NATURE IN THE UAE
An array of landscapes and seascapes
AN ARRAY OF LANDSCAPES AND SEASCAPES
From the mountains and mangroves to its desert and coastline, the UAE is home to many different natural areas. However, in a very short time, there has been considerable development, often negatively impacting the environment and which has created pollution.
Most of the UAE is sandy desert where sparse seasonal plants grow. The emirate of Abu Dhabi includes part of the world's largest sand desert – the 'Empty Quarter' or Rub al Khali.
The Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are both part of WWF's Global 200 (Eco-region 232: Arabian Sea) – identified as priorities for conservation. Important natural areas include islands, coral reefs, sea grasses, salt marshes, 'khors' (tidal inlets) and mangroves.
There’s very little permanent freshwater in the UAE. You can find 'sabkhas' (the world’s largest salt flats) where rain gathers, as well as freshwater artificial lakes. There’s also year-round running water in deep gorges of 'wadis' (valleys) in the mountains. The UAE also has underground aquifers containing groundwater, some of which is freshwater.
Home to delicate ecosystems and endangered species, mountains are truly a treasure to the region. They are one of the few areas in the region bursting with unique biodiversity in flora and fauna, as well as having intact freshwater resources. The Hajar Mountains in the Eastern Region fulfil an important role filling the local underground aquifers. Wildlife has adapted to the mountains and the freshwater pools, 'wadis' and springs, including dragonflies, toads and fish.
The rugged nature of the mountains makes them a perfect refuge for shy wildlife such as the Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr) and the Arabian tahr (Hemitragus jayakari). The mountains shared with Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen are home to another Global 200 area: Ecoregion 127: Arabian Highland Woodlands and Shrublands.
Although a hot and arid climate, the UAE harbours many rare and exciting creatures and plants. They’re not just from the Arabian Peninsula, but from Asia and Africa as well. On land they have all learnt to adapt to the climate and landscape. Along the coast, there is an exotic array of sea-life.
Many species thrive in the desert and mountain areas of the UAE, adapting fascinating features to cope with the heat and terrain. For example, the sandcat's furry paws prevent it from burning or sinking in the hot sand, and the oryx can go without water for weeks.
Sadly, the fast pace of unplanned development is much more of a problem. Key habitats are disappearing and the list of species of special concern is growing. Among these are Arabian tahr (Hemitragus jayakari) and Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr).
The sea of the UAE is rich with fish, plants and corals. In fact, over 500 different species of fish alone inhabit the Gulf waters, as well as the second largest population of dugongs (Dugong dugon) in the world, Arabian humpback whales and eight different species of dolphin.
We’re also blessed with all sorts of sea turtles. The green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is the most common and feeds on sea grass beds found in shallow waters. Both green and hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) turtles are known to nest on the beaches of UAE's main coast and islands.
Coral and mangrove
Coral reefs and mangrove creeks are vital breeding and feeding grounds for fish and, in the case of mangroves, bird-life too. They also protect our shores from coastal erosion. But coral reefs are especially sensitive – easily destroyed by coastal developments, fishing nets, anchors, or ignorant divers. And they take decades to grow back.
Over 400 bird species inhabit our skies during the year. Most stop off on their yearly migration but we know that at least 90 species breed here.
Breeding is especially common on the islands off Abu Dhabi. For instance, Qarnein Island sees breeding of sooty gull (Larus hemprichii), white-cheeked tern (Sterna repressa), bridled tern (Sterna anaethetus) and lesser crested tern (Sterna bengalensis). That’s why, on fifth February 2003, WWF International acknowledged Qarnein Island Marine Protected Area as a 'Gift to the Earth.’
In just a few decades, the UAE switched from having a traditional economy based on fishing, oasis farming and livestock to massive and rapid urbanisation. The result has been a wide range of challenges and threats to the nature as well as to humanity. We at EWS-WWF believe that, with careful planning, the country can continue to grow and evolve with minimum impact on the environment.
Urbanisation and industry
Of the many threats, these are some of the most pressing. Development, over-fishing and over-grazing destroy wildlife habitats. Rapid population growth brings other problems such as waste management. Air, land and seapollution is rising serious issue, Ground water is also being rapidly depleted for farms and other irrigation.
An ecological footprint is the impact we have on the environment. It’s measured as the amount of land needed to sustain the natural resources we use. The latest WWF Living Planet report shows that in order for us to sustain global consumption trends, we would need 1.5 Earths - we only have one. This means that we are using resources faster than the planet can replenish them.
However, the ecological footprint of the average UAE resident is 3.5 times higher than the global average and more than eight times higher than what’s locally available (1.08 global hectares per person). (Source: 2014 WWF Living Planet Report )
The UAE attracts around 13 million people a year. Due to unsustainable planning, the coastline has been heavily developed for resorts, threatening several areas of environmental importance. In addition, popular activities such as water sports, diving and snorkeling cause damage to the precious underwater world when done unsupervised and in protected areas.
The government has been taking great steps to quickly address many of the problems. However, the average understanding of the main environmental threats and their impact on society is low in the country. More needs to be done to create awareness of the link between human behaviour including our lifestyles and the environmental impact of these.