but also because of the oil spill during the Gulf War in 1991.

Also in 2011, between 2,000 and 3,000 birds were killed by red foxes and feral cats.

“There is an urgent need to better assess breeding population size, establish breeding parameters, mitigate threats and identify and implement conservation actions to protect this globally significant breeding colony,” the report said.

Efforts to save the Socotra cormorants should focus on protection of remaining islands used as breeding colonies.