The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) is one of those hidden gems in a sea of sand that remains unknown to most. This concealed area highlights just how much an emirate, that prides itself on its bustling metropolis, can also care for its indigenous, mostly four-legged, desert dwellers.
What started life as the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa in 1999, with a 27km2 conservation reserve that held 70 Arabian oryx, has expanded to account for 4.7 per cent (or 225 km2) of Dubai’s entire land mass.
To create the reserve, all oryx were removed from the region, taken to the United States, examined, with the strongest-gene oryx returning to the UAE. The success of this programme can be seen through the healthy oryx population that has grown to approximately 500, in its natural habitat.
Each year, DDCR welcomes ethical travellers and volunteers from Biosphere Expeditions – an award-winning, non-profit citizen science conservation organisation – who assist the DDCR in tracking, mapping and compiling additional data on the reserve’s wildlife. And those that join the Dubai expedition each year, coming from all over the world, do so with a common goal: cultural exchange and conservation.
Ethical travel is not so much about escapism, rather affording the opportunity to reconnect to nature. And while it’s a week of camping where the novelty of cold showers may be quick to wear off, the freedom from a constant stream of internet memes, social media addictions, and rush hour traffic is its own reward. But those that generally sign up with Biosphere Expeditions are usually focused on, and interested in, a few specific things: the species under observation (Arabian oryx), the environment (desert), and the educational experience, affording ample time with a scientist specialising in the travellers’ conservation passion.
The success of a programme, or a conservation effort of the scale that is seen in Dubai, relies not only on a passionate team leader (such as conservation officer Stephen Bell) but also the right tools for data collection, analysis and navigation. Arguably, just as important is the financial and logistical support received throughout the year.
One such benefactor is the vehicle manufacturer, Ford Motor Company. Ford’s grants initiative has supported Biosphere Expeditions’ conservation efforts over the past five years. Ford’s Conservation and Environmental Grants programme has become an annual event in the Middle East, and since its inception in 2000, the GCC/Levant chapter of the Ford Grants has supported nearly 200 projects with more than US$1.5 million granted to date.
The Ford Grants support ongoing and non-profit projects focused on conservation engineering, protection of the natural environment, and environmental education. Which is why Biosphere Expeditions is so deserving of continued backing by the automaker. The funds that Ford donates to Biosphere Expeditions go towards local placements in the Middle East – a part Biosphere Expeditions’ campaign to educate local people about nature and, more importantly, nature conservation, and to train the next generation of local conservationists.
Complementing the annual financial injection from the Ford Grants, Biosphere Expeditions was also this year the recipient of two F-150s for its time at DDCR, with expedition leader Malika Fettak calling the cars “a vital research tool”. Having the vehicles loaned for the duration of the programme saves crucial funds that can then be utilized elsewhere in our conservation activities.
Conservation officer Bell is quick to point out: “It’s fantastic to have the Ford F-150s, as we are able to get a full team inside – they’re very comfortable and spacious. It’s also great having the back loading bay, as all of the equipment, such as camera traps and live traps, can be transported while still having more than enough room for all the volunteers.”
There are also potentially interesting changes afoot at the reserve itself. Bell suggests the reserve has reached the stage where an apex predator is now vital to help naturally manage the ever-growing oryx population, and how this change will impact on the whole dynamics of DDCR. The oryx population has enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, but now runs the risk of losing all its wild animal instincts, which is counter-productive to the essence of the reserve.
Plans are underway to introduce the Arabian wolf to the reserve, which will not just change the whole dynamics of the area, but help maintain an essential balance. The idea is, according to Bell, initially to bring five wolves to the DDCR, and monitor closely their behaviour – ensuring the pack doesn’t begin killing for fun – adding a further level to the research conducted by the conservation team.
The importance of the introduction of an apex predator cannot be underestimated. For one, it will keep the population of oryx and other gazelles down, which in turn will influence the antelope species to act more like a wild animal, rather than waiting at feeding stations, without fear of predators. Bell suggests the conservation’s feeding instances can then be reduced, and eventually stopped altogether, as the reserve will be able to sustain itself in terms of natural vegetation.
The introduction of wolves will have another knock-on effect, in keeping the red fox population down, leading to a rise in the number of rodents, and, it’s assumed, an increase in Gordon’s wildcat and sand fox numbers. Vulture populations are also currently looking great in the reserve – something that will surely continue to flourish as the DDCR becomes a complete ecosystem.
That this reserve is on Dubai’s doorstep, a stone’s throw from the rising, sparkling metropolis of downtown Dubai, deserves greater attention, and it is crucial for the integration of man-made creations and the surrounding natural world. Indeed, generating interest in ethical travel should not be a hard sell, as we are only temporary custodians of the world we inhabit and it is our children who will inherit the Earth.
Ford’s continued support of effective, ethical, and eco-friendly programmes and campaigns – be it through deserving grants, or vehicle donations – highlights a cause much greater than profit, and is something ingrained in the company’s core values.
Now is the time to get out and experience the great wonders our natural world has to offer. The next Biosphere Expeditions projects in the region are a diving project in Musandam from 23 – 29 October (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam) and a return to the DDCR next year from 21 to 28 January (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia). Volunteers are welcome and local people with a genuine interest or a career path in conservation are invited to apply for a placement via www.biosphere-expeditions.org/placements.