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   The discovery of oil in the region and its early exploitation started in the 1960’s and many expatriates came to work and live in the Emirates. Most of them were spending their free time recreating on the beaches or tennis courts, but some were curious about their new surroundings and took their vehicles into the desert on weekends. One of those who enjoyed to be in the wild was a new person, just arrived from Kuwait, J.N.B.(Bish) Brown. He had helped to found the Ahmadi natural history group in Kuwait where he had spent 20 years, collecting a wealth of information about the country’s flora and fauna. He arrived in Sharjah in 1976 and moved to Abu Dhabi in 1977, where he soon gathered a group of like-minded people around him. Together with Anthony Harris and John Stewart-Smith he then founded the Emirates Natural History Group.

In the early 1980’s the Al Ain branch of the Emirates Natural History Group was started and later on, both groups came under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan. In Dubai, a similar group was founded in the mid 80’s under the name of the Dubai Natural History Group. All groups are non-profit volunteer-led organizations, with the purpose (as expressed in the Al Ain statutes): “to give encouragement and assistance towards the appreciation and study of the natural history, natural sciences and history of the United Arab Emirates and neighbouring states”.

What exactly do the natural history groups do?

Once or twice a month (except in the summer months) lectures are held, the attendance of which is open to everybody, either free or for a minimal charge. The Dubai Natural History Group meets on the first Sunday of the month in the Emirates Academy for Hospitality (opposite the Jumeirah Beach Hotel). The Al Ain Group meets on the second and fourt Tuesday of the month at the Intercontinental Hotel. The topics of the lectures are mainly of local (Arabian) interest, though occasionally some natural history subjects from other parts of the world are also presented.

The Abu Dhabi group meets on the first and third Tuesday of the month in the lecture hall of the Cultural Foundation. Since they have managed to get corporate members who pay more than the few dirhams per person membership, which is the rate for any of the groups, they can afford from time to time to bring in speakers from abroad who are experts on Arabian subjects.

These interesting lectures keep members up to date with new developments in local archaeology and paleontology, teach them about general natural history, applied to the sandy desert and mountain habitats and introduce new arrivals to the local flora and fauna, as well as to local culture and heritage. Names of libraries, which are open to anybody who wishes to research, are maintained and the Dubai group is also attempting to set up a reference photolibrary.

All groups publish monthly newsletters, with programs and reports of activities and the Abu Dhabi group produces in addition twice yearly a journal called Tribulus, to which members of all groups contribute. Tribulus evolved from earlier publication, the Abu Dhabi Bulletin, in which many "first" discoveries have appeared. Many of these very interesting articles are reproduced on the active website (http://enhg.4t.com/), which is maintained by the Al Ain group that also includes photo galleries on various subjects. They also have an e-mail address, on which they could be reached by interested people from abroad

The other important part of the groups’ activities is the organization of field trips. Practically, every weekend a group is venturing into the sands or the mountains to have a look at what is there. Most of these trips can be attended by young and old, no special physical condition is required. Sometimes, however, mountain hikes are only for the fit; and only the experienced or the brave can attend the desert drives. The trips are led by a volunteer, who knows the terrain and usually also knows a bit about the flora and fauna that can be encountered. Sometimes there are specialist trips, such as the beach combing hikes with Dr. Sandy Fowler or fossil finding trips with Valerie Chalmers. These longtime members of the Dubai group are not professionals in their field but amateurs, who have specialized in their subject, encouraged by the group’s activities and their own interest. The author’s knowledge about local flora was a direct result of her attending a lecture about local wild plants by Rob Western in 1983. Her interest was fired by the interesting adaptations of wild plants to the desert environment and for the next twenty years she spent her free time collecting and photographing plants and having them identified by professionals abroad, with whom she had made contact through group members. Other people who became semi-professional in a specific subject were Ian Hamer, who collected and organised identification of more than 200 species of bees and wasps; Gary Feulner, the present chairman of the Dubai group, who not only studies dragonflies and freshwater snails, but also discovered, together with Peter Cunningham, a new species of freshwater goby (Awaous aeneofuscus) in the wadis of the Hajar mountains. Other new discoveries were also made by “amateur-experts” like Carolyn Lehmann (who had a fossil sea urchin named after her) and Tony Woodward (he discovered several new species and one marine creature - chiton - was named after him Acanthochitona woodwardii) Carolyn Lehmann also discovered an important archaeological site in Umm Suqeim, which revealed unusual burials. Peter Hellyer, a committee member of the Abu Dhabi Group for the last 18 years and the Tribulus managing editor, has also found numerous archaeological sites, and helped to establish, and now runs, the Government-backed Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS.

When professional researchers visit the country the groups immediately try to rope them in for a lecture or a guided trip. For instance, when herpetologist researcher Ted Papenfuss from the University of California in Berkeley came to the region to study the local lizards and snakes, a most interesting lecture was given to the Dubai group. Visiting archeologists make regular appearances on the meetings of all the groups. The Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey (ADIAS) owes its birth partly to a similar meeting organised by the Abu Dhabi group, since its original formation followed a lecture by Dr. Geoffrey King and a subsequent meeting between Dr. King, Peter Hellyer (then Chairman, back in 1991) and Sheikh Nahayan. Close cooperation exists between the natural history groups and organizations such as the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency (ERWDA) and the Federal Environmental Agency (FEA), both located in Abu Dhabi, as was the case with the Sharjah-based Arabian Leopard Trust (ALT). Links also exist with the Emirates Environmental Group and the Sharjah Desert Park’s Breeding Centre

Once a year the three groups get together for a weekend, organized by each of the groups in turn, usually in their own region. This is an opportunity for group members to get to know a new area of the country and to exchange knowledge and raise new interests. Sometimes members of all three groups work together on a census of wild animals, such as the gazelle census, held in 1996, that revealed a surprising number of over 50 free-roaming specimens in the sandy desert between Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai.

Over the years all three groups have developed from mere social activity groups to become more scientific in their approach to the recording of the country’s wild flora and fauna.

The members of the Abu Dhabi group organise and/or take part regularly in surveys of Abu Dhabi emirate and the offshore islands. It was one of these surveys that recorded an internationally important breeding colony of the crab plover (Dromas ardeola) on Qarnein island and the first breeding in Arabia of the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) in a man-made water hole (Al Wathba Lake). The Bird Database of the Emirates Natural History Group, meticulously maintained by members such as Peter Hellyer, Simon Aspinall and Colin Richardson, now holds well over 20,000 records of both common and rare species. The “Introduction to the Flora of the United Arab Emirates” by Rob Western (published by the Emirates University in Al Ain) resulted from weekend researching trips that he made together with Bish Brown and other ENHG members.

The activities of the three natural history groups encourage lay people to hand in records of what they see on their private desert forays. Even though new discoveries are rare, these records are sometimes very important, as is the case when they represent an extension of the known range of a plant or animal. This is illustrated by the records of finds of the remains of Finless Porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides) in the northern Emirates. Until these records were made known to the group’s mammal recorder, the only remains of this shy and relatively unknown marine mammal had been found on Merawah Island during Rob Baldwin’s research, carried out with supports of the members of Abu Dhabi Group. Other interesting finds have been those of petroglyphs in Fujairah emirate, by the writer, amongst others, of several new species of butterflies in the wadis near Al Ain by Mike Gillett, of a new owlfly (Bubopsis hamata) by Brigitte Howarth and Simon Aspinall, and of new moss records in the Hajar mountains by Benno Böer and visiting German botanists and of the mangrove crab Scylla serrata by Mark Beech and Peter Hogarth. The last two records were not made as a result of natural history activities but they were written up in the Tribulus journal.

All three groups sponsor small research projects from time to time, either separately or together. The Abu Dhabi Group has sponsored archaeological work in Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Fujairah and Abu Dhabi, and has also extended its interests overseas, backing a fauna research project in the Sundarbans nature reserve in Bangladesh by Dr. Reza Khan, of Dubai Zoo, and providing binoculars for local birdwatchers in Kenya. A project that the three groups sponsored together was the research and publication of the checklist of wild plants of the UAE, which led ultimately to the publication of the comprehensive guide to the “Wild flowers of the United Arab Emirates” by Marijcke Jongbloed in 2003 (which in turn was sponsored by ERWDA). Sponsorship for an important marine study by Rob Baldwin came from the Union National Bank, whose chairman is ENHG Patron HE Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan. This resulted in a unique book “Whales and Dolphins of the UAE”, published in December 1995. The Bank also sponsored “Hidden Riches", the first ever book to provide an overview of the archaeological history of the UAE, which was written by Peter Hellyer.

Another activity that encourages members to go out into nature and open their eyes are the annual photographic competitions that are held by the groups. Winning photographs are awarded sponsored prices and are posted on the Al Ain ENHG website.

Annually two awards are given by the Abu Dhabi natural history group on recommendation of members of all three groups.

The Sheikh Mubarak bin Mohammed Award for Natural History is the country’s premier natural history award. It is intended to acknowledge the contributions made by an individual primarily through original research and publication, to the scientific study of the archaeology, history and natural history of the UAE. It comprises a silver dhow and a cash sum.

The Bish Brown award, created to commemorate one of the group’s founders, is intended to acknowledge contributions made by an individual in terms of promoting study and conservation of the UAE’s environment, wildlife, history and heritage, whether through formal study, encouragement of educational awareness or other means. It is represented by a silver falcon held for a year by each recipient.

Important discoveries in natural history as well as new developments in certain areas like geology, archeology and palaeontology are often written up in the journal Tribulus , which contains the more scientific accounts of the activities of the groups, all of which are submitted to a formal scientific review process. It also accepts contributions from visiting researchers, such as Albert Legrain, a Belgian specialist on nocturnal moths, who recorded more than 300 species of these little known creatures during annual visits over many years. Graham Giles provided the checklist of dragonflies and damselflies in the UAE, which contained 20 species, while new discoveries have since been made by Gary Feulner. Very exciting was the re-discovery of the Arabia tahr (Hemitragus jayakari) in March 1997 on Jebel Hafit, by members of a bird-watching group. This dainty mountain mammal had last been seen on that mountain in 1982, while official surveys in 1986 and 1990 failed to reveal its presence, so that it was considered extinct till this new sighting. Also the first record and picture of Blanford’s fox (Vulpes cana) from the UAE Hajar mountains, made by Chris and Tilde Stuart during their wildlife survey on behalf of the Arabian Leopard Trust, was first published in Tribulus.

Every new issue of Tribulus brings news of another interesting discovery and thus contributes to the greater knowledge about nature, history and culture in the UAE.

As may be apparent from the many names mentioned in this article of group members and contributors to the knowledge of the natural world of the UAE, UAE nationals do not frequent the meetings and field trips of the groups in great numbers. Although there are obviously many of them, interested in nature and involved in its research and protection, working with organization such as ERWDA, the FEA and the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG), the activities of the natural history groups do not seem to attract their interest until now. It is hoped that this article may help to bring awareness of the existence and achievements of these groups, so that everyone who is enthusiastic about our wild flora and fauna will know where to go in order to participate or contribute. This applies especially to lay people. It is not necessary to be specialized in any subject in order to enjoy nature together with like-minded people, or to contribute to the greater understanding of the natural world around us.



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