Sanctuary scheme for treasury of wildlife

A rich assortment of birds and animals has taken over Sinniyah Island since inhabitants moved to the mainland two centuries ago.

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SINNIYAH ISLAND // Ostriches, reem gazelles and foxes now have the run of the dense mangroves and mudflats on what was once the home of Umm al Qaiwain's ruling family and other tribes, while huge flocks of Socotra cormorants blanket the shoreline and pink flamingos congregate in the cool waters of its Khor el Bediah lagoon.

The richness of wildlife on this 90-square-kilometre island and the abundant archaeological evidence of its previous habitation have inspired a member of the ruling family to try to develop it as a heritage site with international support. "We hope to turn the island into an internationally protected natural sanctuary so that the wildlife live there in harmony and no one disturbs the archaeological sites," said Sheikh Khalid bin Humaid Al Mu'alla, who is also the general manager of the emirate's Department of Archaeology and Heritage.

The Royal family currently pays for the upkeep of the island, which is just 2km off mainland Umm al Qaiwain, and this includes regular visits by workers to tend to the habitats and check on the well-being of the animals. It is hoped international recognition for the island will bring additional financial support and expertise to ensure the preservation of its wildlife. The island has already been declared a protected area by the local government and is usually off-limits to all but the Royal family and officials visiting for either archaeological or wildlife research.

It has been listed as a "site of global importance" by the conservation alliance BirdLife International because it is one of the largest remaining colonies of the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis) in the world. During the visit granted to The National, what appeared to be a blanket of soot over the shore was actually huge numbers of these birds, known locally as "al loukh" and described by Sheikh Khalid as "bad birds".

"They come in such large numbers that whatever area of the island they settle in becomes barren of greenery," he explained. Traces of the time the island was occupied by humans are scattered across the landscape. At one spot, what appear to be ordinary wind-worn stones in the sand are actually tombstones marking the graves of the former residents and the site of the original settlement of the people of Umm al Qaiwain.

"Our ancestors lived on Sinniyah Island until the drinking water ran out and they moved across 200 years ago," said Sheikh Khalid. At the end of the island stand two forts built in 1798 that are unusual for being square in shape, whereas most forts in the UAE are circular. Facing the open sea of the Arabian Gulf, the grey towers about three metres high are the tallest objects on the island and served as landmarks for sailors and fishermen.

Fishing was the main occupation of the inhabitants of the island for hundreds of years. "To this day, fishermen gather along the island, as the khor [creeks] within it are good fishing sites," Sheikh Khalid said. There are no traces left of the homes as they were made mainly of wood and palm fronds, but pieces of colourful pottery scattered about the island, some dating to the pre-Islamic period, provide clues to the domestic aspects of the settlement.

"We have boxes and boxes of broken pottery from this island and other parts of this emirate; it will take us forever to piece them all together," he said. Sheikh Khalid said there were possibly "hidden treasures" on the island that had yet to be uncovered. For example, an excavation on the island of Akab, which is just next to Sinniyah, uncovered a graveyard of 6,000-year-old bones of dugongs, or sea cows.

"We will start surveying the island as well as many other sites in Umm al Qaiwain as we really don't know what we have out there," said Alyaa al Gufly, one of the head researchers and restorers at Umm al Qaiwain museum. "We just keep finding new things every time we go there." "It is a great adventure for us to have a chance to dig up clues about our past and our emirate," she said. "We don't have much unless we understand our past."