Tuesday, 25 March 2008


Family out, couple of days off: a chance to visit Sharjah's Desert Museum and Arabian Wildlife Centre for the first time in a while. It's officially shut on Mondays, which explains why it was open on a Monday.

I can never visit the place without encountering the ghost of a rather remarkable woman called Marijke Jongbloed. I interviewed her for a magazine I was working on, just after the centre had opened many years ago back when the world was a sillier place. It was all a bit fairy tale: Jongbloed had originally moved out to Al Ain decades before and had carved a place as the UAE's most ardent amateur naturalist. Given the lack of professional ones, she quickly become the authority on the flora and fauna of the UAE.

Jongbloed had become concerned with the potential extinction of the 'dhub' or spiny-tailed lizard. The creature's tail was thought, by the bedouin, to be an aphrodisiac and its sole breeding ground, a large depressed area of desert to the left of the Sharjah/Dhaid road, was being decimated by love-lorn Lotharios looking for a lift.

So she wrote to the ruler of Sharjah, Dr. Sultan Al Qassimi. And he wrote back saying that he not only totally agreed with her, but would fund the creation of a nature reserve and wildlife centre.

When I interviewed her, she was weaning a hedgehog with a pipette. Marijke was a very large lady and it was a very small hedgehog. It was one of three species indigenous to the Emirates she told me, which did rather surprise me. I had always thought of hedgehogs as two-dimensional inhabitants of European roads.

She belly laughed, a deep, booming laugh, as she let me in on her favourite joke: she was building a major part of the centre so that the animals were outside and the humans confined. She thought that was only too appropriate. And so it is: today, as you walk around the centre, you're behind the glass and the baboons, cheetahs, wolves and Arabian Leopards are outside.

Marijke's great mission in life was the Arabian Leopard Trust. I'm not sure what happened: one day she was simply gone, leaving a whiff of sulphur behind her: something, somewhere, had gone wrong. And the Arabian Leopard Trust, founded to foster a breeding programme for these most attractive and almost extinct tarts of big cats (they lounge on rocky shelves at the Center, licking their paws and talking in languid, Terry Thomas lounge lizard tones, 'Helllooooo') appears to have disappeared too. If you ask one of the horde of under-employed local girls sat around behind the reception desk, you just get puzzled looks.

But I still see Marijke, in a red outfit, sitting in the garden with a hedgehog nestled in her big arms, every time I go to the Centre...

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