Ever wondered about the different species living in the desert, the city and even in your back garden? The UAE is bursting with unusual wildlife, if you know where to look.
Relatively widespread throughout Dubai and the UAE’s desert areas (except in mountainous areas), the local hare is far smaller than those you might spot in Europe, and often mistaken for a rabbit, which you won’t find anywhere in Arabia. Hares don’t live in burrows so are reliant on their camouflage, spending their days motionless, ears pinned back under shrubbery or out in the open. As with many animals indigenous to the region, the hare doesn’t need to drink water, similar to its reptilian neighbour the spiny-tailed lizard, which also has special glands to help its body get rid of uric acid. Known locally as ‘dhab’, this species is capable of growing up to 65cm from its head to the tip of its tail.
Far smaller but no less curious, the oddly-snouted sand skink (also known as the sand fish) grows to about 15cm in length, and has acquired its nickname from the way it dives into soft sand and glides off underneath the surface. More common is the garden skink, which is found in domestic gardens as well as crop-growing land. These dark brown creatures can grow to 20cm in length and often hide in piles of dry leaves, where they’ll seek out insects to snack on.
Back out in the desert, some of the most common sightings continue to be of sand snakes, which are mildly toxic, but are not dangerous to humans – they’re actually considered quite a good means of pest control. Many camping tales also include accounts of scorpions scuttling out from underneath tents. Scorpions from the Arabian Peninsula fall into two families – Buthidae and Scorpionidae – but to date only buthids have been found in the emirates. Adult scorpions can measure up to 15cm from their head to the tip of their sting, and contrary to popular belief are actually most often found near human habitation. Much like the super-fast sand snake, their tracks can often be seen on fresh red dunes just outside the main city. The scorpion’s sting, though rarely fatal, can cause inflammation, swelling, drowsiness and an itching in the throat. If stung, try to localise the site of the sting using a firm bandage before seeking medical attention.
A desert dweller with fewer legs, but greater status in Dubai and the UAE as whole, the camel has been championed as a symbol of the UAE alongside the Arabian oryx and falcon. Dubai’s dromedary Arabian camels are recognisable for their single hump, and also distinct for their double row of eyelashes and the ability to close their nostrils to stop sand and dust getting in. Next time you see one, notice how their walk is quite distinct from other mammals, as they move both limbs on one side of the body at the same time.
In the waters just off Dubai’s coast, sea turtles are relatively common: specifically the green turtle. This aquatic creature is known to migrate enormous distances (up to several thousand kilometres) and can be seen almost anywhere in the waters of the UAE, though the best way to chance a sighting is by going diving. Small pods of indo-Pacfic humpback dolphins have also been spotted in the emirates’ waters – groups of these sea mammals, called ‘dukhs’ by local fishermen, have been seen taking up residence in both the natural and man-made channels near Abu Dhabi, and off beaches near Dubai.
If you’d rather stay closer to the city (and to dry land), it’s possible to spot plenty of avian wildlife at Ras Al Khor, where Time Out recently spent a very pleasant morning picking out different species, including the wildlife sanctuary’s best-known resident, the greater flamingo Meanwhile, Mushrif Park is home to a wealth of intriguing bird life, including the delightfully named Arabian babbler, which looks something like an oversized, beakier sparrow with long brown plumage at the tail, and the striated scops owl, a small-eared owl that has been known to hunt insects, spiders and small mammals during the day. For more information on wild animals in Dubai and the UAE, visit www.wildlife.ae or www.uaeinteract.com.
More animal-spotting opportunities
Take a nature safari… Just outside the city, off the E66 Al Ain road, the Al Maha safari takes you near the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, making it a great way to spot wildlife. It includes dune bashing, sandboarding, camel rides, a barbecue dinner, falconry and pick-up and drop-off. Dhs295 for adults, Dhs195 for children. Mon, Wed-Sat 3.30pm-9pm. Arabia Horizons, www.arabiahorizons.com (04 294 6060).
…but give Dubai Zoo a miss Measuring just five acres and housing 1,100 animals, the cramped and dated Dubai Zoo on Jumeirah Beach Road has long been one of the city’s less savoury attractions. Sadly, plans to relocate to a Dhs200 million, 200-acre plot near Mushrif were shelved indefinitely. In spite of a high-profile Peta protest in 2010 and the 2,379-strong Facebook group ‘Help Dubai Zoo Animals NOW’, the future of the facility remains unclear.
Combo tickets for Al Ain Zoo
Until March 31, Al Ain Zoo and neighbouring family theme park Hili Fun City are joining up to offer a special combo ticket, to give access to both venues at a discounted rate. Available at both locations, the adult ticket is Dhs70 (Dhs20 less than the total price of two separate tickets) and includes access to both venues as well as use of the zoo’s shuttle service. Kids’ tickets are Dhs40, so you’ll save Dhs15 per child. Al Ain Zoo open daily 9am-8pm; Hili Fun City open Mon-Thu 4pm-10pm, Fri-Sat noon-10pm, Wednesday ladies only. Al Ain, www.awpr.ae, www.hilifuncity.ae (03 704 1628).