The ghaf (Prosopis cineraria) grows in the desert regions of south-eastern Arabia, as well as in Iran, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
For centuries it has been an essential food source, as well as a source of fuel, shelter and medicine. Its leaves were once used instead of rice, its elongated pods provide fodder for animals which in turn supply milk, butter, cheese and meat.
The ghaf woodlands also support large populations of insects, which in turn provide food for reptiles, birds and small mammals. This sturdy, evergreen tree can withstand prolonged drought and high salinity, tapping water deep in the sands. The existence of ghaf in an area indicates the presence of groundwater.
But mounting developmental and demographic pressures are contributing to the tree's decline as ghaf woodlands are being cleared and groundwater over-extracted; depriving the trees of the little water they need to survive.
"Excessively grazed and widely disregarded by modern communities, the ghaf may be lost unless protection measures are initiated," said Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Director of WWF UAE.
To help save the species, WWF and its local partners have launched a campaign to raise public awareness about the ghaf and its values, while encouraging people to vote for it to be designated as the UAE's national tree.
An interactive website to support the campaign not only provides information about ghaf, it allows users to plant saplings in a virtual ghaf garden, and cast their votes in a virtual ballot box.
"We will plant one real ghaf sapling in the desert for every ten planted in the virtual garden," elaborated Al Mubarak. "Votes cast will strengthen our petition to the UAE Ministry of Environment and Water to bestow national tree status to the ghaf."
Other campaign activities include distribution of educational materials such as folders, flyers and posters, media advertising, and focus-group presentations and workshops. A ghaf competition for UAE residents is underway, engaging participants in developing creative elements for the ghaf campaign.
The campaign lasted two years, ending in 2008.