A world of wonder will welcome visitors to Dubai Safari early next year as the Dh1 billion project prepares to become one of the top global attractions of its kind.
With a keen eye on education and conservation of endangered species, the park, on Al Awir Road on the outskirts of Dubai, will be home to 5,000 animals within three years.
The first of those animals are getting used to their new surroundings, with many saved from desperate situations around the world or cramped conditions in Dubai Zoo, which is now closed.
Species have been carefully selected from reputable breeding programmes elsewhere, to help Dubai Safari become a market leader in conservation.
It will soon become the first facility in the UAE to offer an in-house zookeeping course, and is already home to more than 2,500 species.
Timothy Husband, technical director of Dubai Safari, said looking at the site now it was “hard to visualise what was here just a few years ago”.
“We’ve been able to attract some of the best staff available, and I’m proud of that. This collection of animals will encourage other zoos and safaris to come to Dubai as they know we have the best genetics, and there has been no inbreeding.
“It was a challenge finding the right collection. For example, we would have looked at 100 giraffes before selecting the right ones for Dubai.
“It has been important for us to go around the world to interview these people to get the right people in place.
“We would interview 300 people to find nine. The guides here are different than elsewhere, they will come to visitors and try to educate them and make their visit special.”
One of those experts is Dede Tatou, who was recruited from Cameroon for his expertise in silverback gorillas.
He is now an animal observer at the enclosure for Digit and Diana, two gorillas who were rescued from Dubai Zoo.
They are now enjoying their large, air-conditioned enclosure with trees and ponds, and will soon be allowed outside to roam the grassy banks of their own section of the park.
It is a far cry from the cages where they were once kept.
“We have had to make big changes to their diet, so they have less fruit and 90 per cent vegetables,” Mr Tatou said. “They have never been in such an enclosure before and when they go outside, it will be the first time in 19 years they will have felt soil beneath their feet.”
The gorillas are gradually acclimatising to their new home, with Mr Tatou holding back on allowing them outside into the full enclosure to ensure they will want to return inside.
“We must do this slowly,” he said. “They were kept in small cages at Dubai Zoo so this is very different. There has been a big change in their behaviour already. When I’m walking next to Digit, he throws straw at me – which is a challenge, a message to me that this is his home.
“This replicates his behaviour in the wild, and shows he is happy. When I come with the water in the morning, he still won’t take it from me, so we are still building trust. In just a few weeks he is adapting.
“I am building a connection with these two. Diana is more playful and fun, she is beating her chest, which is also a good sign.”
Dubai Safari features a wide range of open exhibits across four themed villages – African, Asian, Arabian and an open Safari Village.
Visitors can experience close encounters with rhinoceroses, bears, giraffes, chimpanzees, lions, monkeys, cheetahs, elephants, birds, crocodiles and a reptile house – complete with snakes, spiders and lizards.
“This project will educate people about animals,” Mr Husband said. “It is not a stamp collection of animals. People can come here, have fun and be educated.”