Arabia: roundup of 2020 expedition

Biosphere Expeditions and the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve completed their 9th consecutive annual survey this January. Key results include an improved understanding of oryx and gazelle distribution, evidence of healthy rodent populations throughout the reserve and sightings of rare species including Arabian hare, lappet-faced vulture and Gordon’s wildcat.

The international team of 14 citizen scientists, two Biosphere Expeditions (BE) leaders and three Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) staff surveyed the Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and Sand gazelle populations across the entire 227 sqkm reserve. This very significant effort provided population estimates and distribution predictions for these three species, which will help improve management, especially in light of upcoming translocations.

Greg Simkins, DDCR’s Conservation Manager says, “Every year Biosphere Expeditions’ citizen scientists help us get a clear picture of oryx and gazelle distributions across the reserve. Doing this ourselves with such a small team is much more challenging, so this cooperation allows us to make a rapid and accurate assessment and provides data, which we can use to make important management decisions.”

As the DDCR is a fenced reserve, it is easy to see a difference between it and the unfenced side. Where camels roam outside the reserve, the vegetation is scarce and few animals are seen, while inside it, the ecosystem is thriving with abundant animals and vegetation. However, the DDCR in some ways is also a victim of its own success and “with an oryx population well above the carrying capacity of the reserve, we really need to begin a relocation project to take some pressure off the ecosystem,” says Moayyed Sher Shah, Conservation Officer at the DDCR. “We’ve already made plans with a few other reserves to begin transferring animals, in March or April 2020, and the data collected by BE citizen scientists will give us valuable information about which parts of the reserve require more immediate action.”

Apart from the ungulate surveys, another species of note, recorded multiple times in the reserve, is the lappet-faced vulture, classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. “The fact that such a rare bird inhabits the DDCR is a testament to the importance of protected areas such as this,” says Sher Shah. Currently, the area in and around the DDCR is an important location within the UAE where the Lappet-faced vulture is found.

Key points of the Biosphere Expeditions 2020 Arabia expedition within the DDCR:

1. The DDCR has an Arabian oryx population of approximately 850 individuals, of which our survey methods were able to account for about 90%. More importantly, the data collected will allow their estimated distribution to be mapped within the reserve, providing the DDCR with data necessary for herd management.

2. BE citizen scientists were also involved in small rodent live captures, in which Cheeseman’s and Baluchistan gerbils were caught. Fecal samples from captured individuals will provide data on the genetics and food plants for both species.

3. Camera traps were set throughout the reserve, with over 6,000 images captured at 14 points during the week. The most significant of these was of a Gordon’s wildcat, a rare subspecies of wildcat threatened by hybridisation with domestic and feral cats.

4. Twenty-three new fox dens were identified, including one potentially used by a Rüppell’s fox; a species last recorded in DDCR when an individual was trapped during a BE survey, five years previously.

5. In 2021, Biosphere Expeditions will continue survey efforts to determine the distribution of oryx and gazelle following the translocation of ungulates in March/April 2020.

6. Additionally, Biosphere Expeditions will continue monitoring of other important species on the reserve including Gordon’s wildcat, Lappet-faced vulture, Hoopoe lark, MacQueen’s bustard, and various rodent species.

7. Next year’s expedition will take place in January and February 2021 and will continue to work in close collaboration with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

8. International citizen science volunteers from all over the world will, through their collective effort and funding, make it possible. Anyone can take part and details about the expedition and how to join are at https://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/volunteeringinarabia.

Finally, some pictures and videos from the 2020 expedition:

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