Dubai has come of age in the area of conservation. In a destination known for its mega-projects, a less well-known local fact is that the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve forms 5% of the emirate of Dubai. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) is the UAE’s first national park. Carefully planned rehabilitation over the years has resulted in a protected environment for the last of the desert wildernesses.
With the rapid development of Dubai as a major business centre in the Gulf, the Dubai Government has long recognised the need to preserve its unique and beautiful desert habitat, and the many threatened flora and fauna species within. This unique reserve was created for the protection of those endangered species and for the conservation of the natural desert habitat and heritage. (www.ddcr.org)
Q&A with Greg Simkims – DDCR Conservation manager
How long have you worked at the DDCR?
I have worked at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR)since it was formed in 2003. I was also involved in putting together the proposal for the DDCR creation.
What did you do before?
I worked at the Al Maha Desert Resort which is located within the DDCR in Dubai from 1999 onwards, first as a field guide and then as the Reserve Officer for the initial protected area of 27km² which is now part of the DDCR.
What are some of the unique opportunities of working in a desert environment and the Middle East?
Deserts are harsh environments for most living organisms and the species that survive out here are uniquely adapted to thrive in this environment, being able to observe and study these species has been a great opportunity. Working in the Middle East has given me opportunities to work with people from across the region and around the world and I have enjoyed learning from all different perspectives and experiences people have to conservation and protected area management.
Please may you detail some of the conservation work that the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) undertakes?
Our work is the effective management and protection of a representation of the Dubai inland desert ecosystem. In order to achieve this, we have re-introduced Arabian Oryx, Arabian gazelle, Sand gazelle and MacQueen’s bustard as well as implemented a habitat restoration programme by planting indigenous tree species. Furthermore, we conduct research and monitoring programmes on numerous species and habitats within the reserve. These include camera trap programmes, movement studies (GPS tracking collars), extensive vegetation studies and arthropod studies.
Please may you detail fully some of the developments being pursued at the DDCR towards furthering environmental protection?
The DDCR has recently embarked on a plan to “re-wild” the desert; the initial phase will actually be the reduction of our ungulate population. Over the past 20 years our programme to re-introduce, in particular, Arabian Oryx and establish a viable breeding population has been very successful. We have now become victims of our own success and the population has moved beyond the carrying capacity of the reserve. We have therefore decided to move some animals off the reserve into enclosures where we will separate the sexes to prevent further breeding. The animals will then be made available to other protected areas within the region. The reduction of ungulates will result in an overall improvement of the health of the eco-system and in the long run enable us to look at the re-introduction of other species that are locally extinct.
The other development that is underway is a Visitor Centre for the DDCR; this will greatly enhance our public awareness work. In particular, it will enable us to engage with the schools in Dubai and heighten the environmental education of the youth in the UAE.
How are these progressing?
We are in the process of building the enclosures and will hopefully move the first animals off the DDCR this year.
The visitor centre is in the planning and development phase.
How do these developments align to Earth Day this year commemorating 50 years of supporting initiatives aimed towards environmental protection?
Our work in conserving the fauna and flora of the UAE desert and in protecting nearly 5% of Dubai’s land area perfectly aligns with the initiatives aimed at environmental connects.
What role do you play in pursuing these developments?
As the Conservation Manager of the DDCR, I am involved in all aspects of these developments.
How does your South African background and experience assist in this regard?
Having grown up in South Africa and having experience in the field of agriculture and game farms. I believe I had an advantage in understanding the importance of environmental protection and good stewardship of the land, while at the same time being aware that these practices had to be built on a foundation of sustainability.
Moreover, what is the extent of collaboration between the two countries with regard to environmental protection and conservation work?
I am not aware of any formal collaboration between the 2 countries but for many years South African Parks have attended annual regional workshops in Sharjah, leading sessions on Protected Area management. As the DDCR, we are currently in discussions with Pretoria University on possible research collaborations.
What are the lessons and best practices the rest of the world can learn from the DDCR?
The model we have developed as a reserve has had a primary goal of conservation supported by sustainable tourism operations that are strictly controlled so as not to impact the primary goal. This has allowed the DDCR to make good strides in protecting the environment while still being financially sustainable.
How are these being communicated and expanded globally?
The communication of our model has primarily focused on the West Asia Middle East region and mainly in the form of presentation at regional meetings and workshops. As an IUCN member, we also involved with regional and global efforts.