Tuesday 19 November 2019

Ten Wildlife Reserves to Visit in the Emirates

Wildlife. Rawr.

Many, many years ago I interviewed a lady called Marijke Joengbloed. She was the archetypal Expat Expert - a woman who had landed in Al Ain sometime in the dusty, distant past and who had turned her curiosity about the Emirates' natural history into becoming something of a centre of expertise. Like many before her, because Marijke cared about this stuff - and nobody else did - she became the de facto expert on the UAE's flora and fauna - as others became experts on the history, archaeology and ethnography of the place. The only people who seemed to care were the amateurs - the 'experts' had no expertise to offer. They'd never even been here.

Of course, the Bedouin knew every track in the sand, every shrub and tree, but nobody was asking them and now it's too late (I'm currently reading Aida Kanafani's 'Aesthetics and Ritual in the United Arab Emirates' from 1979, which you'll be hard pressed to find a copy of anywhere - it's a fascinating snapshot of life before, well, now).

The Emirates was, literally, uncharted territory - even when I arrived here, blinking, in the late 1980s.

Marijke was a big lady in every way and when I interviewed her back in the '90s, she was cradling a little pink baby hedgehog in her arm, nursing it with a pipette of milk. I discovered that there are actually three species of hedgehog in the Emirates - I had been amazed to find there was even one. I posted about it - and her role in the establishment of Arabia's Wildlife Centre in Sharjah - over here.

These days, we not only have a wealth of knowledge about the biodiversity and wildlife of the Emirates, we have active conservation projects in place. Some of these are eminently visitable and many make for great weekend explorations.

Of them all, the centre that Marijke established remains the most brilliant and diverse place to visit, with an Islamic Garden, Natural History Museum, a petting zoo for the kids and the centre itself. It's so good, we're going there on #SharjahSaturday...

Marmoom and Al Qudra Lakes are a great winter visit, with walks around the man-made lakes rewarded with all sorts of wildlife - including a huge amount of birds. There are a range of recreational facilities around here (with funky eats provided by the traileropolis of Last Exit) and, of course, the desert luxury of the Bab Al Shams hotel is just around the corner. Although there's no visitor centre at the Ras Al Khor Nature Reserve, there's a viewing point where you can look out for the plentiful flamingoes and other birds - but if you want a bird-spotter's paradise, head north of Sharjah to the award-winning and thoroughly delightful Wasit Wetland Centre, where you can whistle at Fulvous Whistling Ducks among others.

Heading inland, you can make for the desert village of Nazwa and the Al Ghaf Conservation Reserve, intended to preserve important desert populations of the UAE's national tree, the Ghaf (or prosopis cineraria to you, mate). Again, no visitor centres here (although some lovely drives) but close by you'll find Badayer, the homeplace of the Dune Formerly Known As Big Red and home to numerous dune buggy rental joints as well as the brand new (and achingly cool) Badayer Oasis, a 21-room hotel with 10 tents built on a desert theme, developed by Sharjah's Shurooq. If achingly funky desert hotels is your thing, I'd heartily recommend taking a look at Al Maha, which is at the centre of the extensive Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, itself home to herds of gazelles and Arabian oryx. I have to note, we haven't been back since it was managed by Emirates - it's now a Marriott, but the property itself is utterly gorgeous, with each tented 'chalet' equipped with its own infinity pool overlooking the desert. Quite, quite magical.

Exploring the mountains, you can spend some time walking around (or driving around) the fertile wadis of Wadi Helo, a protected nature reserve you'll likely pass through on your way to visiting the Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre. Here you'll find over 30 species of Arabian wildlife, including that tartiest of all big cats, the endangered (in the UAE likely extinct in the wild) Arabian Leopard. Just over the road from Al Hefaiyah, you'll find the Kalba Birds of Prey Centre which features a fierce collection of avian predators who'd all rip your eyes out as soon as look at you. They do stuff like flying demonstrations here. While you're in Kalba, you might like to stay at Shurooq's glamping retreat near to the Kalba Nature Reserve. If you do and you fancy something to get up to next day, you'd do worse than visit the UNESCO listed biosphere reserve at Wadi Wurayah, inland of Bidya in Fujairah - although I have to confess last time I went it wasn't open to the public, the Radisson Blu website suggests very strongly that is no longer the case. Just in case it is, and to be sure to be sure of my ten reserves, you can go south and take a hike around the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in Abu Dhabi.

There are actually loads of wildlife reserves and parks dotted around the UAE and they all provide a pleasant wander in these cool winter months...

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