A rare mass migration of more than 100 species of animals is taking place in Dubai as the emirate’s national zoo closes and the last of its inhabitants relocate to Dubai Safari Park.
Dubai Zoo closed its doors on Sunday and, for the first time in its 50 years of operation, quiet settled across the Jumeirah premises.
Staff and visitors alike described the move as "bittersweet" as they were leaving memories behind.
"I have been coming to the zoo for 26 years, since I moved from the UK," said Pakistan resident Sajida Rasheed. "I knew it was closing but I think the move is good. It might be more expensive than here as we usually pay Dh2 to come here but I will definitely visit the new location."
As a housewife, Ms Rasheed would regularly visit the zoo as she said she found it therapeutic. "I love the fact that it's small," she said. "I used to go to the zoo a lot back in the UK but I love the one here because there are so many natural things and it's such a nice walk when the weather is good."
For some employees, the five acre-zoo has been home for almost 30 years. "We built so many structures since I moved here on June 1, 1989," said Dr Reza Khan, the zoo manager and principal wildlife specialist in leisure facilities at the Dubai Municipality. "We built the structure for tigers, a pool, an air conditioned room and benches on the roof for them. The zoo was all sandy when I first came here but it all turned into cement. We also built a snake house with eight rooms and air conditioning with our annual budget of Dh60,000 – we just did the whole construction, you couldn't even walk here back then."
Space has been an ongoing issue for the government-owned zoo, with dozens of animals crammed into small cages in the past or sharing space with other species.
Officials previously admitted that though space was a problem, the animals were treated as humanely as possible.
For Dr Reza, originally from Bangladesh, the zoo will be sorely missed. The former curator, responsible for birds and primates in Al Ain Zoo for 6 years, moved to Dubai in 1989 to manage the zoo.
"It's a flourishing city and anyone living in the UAE wants to live here," he said. "I wanted to become the head of an institution and the zoo evolved a lot since – in those days, we couldn't walk because of the smell, now we have a soak-away gutter system which changed everything when we upgraded it."
The zoo hit a record number of animals in 1991 to1992 at 1,800. Hundreds of people began visiting the facility regularly after Dr Khan readjusted its timings. "It used to open at 10, close at noon, reopen at 3pm, close at 5pm, closed on Tuesday and Saturday and during all of Ramadan," he said. "People were lost so we chose to only close on Tuesdays although today is the last day."
He said the zoo's closure meant better facilities for the animals.
"I've been here for almost 30 years but I'm very happy because our animals are getting very good facilities in the new Dubai Safari Park," he said. "Many people used to talk against the zoo saying it's so small, and although it is one of the smallest in the world, food and medi-care are the basics I managed to provide. We had a full time veterinary, which no zoo has, and we were able to afford it thanks to the municipality."
Some 80 per cent of the animals – around 600 to 700 – have already been moved to the new location.
All the zoo's staff will also move after its closure. "The remaining 20 per cent will move once the place is ready maybe towards the end of the year," Dr Khan said. "Those that remain are a lion, rabbits, chimpanzees, monkeys, birds, snakes, oryx and many aquatic birds, which we also breed here. But these animals can't be exhibited – Dubai Safari is a theme-based park, it has got African and Asian safari and Arabian so only animals which fit into those themes will be exhibited. The rest of the animals will be in the quarantine or we will keep them indoors."
Visitors were able to see the remaining animals up until 5.30pm on Sunday for free. "My four-year-old daughter didn't want to go to Al Mamzar beach so we decided to come to the zoo," said Riza Palazov, from Turkmenistan. "I didn't know it was shifting so we're lucky we came today because we live in Sweihan and I took a two-week break. The zoo is beautiful but it's good that it's moving to a bigger location as there are so many animals."
Zubin Syed, a 28-year-old from India, visited the zoo with her cousin and two-year-old son. "We weren't aware of the closing but we're lucky we came on the last day," she said. "We really like the zoo, it's quiet and we can watch some rare species. I think it's definitely good for the animals that it's moving."
Amer Hammad, a 29-year-old from Egypt, managed to bring his visiting uncle Tarek on the last day. "It's a really nice zoo," said Mr Hammad, who was born and raised in Sharjah. "I've been here a few times when I was younger but didn't know it was closing. I think I would visit the new location when it moves and it's a good idea to move to newer and bigger facilities for the animals."
For Maksoud Alam, who has been working at Malik Burger in the zoo for the past three years, the closing will mean having to separate from the zoo staff. "It's a sad day but working here has been lovely," said the 24-year-old from Bangladesh. "People are so friendly in the zoo. We're not yet sure if our outlet will open in the new location so I will move to Mushrif Park on Wednesday to work there. The zoo staff and I have become very close, we will definitely stay in touch, even the zoo manager has become a great friend."