Preserving the wonders of UAE's Wadi Wurayah

Efforts to preserve Fujairah's Wadi Wurayah are underway as the wadi is known for being the last refuge of rare animals and hundreds of plant species.

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Training local people as rangers, researching rare species and dealing with litter and discarded pets are all issues in need of attention if Fujairah's Wadi Wurayah is to be kept pristine for future generations, say conservationists.

These objectives are among those listed as priorities in a management plan developed for the Fujairah Government by Emirates Wildlife Society - World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF).

The wadi is famous as the last refuge of rare animals such as the Arabian tahr, Caracal lynx and possibly even the Arabian leopard, and is also home to around 300 plant species, including the UAE's only native orchid, Epipactis veratrifolia.

In total, it is home to more than 500 species of animals and plants and the authorities are keen to implement the best conservation standards possible - hence the management plan.

"We are committed to establishing a sustainable protected area, integrating local tradition and lifestyle with the conservation of inimitable biodiversity and habitat," said Mohammed Al Afkham, managing director of Fujairah Municipality.

With the help of HSBC bank and other sponsors, EWS-WWF has been working in the wadi since 2006 and its biodiversity research has highlighted the need to protect it.

In March 2009, Wadi Wurayah was declared a Mountain Protected Area by Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Fujairah. In October 2010, Wadi Wurayah officially joined a list of 1,932 important global wetlands under the Ramsar Convention.

As well as discovering new species, the years of research will also be key in dividing the protected area into different zones - such as distinguishing which areas are able to cope with human visitors, and which should be out of bounds.

For the 129-square-kilometre protected area, of particular importance are the nearby freshwater springs, said Ida Tillisch, acting director general of EWS-WWF.

"This is one of the rare places in the UAE where you have fresh water all year round," said Mrs Tillisch. The fresh water, she said, "is the source of everything there".

Also important is the need to train local people as rangers. Rangers, said Mrs Tillisch, will have to be aware of the wadi's unique biodiversity as well as the laws in place to protect it.

"We are hoping for the local community to be very much involved and employed in Wadi Wurayah," she said.

Research must also take a front seat. Since September 2011, 56 new species have been discovered in the area, including 26 that are new to science. The organisation is carrying out a study of the vegetation in the area and estimating the effect of grazing animals on the rare plants. Results are due this summer. Researchers are also hoping to gain a glimpse of the Arabian leopard through a network of camera traps.

The management plan seeks to deal with threats to the future of the wadi. Those, said Mrs Tillisch, were chiefly man-made - poaching of rare animals, littering, chopping down the bushes and trees in the area and painting graffiti on the rocks surrounding the fresh water springs.

Another problem is posed by people releasing alien species such as decorative fish and turtles in the fresh water springs. She said people often do so thinking they are giving their unwanted pets a new lease on life, but that the practice can wreak havoc on the delicate eco system.

"This is really creating a huge problem to the wildlife," said Mrs Tillisch.

"Wadi Wurayah is a unique place for the UAE. The nature is there, we just need to make sure the degradation stops," she said.