The natural landscapes and wide spaces allow the animals to enjoy relative freedom, while the visitor enjoys a safe, air-conditioned walk which makes even a summer visit a possibility. There are also indoor displays, where you can stand ‘eye to eye and nose to nose’ with the animals, and an indoor aviary where birds fly all around and above your head.
The range of different of animals on display at the one square kilometre site reflects the biodiversity of Arabia with snakes, rodents, mammals, birds and fish all living in realistic, natural environments - a set-up which puts old-fashioned zoos and their limited cage space to shame.
Nubian Ibex clamber up a rocky outcrop adorned with caves and crevices as a waterfall feeds a stream where pink flamingos are bathing. As the stream winds across a desert plain dotted with palm trees, it passes herds of sand gazelle, Arabian oryx and, towering above them, ostriches.
There are over 150 different species of animal on display from all over the Arabian Peninsula, notably from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as the UAE.
Arabia’s Wildlife Centre, established by the Environment and Protected Areas Authority of the Sharjah Government, opened its doors to the public in September 1999 as a means of promoting an understanding among UAE residents of the importance of wildlife conservation.
“There’s no point in putting animals behind bars and expecting that to carry an environmental message,” says Peter Wright, a manager with Animal Management Consultancy, which manages the animals on behalf of the Sharjah Government. “You have to keep animals in as realistic a setting as possible for people to appreciate an animal in its own environment and recognise that it belongs in its own environment.
“When people in Europe first heard about the African elephant, their first reaction was to take an elephant from Africa and stick it in Hamburg Zoo so people could have a look at it, which they thought was great. But if you speak to those people’s grandchildren today, they think it’s terrible that these animals are caged in old-fashioned zoos.”
Arabia’s Wildlife Centre is used as an educational tool, as well as an entertainment attraction, with thousands of visitors a week, including an average of 800 children daily on school trips, who are seen as the environmental protectors of tomorrow.
“Most people regard the desert as an empty space,” Wright says. “And that’s the big problem we face because people don’t realise it’s a unique working ecosystem with a lot of animals and plants which have to be protected, otherwise they will disappear.”
Next door to the reserve-type zoo, although not open to the public, is the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife where teams of zoologists are engaged in captive breeding and research programmes to preserve endangered species and build-up a better picture of the fragile desert ecosystems which lie all around. The Arabian leopard has been adopted as the ‘flagship’ endangered species of both centres because, Wright says, it attracts a lot of public attention and people have a lot of empathy for it. He hopes that highlighting its vulnerability in the wild will install a sense of responsibility in visitors about the dangers posed to all flora and fauna by the development of the modern world.
“The most worrying thing in Arabia is not the loss of individual species, but basic habitat degradation which is happening on a large scale, mostly due to rapid development,” he says. “There is a rising population, development is going on alongside of this with roads and schools and all the rest of it, and what has happened is that the environment has taken a knock because of it.
“One of the biggest problems in the region is water extraction so what’s happening is the water table is dropping. It’s become far more noticeable in the past three years because of the reduced rainfall. But it’s not purely due to rainfall, it’s also because more water is being extracted.
“Obviously it’s needed for drinking water and livestock, but it’s also the case that if you have large parks and expanding cities there is an increasing drain on water resources and the higher the standard of living of individuals, the more natural resources they consume.
“The other enormous problem, not only here but right through Arabia and actually most of the more dry areas of the world, is overgrazing. As human populations increase, so do the number of herd animals which means more bore holes are drilled for water resources and more plants and shrubs are eaten. Once you ‘ destroy vegetation and water resources, nothing else can survive - from the smallest mouse right up to the Arabian leopard.”
The exact populations of Arabian leopards left in the wild are not known, but zoologists are conducting research to find out and discover exactly how in danger of becoming extinct they are.
“We use software which has been developed to extrapolate the probability of the extinction of species which are under certain pressures,” Wright explains. “It has been used for a number of species all over the world, including the Siberian tiger, and takes factors like the current population size and external influences, such as birth and juvenile mortality rates, to simulate what might happen.
“There are events which might push it one way or another so you end up with a probability range and, if current trends continue with the Arabian leopard, it has a very large probability of going extinct in the next 100-200 years. As numbers decline, you start getting inbreeding problems and the species becomes even weaker.
“The problem that we have at the moment is that we don’t know how many leopards there are in the wild at the moment. The figure is very much an estimate. Most surveys on leopards have been done in Oman, but their figures are in dispute and there is no direct evidence to give an accurate figure of how many there are left in the wild.
“The estimate that is given by consensus of everybody in the region is between 50 and 250. If it is 50, then it’s definitely going to become extinct. If it is 250, then it might have a chance. So it’s a very important figure. One of the things we need to do in the region over the next couple of years is get an accurate figure from sample areas which allows us extrapolate the number over the whole of the remaining habitat of Arabia to see what is the most realistic population in the wild.”
The Arabian leopard is only found in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Yemen, which have all introduced captive breeding programmes to boost numbers. The different breeding centres have a total of 42 Arabian leopards in captivity, 10 of which are in Sharjah, including two new-born cubs. We have one hand-raised male on display in the zoo who loves people. He can see you through the glass and actually gets quite bored on Mondays when the zoo is closed as he really craves attention. The other nine animals are in the breeding centre where they are held in a quiet environment and there is only a certain amount of staff allowed into those areas.
“The breeding centre has to be closed to the public because it is a breeding facility and a lot of research is done here so it’s not a place where it would be conducive to have people walking around. On the other hand, Arabia’s Wildlife Centre was opened specifically with the idea of educating people living in the UAE.”
In recent years, the centres in the four leopard ‘range’ countries have begun cooperation programmes to ensure a greater chance of success for their breeding programmes.
“Regional cooperation is increasing and there are memorandums of understanding and agreements being signed between the different authorities,” Wright explains. “Animals do not respect borders so this has to be done on a regional level or it won’t work. The captive populations are joined together in a regional ‘stud book’ and we have very active cooperation between everybody to exchange animals for breeding. For example, we have leopards here from the Yemen, from Oman and Saudi Arabia. They don’t belong to us, they belong to the countries where they originate from, but there are breeding agreements and we breed them, as do the other countries.
“We keep records and they are kept in a central database and decisions are made at a regional level. There is a working group established which then says what the most productive pairings would be between animals to try to keep the genetic pool as productive as possible.
“The more accurate your database, in terms of how many founder members which have come from the wild and the exact relationships between your captive animals, the greater the chance of avoiding any inbreeding traps which could effectively destroy the programmes. If animals become infertile or prone to disease then they just wont breed.”
Wright say that despite the successes of the breeding programme - a number of litters have been born over the past few years - there is no long term plan to put Arabian leopards back into the wild because they still face persecution.
“People’s attitude towards the environment and their influence on the environment has to change first,” he says. “But we need to breed the Arabian leopard so we have the option of releasing them back in the future.
“The leopard is quite capable of looking after itself if it is put in an area with a suitable habitat with enough animals to feed on. But it is people that are the problem. If you release them into an area where they have killed animals before, and people still herd livestock there, then there is a good chance they will be shot by farmers.” As well as the leopard breeding programme, the zoologists in Sharjah are also involved in research work, including tracking animals in the wilds of the desert using radio telemetry and photo-trapping in remote mountainous areas using infrared sensors which are triggered by the presence of carnivores such as foxes, caracal and even leopards.
“We have had great success in going out into the mountains and the wadis and seeing what is there,” Wright says. “This enables us to make recommendations to the environment authority so they can make informed decisions on what the protection priorities are. We do surveying in the wadis and other field work to build-up a wider picture of precisely what the populations are. There are also questions which need to be answered about some animals. The Blanford’s Fox from the Arabian Peninsula, for example, has never been bred in captivity before so very little is known about its reproductive behaviour and all the factors which contribute to it. So far we have had four litters in the past few years.” l