More oryx, fewer rodents and efforts for wolves in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
Twelve expedition team members from four different countries in January 2016 participated in a Biosphere Expeditions conservation project to evaluate the oryx and gazelle population in the Dubai Desert Conservation reserve in the United Arab Emirates. The research work also involved setting live traps to capture the endangered sand fox and Gordon’s wildcat. Rodents were also captured in small mammal traps.
The data gleaned in this way will now be analysed by the local scientist, Stephen Bell, who will soon be releasing a report detailing the outcome of the 2016 expedition. He explains that “we captured only few rodents and this could be a reason for the absence of the desert eagle owl, which was not spotted over the week, as well as the wildcat.”
130 fox dens were also checked and several new dens logged. This high number of Arabian red fox could be “detrimental to the balance of the reserve’s ecosystem”, according to Bell.
39 of 42 observation cells (an area of 2 by 2 kilometres) were surveyed in the course of the week throughout the 227 km² reserve. Expeditioners navigated to their cells in the desert by 4×4 and then walked to elevated points to count the animals they could sport with binoculars and spotting scopes. That way over 400 oryx, almost 140 mountain gazelle, around 50 sand gazelle and two hares were counted over the course of the week. The rare lappet-faced vulture was spotted on several occasions and in great numbers when a fresh carcass was found.
Since starting its partnership with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) in 2012, Biosphere Expeditions has made several important contributions to the management of the reserve and its rare species. Initially expedition work prompted the DDCR to change oryx feeding patterns, resulting in a much healthier population. Rare Gordon’s wildcats and a very rare and elusive sand fox were captured by the expeditions over the years, prompting the reserve to increase research and conservation efforts for these threatened species. Finally, data gathered by the expeditions showed that the introduction of the Arabian wolf would be beneficial. The UAE government accepted these arguments and the DDCR is now investigating processes and options to make what will be a major showcase conservation success story for Arabia become reality.
We’ve walked many more kilometres on the sand and dunes over the last two days with all teams determined to complete their surveys. By Friday afternoon we had surveyed 39 out of a total of 42 cells, making the scientist very happy. Heavy wind and downpours stopped us from surveying on Wednesday afternoon. Fortunately all tents were still in place when we returned to base.
Instead of sitting around the fireplace, that evening was spent in the main tent with some of us playing games after the daily review. On Thursday a broken cooker forced us to cook on the fire. Having a hot tea or coffee in the morning around the fireplace truly felt like being on expedition.
The week was over too soon. Before we went out to a special event on the last evening, Steve summed up the results after six days of working in the field. Not including Friday’s results, 399 oryx were counted at feeding spots, 126 mountain and 49 sand gazelles were encountered as well as two hares. The new method of visiting two predefined observation points in each cell to survey the area for 15 minutes will definitely result in more accurate/comparable results. We caught only three rodents during the week using 16 traps, leading to the conclusion that the number of rodents is down. This could influence the number of desert eagle owl – a bird target species that was not recorded on the surveys – but also on the cat population. 130 fox dens were observed and quite a few new dens were recorded. All of this will go into the expedition report.
We left camp after the obligatory team picture session to go out for a night dune drive. Sponsored by Platinum Heritage the team was invited to spend the evening at traditional Arabian dune camp. We learnt about Arabic coffee, cuisine, dance, henna painting, smoking shisa, etc. The dinner was delicious! It was far beyond our usual bed time (22:00 ;)) when we were dopped back off at base. Still everyone had enough sleep since we decided to have breakfast late today, our last day.
Thank you so much, again for joining this project, putting sweat, time and money into research & conservation. I hope you’ve enjoyed the week as much as David, Steve and I did and I hope to see you again sometime somewhere.
The expedition is in full swing. We are checking live traps in the morning and rodent traps before the teams move on to their surveys. A Cheeseman’s gerbil was caught yesterday.
Playing dead, we didn’t see or hear it hidden in wood shavings and there was no movement when we studied the closed trap for signs of life. Only when emptying the trap, did the creature reveal itself, frozen at our feet for only a second before disappearing at the speed of light. During the night a fox must have desperately tried to get to it, burying a deep hole all around the gerbil’s safe enclosure. From the tracks that were left behind we could read the whole story!
Other than that the surveys are going well. After a couple of days everyone is now familiar with the GPS and the road network. But also with using shovels and tow ropes for a full desert experience! 😉
Apart from surveying ‘cells’ – areas of 2 x 2 km – from two different survey points, which the teams have to reach on foot walking up and down sand dunes, Steve, the expedition scientist, has added the task of counting oryx at feeding points.
A great number of calves and juveniles are seen and counted, and it will be of great importance to ascertain the actual number of oryx within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve for further management decisions.
We have also come across a dead oryx indicated by about 15 lappet-faced vultures circling the sky above. Walking the dunes we also check fox den holes marked in our GPSs to categorise them active/inactive/abundant/not found, or we note GPS positions of new fox dens – all in an effort to update the existing database.
When the teams return back to base in the late afternoon lots of data are brought back from the field. Thanks to Lea, who has become the team’s data entry specialist, all data sheets have been entered into the scientist’s computer.
Only two more days of rising with the sun in the morning and spending all day out in the field.
Everyone arrived safely two days ago at base camp located within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The convoy of four cars stopped at the DDCR’s brand-new office where Steven Bell, the expedition scientist, gave a presentation about the history of the reserve, study animals and conservation work before the convoy headed out into the desert. After setting up tents and lunch, the rest of Saturday was spent with talks, risk-assessment, training on research equipment, live- and camera traps, data sheets and expedition vehicles. More training on GPSs – a vital tool for all field work – was done the next morning as was the off-road driving training. So far so good.
The North (Sandra & Gary, Mary and Judith from the UK, Susanna & Lloyd from the US), Central (Margit and Sigrun from Germany) and South (Caroline and her two daughters Lea and Janna, U.A.E. residents and Tariq from Jordan) teams accompanied by Steve, David and I then went out to set all traps (10 camera, 12 live and 16 rodent traps). Designated areas stored in the GPSs must be found, as well as proper spots to place and bait the traps – a very busy day. The South group came across a lappet-faced vulture, the Central group found a small silver snake and everyone finally made it back to base in the late afternoon. Of course Arabian oryx and the smaller gazelles are all around, flitting through the dunes or majestically standing in the sand, reminiscent of Arabia as it once was or of Africa as it still is in some parts of the savannah wilderness. For the daily review we sat around the fireplace, had dinner straight after and went to bed early.
The weather has been very pleasant: sunny, 23 degrees C, with temperatures not dropping below 10 degrees at night. For dinner we are spoiled by a great variety of delicious food & salad plus dessert such as chocolate cake! 😉 Writing this I am at the DDCR office while everyone is out doing surveys. Soon I will be picked up to be taken back to base camp, away from any internet or phone connection. I’ll keep you updated.
Only 36 hours have passed since we’ve arrived in Dubai. Stephen, our expedition scientist, David and I met up yesterday morning, picked up some supplies in town and then made our way to the desert. With two huge Ford off-road expedition vehicles, we drove to the storage room within the reserve to load up our camp equipment: tents, tables, chairs, carpets, cushions, gas cooker, cooler boxes – just to name a few items. Thanks to the DDCR staff the main “big” and kitchen tents were already set up and in place for us to move in. We’ve been busy with organising camp, checking research equipment, going through data sheets and paperwork, etc., etc. It feels like we’ve been here for much longer than 36 hours 😉
We have been shopping a bit already, but tomorrow is going to be the big shopping day – we’ve put together a looong list – as always.
The weather is really pleasant. In the mid 20s C during the day, dropping to high 10s during the night, some scattered cloud, but otherwise blue skies.
That’s it for the moment, we’ll be in touch again soon.
This is the first (quick) diary entry for the Arabia desert expedition starting on 9 January. My name is Malika Fettak, I am a senior member of the Biosphere Expeditions staff and I will be leading the expedition. Also with us will be David Moore as an expedition leader in training.
Right now we are about to board our planes Dubai (David from France and I from Germany). David and I will meet up in Dubai tomorrow morning and then go straight into preparations. Quite a few things need to be organised before the team’s arrival: Food supplies, setting up the expedition base campsite, preparing the equipment, cars and paperwork, etc., etc. I’ll be in touch again once I have arrived on the ground and my local SIM card is confirmed as working still.
Meanwhile, our expedition scientists Stephen Bell of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is getting ready at his end too. He’s picked up some cars that cannot be missed in the desert – see below ;), kindly provided by Ford Middle East, who has also supported our expeditions in the region for many years via its Conservation and Environmental grants programme.
Further support, logistics and otherwise, comes from Platinum Heritage and Al Maha. Thank you to all three of them; their support is much appreciated.
Now all we need is the team. Safe travels and I’ll see you in the desert soon.