UAE sustainability: How an Abu Dhabi fund is bringing world's endangered species back from brink

Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund helps to save animals, plants and fungi

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The carbonera pupfish, blue and gold metallic in colour, is found in only a small area of north-western Mexico.

Its existence is so precarious that it was once thought to be extinct.

It was rediscovered in 2012, but four of the five springs where it was found were dry, so the species – members of which grow to about 6 centimetres – was critically imperilled.

In a project supported by the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, the pupfish were taken to a nearby natural refuge, saving them from their potential demise.

The carbonera pupfish, or cyprinodon fontinalis, is one of 1,402 species or subspecies to have benefited from grants made by the fund since its launch in 2009 by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

It is a truly unique organisation devoted to species conservation

With species becoming extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the project could not be more critical.

“Biodiversity loss is a global crisis and as such we must focus on the issue globally,” said Razan Al Mubarak, the fund’s managing director.

"It is estimated that we are losing more than 10 million species to extinction every year. This is a rate that is 1,000 times that of at any other time.

“This biodiversity loss is one of the most significant global crises we face today, on the same scale as climate change.

"Therefore, it is very important that the fund provides financial support to species conservation projects in the UAE and across the world.”

How does the fund operate?

The fund offers microfinancing to practical projects that help to conserve species of animals, plants or fungi.

It was launched with an initial endowment of $25 million (Dh91.82m), and portion is given each year to projects.

The first grants were made in March 2010. A total of 2,392 grants, totalling $21m, have now been awarded. The maximum awarded is $25,000 a project.

Pupfish. Courtesy Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
The pupfish is found in only a small area of northwestern Mexico. Thanks to the fund, it has be saved. Courtesy Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

Projects anywhere in the world are eligible and schemes in more than 160 countries have been given grants.

Applications can be made year-round through the fund’s website and are considered by the fund’s management.

They are reviewed three times a year by an advisory board, which then makes recommendations to a board of directors.

In 2019, for example, $1.5m was awarded to 170 projects out of 1,647 applications.

Among the researchers whose work has been supported by the fund is Prof Salvador Carranza, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology at Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona.

Four projects he has been involved with have received assistance, including one looking at the wonder gecko in the UAE and another at reptiles on the Socotra Archipelago near the Gulf of Aden.

The research highlighted patterns of genetic diversity, which could help with conservation planning.

“The support was critical for the project ... without its help we could not have travelled to Socotra to carry out the field study,” Prof Carranza said.

He said he had been “consistently impressed by their [the fund's] efficiency, their interest in the projects and their help”.

“It is a truly unique organisation devoted to species conservation,” he said. “A very successful example to follow.”

Fishing cat. Courtesy Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
The fund supported projects to assess threats to Pakistan’s fishing cat and educate people about conservation. Courtesy Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

Why are projects linked to particular species?

The focus on individual species or sub-species is deliberate. The fund said that since the “golden era” of species conservation in the 1960s and '70s, when the emphasis was on collecting data about species in their habitats, things have changed.

“A significant portion of conservation work today is lab work, conservation planning and analysis work, that is done in offices,” it said.

The broadening of conservation to include advice from the likes of social scientists and economists has “unintentionally” created a shortfall in efforts to conserve species.

“The fund wants to help those conservationists for whom it is important to get back out into the field and keep that connection with nature alive,” its report said.

Ms Al Mubarak said focusing on individual species created wider benefits because conservationists did not gather data just for the target species, but also for other species, their habitat and the threats they faced.

“Our grants support individual species, sure, but our grants go to conservationists,” she said.

“Conservationists are nature’s first responders, security detail, and scientists searching for a cure to the extinction pandemic.

“Without conservationists in the field, we lose our first line of defence against habitat destruction, deforestation, overhunting, poaching and pollution.

“When we support a conservationist, chances are good that the conservationist will receive funding from other sources as well. Support from the MBZ Fund is often the spark that lights the fire of conservation.”

She said her favourite projects included one where a community group in Australia banded together to help protect the Mary River turtle, and another in which simply putting up a fence prevented rockhopper penguins in Tristan Da Cunha, in the South Atlantic, from falling to their deaths.

Others include the discovery and protection of a tree on a university campus in Pakistan that had been thought to be extinct, and the rediscovery of a lost frog species in Zimbabwe.

Araucaria angustifolia. Courtesy Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
The fund supported plantations of thousands of seedlings of a coniferous tree, araucaria angustifolia, in Brazil. This will encourage animals to return. Courtesy Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

Prof Carranza said it could be more efficient to concentrate on conserving a flagship or “umbrella” species in an at-risk habitat.

“By protecting this particular species, you indirectly protect the many other species that make up the ecological community,” he said.

Aside from offering grants, the fund aims to “elevate” the significance of the species in conservation discussions.

“The fund is concerned that without support to actively promote species conservation in nature, the planet will all too soon be left with not much more than protected landscapes, partially adapted for human use, and with some token, managed species," it said.

"This would be an unconscionable tragedy."

What types of projects have been supported?

1)  At the beginning of this year $4,850 was given to assess the distribution of, and threats to, Pakistan's fishing cat, numbers of which have fallen because of a decline in wetlands. The project will also educate rural communities and government bodies on the species' conservation.

2)  In 2012, New York University Abu Dhabi was awarded $9,000 to analyse the reproductive behaviour of the Arabian staghorn coral, which has suffered from "bleaching" events caused by high temperatures. A better understanding of the species' biology should aid conservation efforts.

3)  A three-year project by Emirates Wildlife Society – World Wide Fund For Nature to fit satellite transmitters to the shell of hawksbill turtles was given $10,000 in 2012. An understanding of the movements of the turtle, which has been hit by egg harvesting, fishing and habitat degradation, will help when conservation initiatives are drawn up.

4) The fund supported the planting of thousands of seedlings of a coniferous tree, Araucaria angustifolia, by the Laklano Xokleng indigenous people on their own land in Brazil. The trees should encourage the return of animals such as the red deer and the blue crow. A grant of $20,000 was made in 2019 and a further $20,000 was awarded this year.

5) Last year the fund gave $10,000 to efforts in Ghana to conserve the daisy stingray and the pearl stingray, which were hit by overfishing. The project will assess numbers, help locals to monitor populations, and introduce measures to reduce the harmful effects of fishing.