The rediscovery of the Arabian Caracal in Abu Dhabi, 35 years after it was last seen in the emirate, has given conservationists hope about the species’ future.
The elusive hunting cat is just one of a number of threatened animals in the UAE which are believed to be making a comeback, thanks to conservation efforts by the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD).
EAD is based in Abu Dhabi but carries out research across the county. To help preserve the country's animal populations, the authority can suggest legislation and areas for consideration as natural reserves. The authority monitors populations in the wild and carries out inspections to ensure environment laws are not being flouted.
But what are the UAE’s most threatened species? What is being done to protect them? And how does the agency keep track of them?
How many threatened species are there in the UAE?
From the sand to the sea, several species are endangered due to environmental pressures caused by development, fishing, pollution and even climate change. It is not known exactly how many of the country's species are threatened but the EAD takes a particular interest in several species, including the Arabian Sand Cat, Crested Porcupine and Rüppell's Fox. These three are categorised of “least concern” by conservationists generally, but they are very rare in Abu Dhabi. For example, the Crested Porcupine was even believed to be extinct in the emirate before monitoring by EAD proved they still existed in the wild. There have been very few confirmed sightings of the species, with most records from Bedouins in the early 20th century. However, in late 2017, EAD scientists found clues to their presence in footprints and quills at a site in the Al Dhafra region.
How does EAD monitor wildlife?
By setting up cameras to watch for clues of the animals' presence in the wild. The agency uses more than 35 camera traps to monitor ecologically sensitive habitats and some newly formed protected areas. This was how the footage of the Arabian Caracal was captured in Jebel Hafeet National Park in Al Ain. "Before we started camera monitoring, we only had one or two records of Arabian Sand Cats. But since we started using camera traps, we found 17 locations in the Al Dhafra," said Pritpal Soorae, unit head for terrestrial assessment and monitoring, terrestrial and marine biodiversity at EAD. "Other things are the Rüppell's Fox, we hardly see now. We went into the corner of Saudi Arabia with the UAE, the south western corner. We put camera traps there last year and left them out for nine months. And we found quite a few Rüppell's Fox."
What do they do with this information?
Finding new populations gives conservationists hope for their future. “Once we know there is a population present we can put in more cameras and start studying their population, maybe collect faeces or do genetics [testing],” said Mr Soorae.
What is the value in genetics testing?
It can provide more information about the species and highlight conservation risks. For example, the Emirati leaf-toed gecko, Asaccus caudivolvulus, was classified as of "Least Concern", but a 2016 study involving Professor Salvador Carranza, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, found that the populations thought to come from this species actually represented three separate species, one of which was A. caudivolvulus. That species is the UAE's only endemic vertebrate — meaning that it is found here but nowhere else — and is actually thought to exist only in one area, Khor Fakkan, in Sharjah, on the Gulf of Oman coast.
Have any species been declared extinct?
Sadly, yes. The Arabian leopard is believed to be extinct in the wild in the UAE, although a breeding programme is helping to maintain numbers in captivity.
Have there been any success stories in conservation?
One of the most notable successes involved the Arabian Oryx, which was declared extinct in the wild in the early 1970s, after the last one known example was shot in 1972. Thanks to efforts begun by founding president, Sheikh Zayed, the UAE is now home to the largest population of Arabian Oryx in the world, with around 6,000 individuals, the majority of which are in Abu Dhabi. The emirate has also been at the forefront of efforts to restore the houbara bird, which is classed as a vulnerable species. Over the past 40 years, the UAE has been involved in a project to restore populations of the bird in the wild after Sheikh Zayed, the Founder of the UAE, initiated a successful breeding programme. Around 350,000 chicks have been bred since the programme’s inception. And last weekend, 50 endangered houbara birds were released into skies over the Al Ain desert as part of a conservation project to improve their numbers in the wild.