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    One of the most beautiful areas of the UAE lies to the south of the curve that is made by the Dhaid-Masafi highway near Siji. Wadi Ashwani is one of the tributaries of wadi Siji, and it has its origin high up in the mountains that overlook the Masafi-Fujeirah road.

   I was introduced to this wadi many years ago and have enjoyed countless walks and camping trips there. In years of good rainfall the downstream part of the wadi is a favourite picnic spot for local and expat families, because this part of the river can be reached by car. There are former farming fields bordering the river, with many Acacia trees providing shade, so camping is easy and if the river is running, water is nearby.

   Further upstream the track splits up into two branches with the main track following a left curve and crossing the river to lead eventually to the village of Diftah on the Masafi-Fujeirah road. The track that continues straight becomes very rough and fewer people venture this far. After rains some of the wadi crossings are impassable and you have to continue on foot. The track stops at a small fenced plantation right beside the stream. Some people have managed to continue further with their cars, but after rains it is better to cross the wadi on foot. The track winds uphill and almost immediately you can see some odd-looking rocks. They are very dark and have a molten appearance with bits of green inclusions here and there. These are the remains of an active copper mining enterprise that took place here many hundreds of years ago. Copper ore was dug up in mine pits that usually resembled deep wells. It was then put into clay pots that were filled to the brim with wood. The many Acacia trees of the area must have come in handy! When the wood was lit, the heat of the fire melted the copper ore, and the copper ran down to the bottom of the pot, which was shaped like a shallow dish. When the job was done and the pot had cooled down, it was broken and the disc of copper that had solidified at the bottom was removed. One of the walls surrounding the fallow fields of the farm is built almost completely from large rocks of old copper slag.

   Further upstream the walk leads over rocky outcrops and low hillsides, which in years of good rainfall are covered with dozens of species of wildflowers. I have found many interesting and beautiful plants there in the last fifteen years. I never thought I would find flax in the desert, but this is where I first noticed the pretty yellow flowers of Linum corymbulosum. The rather rare Grewia tenax bush grows here, as does the hairy plant with the yellow-spotted leaves that is called Anchusa aegyptia. At one bend the wadi bed has deepened into good-sized pool. It is a perfect place for a coffee stop, as some large sidr trees provide shade. In the grass below the tree grow strange-looking parasitic plants called broomrape (Orobanche cernua). They come in two colours - purple and dirty-white. They usually grow on the roots of a member of the nightshade family (Solanum) which is represented here by the Desert thorn Lycium shawii.

   The wadi is not only one of the best botanical sites in the country. There is also plenty of wildlife. The most obvious and the largest of the animals that use the wadi system are the feral donkeys that watch you from the hilltops. Once popular as a means of transport in the days before roads and cars, they have long since been turned loose, forced to fend for themselves, and managing to do so in spite of the harsh conditions.

   Smaller wildlife is represented by snakes of which we have seen both the rear-fanged type and the viper between the rocks along the wadi banks. Since none of the local snakes are aggressive, there is no real danger exploring the fields and hills, as long as you watch where you put your hands and feet.

   A friendly night visitor to one of our camps was the all black hedgehog named after a Mr. Brandt. (Brandt's hedgehog). Naturally inquisitive it sniffed around my tent until it woke up the dog, who was quite excited by our guest. The hedgehog immediately rolled up into a ball, as all hedgehogs do. But as the dog came closer to sniff at him, he did something that is peculiar to this particular species only: it jerked its whole body upward several times in quick succession, managing to hit the dog in the nose and frightening it off. As soon as the dog withdrew, rubbing its hurting nose, the hedgehog raised itself high on its funny flat feet and raced off at an amazing speed. Although the "private Life" of these hedgehogs has not yet been studied by scientists, we do believe that they can cover great distances each night in their search for their mainly insect food.

   The most wonderful wildlife encounter I experienced, however, was with the Gordon's wildcat. This is a true wild cat, not a feral domestic cat. Felis sylvestris is the origin of our domestic tabby cats and in the UAE this species is represented by a subspecies named after a British army colonel, Col. Gordon.

   We had just reached our favourite camping spots on one of the fallow fields behind the oasis, when one of our group said: "Look at that cat!". I was surprised that a domestic cat would be so far out in the mountains, away from easy access to food and water. When I looked to where my friend pointed, I was even more surprised to see a Gordon's wildcat sitting only some 50 meters away. Its fur blended so perfectly with the colour of the rocks that it wold have been nearly invisible if it had not been twitching the black tip of its tail as its watched the antics of the dogs. Obviously it was invisible to the dogs, for they paid no attention whatsoever. I was so amazed that I even forgot to photograph it - which is a shame, for there are very few photographs of this cat in the wild, and certainly none as close up as this one was.

   I first came across this Felis sylvestris gordoni when a friend managed to breed them in captivity for the first time. Later I took over this captive breeding program, and I quickly fell in love with this charming and brave cat. I have spoken with people in the mountains who claim they would rather tackle a leopard than a wildcat. For wild is what these cats are. They are impossible to tame unless they are bottle-fed from the time their eyes open. And even then, they are only tame to the person who brought them up.

   Gordon's wildcat is one of the four species of wild cat that live in the UAE. The most famous one now is the Arabian leopard. That was not always the case. Prior to 1993 very few people had ever heard of the leopard or of the other cats: the caracal and the sandcat.

   The sandcat lives in the sand dunes, now almost confined to the large sand dune areas of Abu Dhabi emirate. The caracal is still reasonably well represented and roams in all the hills of the Hajar Mountains and the Ru'us al Jibal, while only very few leopards are left in both these mountain ranges. The wildcat is at home both in the mountains and in the sands. It even comes close to human habitations, living opportunistically on scrap food and domestic livestock such as chickens. The hot daylight hours it spends in underground dens, while in the mountains it probably uses caves also. In a recent research program aimed at the wild cat was carried out by employees of the Sharjah Desert Park it was found that it uses up to 40 dens within its 25- 40 square kilometer range. These dens are also used at times by foxes, and fights over dens between the two animals occur regularly. Part of the research in Sharjah, which has not been published yet, indicated that the cats do come close to where people live but are easily disturbed out of their habitat by for instance the construction of new roads. Living close to humans poses a two-fold danger to the wildcat's survival: one is that farmers do not take kindly to their chickens being stolen and will kill any cat they can find - a fate that befell the cat in the study of the Sharjah Desert Park. It was tracked to its den by her footprints, after which the entrance was stuffed with bushes that were set afire -  a really sad ending to the life of a beautiful creature.

   The other threat is that where people are, there are domestic cats. And domestic cats cross-breed with wildcats. The offspring is no longer pure wildcat and has lost some of the typical characteristics of that cat: its mottled markings, the black-ringed tail, the black feet and the cream-coloured light parts (never white) on belly and face. Many wildcat hybrids live either as feral or domestic cats in Dubai and surroundings. One male Gordon's wildcat that escaped from the breeding cages is still roaming around Al Bada'a after eight years, populating the neighbourhood with look alikes.

   The captive breeding program ensures that the pure Gordon's wildcat will remain part of the natural heritage of the UAE. They can be seen at both Dubai zoo and the Sharjah Desert Park as well as in countless zoos across the world to which cats from our Dubai breeding program were sent over the years.


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