KALBA // On the outskirts of the town of Kalba is the last remaining natural mangrove forest on the UAE's east coast.
Some species of endangered birds, marine animals and reptiles here have no other home in the Emirates.
Since February, the area has been declared protected and placed off-bounds for fishermen and four-wheel drives, which used to frequent the adjacent beach, destroying the sand dunes.
Conservationists have welcomed the protection, but many are nervous about another aspect of the project - a nearby tourism development to be built over the next six years. Plans for the development have not been finalised, but it is supposed to take into account the endangered species.
"I am pleased to learn that the conservation issues are being taken seriously," said Richard Hornby, associate partner at Abu Dhabi-based Nautica Environmental Associates.
"I hope these [tourism development] plans are well-conceived and produce the right results," said Mr Hornby, who has been studying the area since the 1990s.
The way in which the development is constructed will determine what happens to the endangered wildlife. But Khor Kalba's future will also help answer a larger question that has long been on the lips of tourism and conservation experts - can eco-tourism work in the UAE?
Oscar Campbell, chairman of the Emirates Bird Records Committee, is not so sure.
"Given the record of development in this country, you have a right to be cautious," he said. "In principle, the idea of some development is okay, but they really need to know what they are doing."
Eco-tourism at Kalba "is possible, but it needs to be planned by ecologists and developers together," said Dr Benno Boer, ecological sciences adviser at Unesco's regional office in Doha.
"It needs to be really hand-in-hand," said Dr Boer, who studied Khor Kalba extensively in the mid-1990s.
The tourism development will be under the auspices of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq). It will be constructed at the site of an old fish factory near the Kalba Lagoon.
The authority is inviting investors to build resorts and eco-lodges with the total investment expected to reach Dh1 billion, said Marwan Al Sarkal, chief executive of Shurooq. The number of rooms in the overall development has been capped at 300.
"You will never see giant cement structures around," he said. "Everything will have to respect the environment."
Whether Khor Kalba ends up as a win-win for both conservation and tourism will depend on a number of factors but, most importantly, on how the construction and operation of the tourism facilities are managed.
"They really need to take specialist advice on what the impacts will be," said Mr Campbell.
The impact will depend on the total area of beach covered, the type of facilities planned, as well as on who is involved in planning and building it.
"It depends on what quality of developers are being brought in," said Dr Boer. "If it is people with no experience in this kind of work, they are very likely to do more damage than good."
One key issue is sustaining tidal flow to the mangrove forest. This can be easily disrupted if nearby channels are dredged or marinas and other structures are built in a way that changes the flow of sea water. The issue is essential for the survival of the mangroves: too much water and they drown, too little and they dry up.
The mangroves and their inhabitants can take little additional pressure.
Last year, Mr Campbell and his colleagues studied a population of white-collared kingfisher, which can be found nowhere else in the world but in Khor Kalba, and in two smaller sites in Oman.
The birds' population had already declined significantly since 1995, when they were first studied. Even a small disturbance to the mangrove forest can spell disaster for them. They cannot live in another location.
"If the developers get this wrong, the kingfisher has nowhere else to go," Mr Campbell said.