Located on Dubai-Al Ain Road, about 45km out of the city, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a fifth of the size of Dubai and stretches as far as Oman on one edge and Abu Dhabi on the other. Greg Simkins, the reserve’s conservation manager, is the Big Brother of this desert area – he has been working for the reserve for 10 years and has seen the plant life and creatures grow around him. It’s his job to monitor the wildlife’s activity and breeding, and study the reserve’s development.
This week, in association with local travel group Arabian Adventures, Greg has opened up his daily work to the public so they can accompany him on custom-made trips. It will give people a taste of what it’s like to be a conservationist for the day, as well as doing some valuable research along the way.
As I arrive, I’m not quite sure what to expect of Greg: will he be a fearless adventurer, picking up poisonous snakes like Steve Irwin, or hurtling over sand dunes like Bear Grylls? When he arrives, he’s hospitable and friendly, and just as comfortable with people as with animals.
‘How many different species are there in the reserve?’ I ask enthusiastically as we climb into his 4x4 at the entrance to the reserve. ‘There are more than 131 species of birds here,’ he explains, handing me a book chock-full of the animals we’re likely to see in the area. There’s some scary stuff in there, such as Arabian horned vipers and sand boas. ‘But they’re only semi-poisonous,’ says Greg with a wry grin, spotting the horrified look on my face. ‘They’ll just give you a headache if you get bitten.’
Not entirely convinced, I ask about the likelihood of spotting one. ‘Unlikely – they don’t like the sun very much,’ he assures me. ‘What we will most likely see today are oryx, gazelles and hopefully some spiny-tailed lizards.’ He tells me we’ll be checking whether the burrows recorded in different areas of the desert are still occupied, as well as making a note of any new ones we come across.
As we venture out of the centre, we pass dozens of Arabian oryx and stop to count the males and females so Greg can map their movements, recording the details on a form. ‘This is to monitor how much they’ve been breeding, where they’re migrating to and whether there are any things we should be concerned about, such as diseases.’ He’s quick to point out that the conservationists simply monitor the animals; they don’t interfere with their development at all.
Our next task is to check the body conditions of the oryx to determine their fitness. We look at a diagram of the ideal shape of an oryx’s behind, then spend the next 10 minutes checking out an oryx’s rear end and rating it against pictures that show the perfect posterior of a healthy animal.
When we’re done with the oryx, Greg leads me to a laser-triggered camera in the desert, explaining that when an animal walks in front of the laser, the camera takes a picture, enabling the conservationists to analyse the images. He changes the batteries and memory card and scatters some meat nearby to entice the animals in front of the camera, before heading off in search of lizards.
The first burrow we come to is empty, but sitting over the next is a huge spiny-tailed lizard. These, I’m told, are herbivores and often live in groups in one area, all occupying a separate burrow in harder sand. As we get closer, the lizard snakes off into its shallow burrow, which helps to protect it from birds of prey.
We head on and pass a man-made oasis surrounded by interesting, exotic birds – I spot several black-winged stilts with their pink, spindly legs, and green bee-eaters, covered in green feathers with blue faces. As we continue back to the gate into the dunes, Greg points out a proud pharaoh eagle owl sitting in the shrubbery – as it takes off, its huge wings dominate the sky.
Arriving back at the centre, I allow myself a pat on the back: of all the fascinating wildlife I’ve seen during my visit, I’ve managed to avoid the snakes. Indiana Jones would have been proud. A day’s session monitoring Dubai’s wildlife is Dhs2,250 for two people including lunch. Timings vary: book through www.arabian-adventures.com (04 303 4888). Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve Al Ain Road, www.ddcr.org