The Natural Environment
Nature Tour of the UAE
Wildlife in the UAE
Captive breeding of rare breeds
Whales and dolphins in the UAE
Scorpions and snakes
Ornithology in the UAE
Salt flats or sabkha, mudflats, white sandy beaches and hundreds of natural islands are the dominant features of the Arabian Gulf coast west of Abu Dhabi, whilst many channels, creeks or 'khors' indent the more exposed northern coastline. To the east, steep, craggy mountains sweep down to the shores of the Gulf of Oman, at times interrupted by a narrow tree-studded alluvial foreland.
The shallow Arabian Gulf seas are warm (18 C in winter to over 35 C in summer) and saline (reaches 40 to 50 parts per thousand). The waters of the short coastline flanking the Gulf of Oman, on the other hand, are much more oceanic in character, experiencing only slightly elevated salinities of 36 to 37 parts per thousand, whilst temperatures vary from 21 C in winter to just over 34 C in summer.
Both coastal regions are home to important coral reef and mangrove communities, internationally
significant island seabird colonies, large numbers of migratory waterbirds,
and provide a nesting and feeding ground for turtles, dugongs, whales
The western Arabian Gulf coast, edged by salt-marsh and mud-flats and washed by a blue-green shallow sea, has some magnificent stands of mature mangroves, salt-tolerant trees that grow in shallow tidal areas. These 'mangals' (the mangrove habitat) protect the coast and are valuable havens for birds and marine mammals, as well as nutrient-rich spawning grounds for a large variety of commercially important fish and invertebrates. Only one mangrove species, Avicennia marina, occurs naturally in the UAE. Three other species have been introduced or re-introduced into the intertidal area in Abu Dhabi where replanting is taking place on a large scale to offset the effects of coastal development. One of the finest areas of mangrove is in the Eastern Lagoon of Abu Dhabi, other important stands are on the islands of Ras Ghanadah, Abu al-Abyadh and Marawah. Further north, there is a particularly good area of mangrove in Ras al-Khaimah, near the village of Rams, inland of the long island of Hulaylah. Another truly remarkable mangrove stand is at Khor Kalba on the east-facing coast, the oldest natural stand in the region. A nature reserve and also a Ramsar Convention wetland of international importance, this very special area is home to two rare bird species, the booted warbler and a unique race of white-collared kingfisher.
Numerous islands offshore of Abu Dhabi, many of them private and ranging from the massive Abu al-Abyadh to tiny islets, are a haven for seabirds. Huge numbers of migrant waders feed on extensive mudflats at Abu al-Abyadh, which also supports the largest breeding colony of crab plovers in the Arabian Gulf. Artificial lakes on the island of Sir Bani Yas (a wildlife resort) support populations of ducks, geese, swans and other birds, whilst flocks of flamingoes stalk the sandbanks.
Abu Dhabis islands also host internationally important populations of five species of tern, Saunders little, white-cheeked, swift, lesser crested and bridled. Other internationally important breeding seabirds include the sooty gull and the beautiful red-billed tropicbird. Magnificent ospreys also breed on many of the islands. However, the massive flocks of Socotra cormorants that wheel through the sky hunting for fish are perhaps the most impressive. This is a globally endangered species that breeds on a handful of islands in the Arabian Gulf, notably Sinaiya in Umm al-Qaiwain, and off Oman.
Preservation and protection of these unique habitats is a primary consideration. Recognised by UNESCO in 2007, Abu Dhabi's Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve (MMBR) is the region's first and largest Marine Biosphere Reserve. The 4,255 square kilometre area includes a number of islands and a coastline stretching over 120 kilometres, containing several important representative habitats of national and regional significance. These include seagrass beds, coral reef communities, macroalgae outcrops and mangrove vegetation.
Marawah Reserve is of global importance as a shelter and feeding ground for vulnerable dugongs and the recorded population of dugongs in this area is the second largest aggregation in the world. The area also provides crucial nursery and spawning grounds for a wide variety of fish species and is regionally important as a foraging and nesting habitat for critically endangered hawksbill turtles and endangered green turtles. The islands in the reserve are also home to large numbers of migratory birds, including about 5 per cent of the world population of the vulnerable Socotra cormorant.
Although very much an urban setting and quite a contrast to the offshore islands, Ra's al-Khor Wildlife Sanctuary at the head of Dubai Creek is another very impressive protected area that attracts significant numbers of waders, herons, wildfowl and large flocks of flamingoes as well as thousands of wintering and passage birds.
For further information on UAE coastal birds CLICK HERE
Already at the tolerance limits of their range in terms of temperature and salinity, the reef-building corals in the Marawah Reserve and other areas of the Arabian Gulf waters have been severely stressed by spiking sea temperatures, leading to bleaching and death. This has significant impact on the fish and invertebrates that shelter in the coral. However, although coral coverage is at its lowest level, scientists believe that, given protection, reefs will recover from the damage suffered during past stress/temperature anomalies. They point to clear signs of the coral system's resilience with reefs showing active signs of regeneration. There are also many projects underway to encourage coral regeneration and create artificial reefs in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman
Although temperature and salinity is not quite as extreme seas off the east coast, reef-building corals here are also under pressure from development and the effects of red tides. Protection has been granted to three marine reserves in the Emirate of Fujairah: at Al Faqit, Dhadnah and Al Aqqa, in order to preserve the valuable coral reef communities. Here fishing and coral or shell collecting are prohibited. Fujairah is also actively promoting artificial reefs to assist in regeneration and foster ecotourism.
Although numbers are high in some areas, the UAE's dugong population is also actively protected. The UAE has banned all hunting of dugongs within its waters and has also banned driftnet fishing, which should avoid accidental drowning. However, sea-grass beds, the dugongs' specialised habitat, are under threat. In addition, since dugongs are migratory species travelling across a range in search of food, transboundary cooperation is vital for their future. This is why organisations in the UAE, such as EAD, are at the forefront of international efforts to support dugong conservation in the region and further afield.
Conservation management of migratory turtles that nest on the UAE's beaches and feed in its waters is also a challenge. Local scientists are engaged in important research into turtle populations and have forged links with international organisations and researchers interested in ensuring the continued survival of the UAE's turtles. The UAE has also taken a leading role in regional cooperation.