More wildlife refuges are needed to preserve a rare gecko that has suffered a “drastic” fall in numbers in the UAE, researchers have said.
The wonder gecko – which is also found in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – has suffered because human activity has left populations fragmented.
In a study about the reptile's distribution around the country, the researchers said new protected areas should be set aside or existing ones expanded to help increase numbers.
The wonder gecko, Teratoscincus keyserlingii, is now "critically endangered" in the UAE, the only country in the Arabian Peninsula where it is found.
The Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund gave $12,000 to support the research, which has been published in the scientific journal PLOS One.
"The drastic population decline of the wonder gecko in the UAE provides particular evidence for strong anthropogenic pressures," the study said.
An author of the study, Prof Salvador Carranza, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, said "several decades of habitat destruction and fragmentation" have affected the Arabian population.
"Massive development in the coastal areas of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain and Ras al Khaimah have exterminated many localities where T. keyserlingii had been previously reported and has artificially fragmented its distribution range," he said.
In the UAE, the species is mostly found within 40 kilometres of the Arabian Gulf coast, on sandy areas with some vegetation.
The UAE's 42 protected areas cover about one-sixth of the country, but the wonder gecko is found in just three – Jebel Ali and Al Marmoun Desert in Dubai and Misanad in Sharjah.
Mr Carranza said protected areas containing the wonder gecko were typically small, had little overlap with the species' overall distribution in the UAE and were near developing areas or too scattered.
In their paper, the researchers said that it would be "achievable" for protected areas to be expanded to safeguard the species locally.
They suggested the Al Marmoun Desert reserve could be expanded northwards, or new protected areas created, such as in an area in northern Abu Dhabi emirate, west of the reserve.
The researchers described protected zones as being "of critical importance" to the preservation of wild populations.
There is captive breeding of the species at centres in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, but the research said these "must not become an excuse" for failing to preserve natural habitats.
The research included analysis of records of its distribution over time and involved taking small tissue samples from 26 wonder geckos in the UAE.
These and other samples were analysed to help understand the population structure and evolutionary history of the species locally – information that could help in its conservation.
Although critically endangered in the UAE, the wonder gecko is less threatened in other countries where it is found.
The research has been published just months after wonder geckos were relocated to the Misanad reserve before Etihad Rail began building on adjacent land in Sharjah.
In September and October last year, animals were collected by hand during nightly searches and taken, sometimes only a few hundred metres, into reserve areas without existing burrows.
"They're quite a territorial species and the males can kill each other if they venture into each other's territory," said Adrian Hudson, Middle East principal ecologist at the Anthesis consultancy.
Anthesis designed the Etihad Rail-funded relocation and carried out the operation with Sharjah’s Environment and Protected Areas Authority.
Eight wonder geckos were relocated, but Mr Hudson said the ultimate number saved would be greater.
"Some people might say it's only eight wonder geckos you're saving from being squashed by machines, but … you're conserving their offspring as well," he said.
A 1.3km gecko-proof fence was put up to stop the creatures from returning to their former home, and microchips attached to the animals so that, should a dead one be found, it could be identified.
About 350 individuals of other species, mostly more common types of gecko, were also translocated, although the main focus was on the wonder gecko.
The relocation work was not linked to the recent study, but Mr Hudson said such analyses were useful.
“The study helps with future projects when we have to do environmental impact assessments or environmental management plans. We can look at areas to see if they’ve been found there in the past,” he said.