The UAE’s best animal attractions and species to spot year-round
The camel strutting across the desert dunes. A falcon soaring high in the sky. A shark gliding elegantly past feeding schools of fish. A sloth hanging lazily from a tropical rain forest vine. There is a peaceful dignity about the animal world. While they may not be near the top of most people’s list of things to do when compared to the UAE’s more glittering sights, you might be surprised by the depth of critter-filled experiences you can have in the region. Whether in the wild, through education centres or as a tourist attraction (most of which have conservationist principles at their heart), these are just some of the places to get up-close with the animal kingdom.
In their natural habitat
Head out into the wild or to one of the UAE’s top, authentic conservation sites
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve
This protected area in Abu Dhabi is home to migratory birds (more than 200 species), as well as over 230 species of invertebrates, 11 types of mammals and ten kinds of reptiles. Think red foxes, desert monitors, greater spotted eagles and even the Ethiopian hedgehog. Plus it boasts a top breeding area for greater flamingos. You can spot all this from the provided bird-hides and the walking trail, as well as at the viewing platform. There’s also a visitor’s centre, where future guided walks, special events and school programmes can be planned, and you can review charts of the local inhabitants’ active hours. Just make sure you stick to the sign-posted code of conduct to keep this area as well-preserved as possible. Free. Open Thu and Sat 8am-2pm. Three kilometres from Mussafah, Abu Dhabi, www.ead.ae.
There is nothing quite like seeing an animal in its natural environment. While there are no guarantees, this Abu Dhabi boat charter will get you within picture-snapping distance of dolphins and, in our experience, the odds tend to stack in your favour. A prominent marine biologist is the trip's tour guide, teaching you about local waters and wildlife during the three-hour tour. There is time to stop for a swim and snorkel at the Dolphin Bay sandbank and, if you’re lucky, you will see the occasional nose, fin and flipper poke out of the water nearby. Dhs400 per person, Dhs300 (kids aged six to 12), free (kids five and under). Maximum eight people. Sat, timings depend on tides. Yas Marina, Yas Island. www.captaintonys.ae (02 650 7175).
Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve This protected national park preserves the desert habitat and the flora and fauna it hosts. To see the plants and animals in the protected area, you must book with one of the limited number of tours. Platinum Heritage is one of the few companies with permission to enter and, by joining a package such as its Conservation Drive, you will be taken in luxury 4x4s on a safari that takes in gazelles, birdlife and rare wildcats. Animals are wild, so there is no guarantee of sightings, but the beautiful dunes and a trip to the impressive Al Maha Desert Resort for refreshments are certainties. Prices and timings vary. Al Maha Resort, Dubai-Al Ain Road, www.ddcr.org (04 809 8710).
Mangrove National Park Home to around 60 bird species, such as the western reef heron, greater flamingos and the odd spotted eagle, Mangrove National Park, located along the Eastern Ring Road, boasts 19 square kilometres of forest. It’s home to fish, shells, sponges, shrimps, echinoderms (another type of marine animal) and crabs. The mangroves are also interesting, with the ability to thrive in up to 9% salinity – that’s double the concentration of sea-water. Here, you can enjoy bird-watching, sunset tours on abras, kayaking and paddle-boarding – just ensure you abide by the rules in order to maintain the habitat. Near Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara, Eastern Ring Road, www.ead.ae.
Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary An animal experience doesn’t have to be a major production, with queues, tickets and more concrete than grass. Sometimes you just want to go somewhere quiet and see animals. That’s why the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary exists, with the wetlands featuring salt flats, mangroves and lagoons. Flamingos are the area’s stars, although more than 60 species of bird and 500 species of flora and fauna can be spotted here. At the moment there are three bird-hides on the perimeter that are open to the public. To get your wildlife fix and a moment of peace outdoors, it’s hard to beat. Free. Open Sat-Thu 9am-4pm. Ras Al Khor Road, www.facebook.com/wildlife.ae.
Sir Bani Yas Island
Off the coast of Abu Dhabi, this island is a natural reserve and haven for protected animals. Half of Sir Bani Yas is covered by the Arabian Wildlife Park, where 13,000 animals live across 1,400 hectares of land. It is an important research and conservation zone, with nature drives, walks, horse trekking and biking. Giraffes, oryx, cheetahs, jackals and many more animals are present and it is the closest you can get to a real safari experience without leaving the country. An unmissable experience, especially as you’re bedding down at one of the amazing villa suites by Anantara – the herds are most active at sunrise and early evening, giving you a prime vantage point. Prices and timings vary. Sir Bani Yas Island, www.sirbaniyasisland.com (800 8342).
The centres and zoos offering animal experiences like no other – many of which run their own conservation programmes.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital Falcons are the national bird of the UAE and their enduring popularity in sport and culture of the Gulf is reflected in the raptor’s popularity with tourists. This veterinary centre looks after the welfare of birds in the country (more than 10,000 birds are treated each year), but it’s also an attraction in its own right. A 90-minute to two-hour tour of the facility includes watching a falcon pedicure, souvenir photos, vet demonstrations and the chance to see the birds in flight and learn about their background. Make sure you book in advance, though, as groups are kept small. Dhs170 per adult. Open Sat-Thu, 10am-2pm. Near Abu Dhabi International Airport, Abu Dhabi, www.falconhospital.com (02 575 5155).
Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre This is a rescue and rehabilitation centre for exotic animals in the UAE. Many of the creatures have been rescued from private homes in the country and animals at the facility include tigers, lions, cheetahs and monkeys. While it is not a zoo, 90-minute private tours can be arranged and the management team work to educate about the importance of correct animal welfare and safety. Dhs70 (adults). Open Sun-Thu, 9am-5pm. Mafraq, Abu Dhabi, www.facebook.com/ADWCwildlife (056 491 2628).
Al Ain Zoo
Fast approaching its 50-year anniversary (it was founded in 1968), this spacious animal park is the granddaddy of all animal attractions in the UAE. More than 4,300 animals call it home, including leopards, wolves, monkeys, lions, tigers, hippos, crocodiles, rhinos, gorillas and giraffes. Education and conservation programmes are central to the facility’s core beliefs and a high standard of care is apparent with animals having large spaces to themselves. As well as roaming around on foot, you can also head out on a safari drive (at the world’s largest man-made safari park), sit down for a talk (the new expansion includes the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre) and enjoy bespoke experiences such as giraffe feeding and birds of prey demonstrations. From Dhs30 (per adult), Dhs10 (per child aged three to 12). Open Sat-Tue 8am-9pm, Wed 8am-9pm (3pm is ladies only), Thu-Fri 9am-10pm. Nahyan The First St, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, www.alainzoo.ae (800 966).
Al Tamimi Stables
A hands-on, family-friendly and heart-warming animal attraction, Dubai’s Al Tamimi Stables puts smiles on faces of young and old. The accessible animals include goats, rabbits, hamsters, snakes and ponies, and interaction and education is the goal here. Private petting zoo party services are available or you can regularly catch Tamimi handlers at Global Village or Ripe Market events in Dubai. From Dhs1,200 (two-hour family experience). Open Sat-Thu 9am-6pm. Near Sharjah International Airport, off Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road/E311 exit 81, or E611 exit 84 to Al Zubail, Dubai, www.tamimistables.com (06 743 1122).
Arabian Wildlife Centre Arguably the best day out in Sharjah, is this budget-friendly petting zoo and wildlife park. It exhibits animals indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, and counts rare cats, vipers, foxes, porcupines and many more among the 100 species on display. Themed areas for birds, nocturnal animals and fish, hands-on interactions and a friendly atmosphere make it one of the easiest places to see and learn about animals in the UAE. Dhs15, free (for kids under 12). Open Thu 11am-5.30pm, Fri 2pm-5.30pm, Sat-Mon and Wed 9am-5.30pm (closed Tue). Interchange 9, Sharjah (06 531 1999).
Atlantis The Palm
An underwater-themed hotel and holiday park that has plenty of animal experiences is what critter-loving folk and families dream of. From shark safaris (walking in the giant Lost Chambers aquarium with tens of thousands of fish and marine animals) to tank dives and snorkel excursions, there are numerous ways of swimming with the fish. You can also go behind the scenes to learn more and meet animals such as the rare white-skinned albino alligators. Outside at Dolphin Bay you can also swim and interact with dolphins and sealions. Prices and timings vary. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai www.atlantisthepalm.com (04 426 1040).
Dubai Butterfly Garden
There are more than 15,000 butterflies from upwards of 30 species at this colourful attraction out on the fringes of the Dubai desert. Walk through the nine domes and see an explosion of colour thanks to insects from around the world. It is a critter experience with a mellow and soothing pace, plus there are plenty of wonderful photo opportunities. Dhs50. Open daily 9am-6pm. Next to Dubai Miracle Garden, Al Barsha South 3, Dubai, www.dubaibutterflygarden.com (04 422 8902).
Dubai Camel Races
What did you do on the weekend? We all want a better answer to that question. You’re going to have to go a long way to find a better answer than “watching robot jockeys racing camels in the Dubai desert”. It is free for spectators, but camel racing doesn’t come back into season until next January. However, in the meantime, there is a festival planned to run within the next couple of months. Keep your eyes on this space for further details as they are announced. Free. Al Ain-Dubai Road, Al Marmoon, www.dcrc.ae (04 832 6526).
Dubai Mall Aquarium
You know all about the massive aquarium in one of the world’s biggest shopping malls. That much can be seen just by walking alongside it. What you may not know is the many aquatic experiences available within. Cage snorkelling, shark dives and the likes are all exciting upsells. But, still, there’s more... A night creatures exhibitions has frog-eyed geckos, veiled chameleons, Arabian toads, fruit bats and plenty of nocturnal animals to meet. And we still haven't got to the bit we really want to tell you about – The Dubai Mall now has a brand-new virtual reality zoo! We're not joking in the slightest. Walk with gorillas in Uganda, swim with sharks in the Maldives and track elephants in South Africa, all from the comfort of a VR headset (and the sparkly, luxury, air-conditioned mall). From Dhs100 per person, free (children under three). Dhs30 add-on for virtual reality zoo. Open Sun-Wed 10am-11pm, Thu-Sat 10am-midnight. The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai, www.thedubaiaquarium.com (800 38224 6255).
Emirates Park Zoo and Resort
The facility has recently completed a massive 6,500-square-metre expansion. The newly-launched space – which is part of a year-long makeover for the facility – is home to 1,700 animals, including white tigers, a 31-year-old Siberian bear, lions, cheetahs and dozens of zebras. The zoo’s newest recruit is a rather rotund hippo (our brunch spirit animal) and fun-packed animal shows are hosted at the state-of-the-art 400-seat amphitheatre. What’s more, there are also feeding experiences and special kids’ activities to be enjoyed. From Dhs95 (all access pass). Open Sun-Wed 9am-8pm, Thu-Sat 9am-9pm. Al Bahia, Abu Dhabi, www.emiratespark.ae (02 501 0000).
The Green Planet Dubai
There is a sloth here! To be honest, we don’t think we need to say any more, but our slow friend is just one of more than 3,000 animals and plants species at this attraction on Al Wasl Road. The Green Planet Dubai is the region’s first biodome and a green canopy of lush vegetation that mimics the natural environment of a tropical rainforest. The building includes a giant 25-metre-tall tree, which is the largest indoor man-made and life-sustaining tree in the world and has four levels of immersive discoveries, including a butterfly balcony, forest cascade trail, flooded forest tunnel, waterfall pool and mid-storey treehouses. Dhs95 (adults), Dhs70 (kids aged three to 12). Open Sat-Wed 10am-10pm, Thu-Fri 10am-midnight. City Walk, Al Safa, www.thegreenplanetdubai.com (800 637 227).
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara
Camel rides in the desert – could there be an animal experience more closely associated with the region? This premium Abu Dhabi resort is situated out in the dunes and is well-known for bringing guests closer to nature. As well as a dune trek on the back of a camel, there are horse riding lessons, plus falcon and saluki agility shows. Prices and timings vary. Qasr Al Sarab Road, www.qasralsarab.anantara.com (02 886 2088).
Ski Dubai Ah, Dubai. Where you can swim with dolphins, sharks and, er, penguins. You read that right. The lovable gentoo and king penguins of Ski Dubai have been waddling around at the bottom of the shopping mall ski slope for years, but now visitors aged 18 years and up can pay for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb in the water and swim with them. It doesn’t come cheap, with a 90-minute session setting you back Dhs1,300. For that, however, you’ll have the memory of having splashed in a pool with a penguin. Oh, and hot chocolate and souvenir photos, as well as access to the park, too. Dhs1,300 (includes Ski Dubai entry). Open daily noon-9pm. Mall of the Emirates, Al Barsha, www.theplaymania.com (800 386).
Love animals? Find out what these organisations are doing to help protect the UAE’s natural world.
Emirates Bird Records Committee The portal of the UAE’s birdwatching community has news on the sightings of bird species across the UAE. Competitive birders can log sightings of hundreds of birds and attempt to see every single one known to live in the UAE. www.uaebirding.com.
Emirates Natural History Group This non-profit organisation looks to collect and share information on indigenous wildlife and the natural environment. The group organises regular lectures and talks, as well as photography competitions of local animals. It also maintains a database of birds that contains more than 20,000 species of common and rare species spotted by the group’s birdwatchers in the region. www.enhg.org.
Emirates Wildlife Society A local organisation that protects the biodiversity of areas of environmental significance. Supported by the World Wildlife Fund, it also raises awareness of the UAE’s ecological footprint. www.uae.panda.org.
Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi Established in 1996, the EAD is committed to protecting and enhancing air quality, groundwater and the biodiversity of our desert and marine ecosystem. It partners with other government entities, the private sector, NGOs and global environment agencies in order to do so. www.ead.ae.
UAE Dolphin Project Did you know there are dolphins in the waters off the UAE coastline? The UAE Dolphin Project is a non-profit that seeks to raise awareness about marine life issues and provide scientific data about the plight of marine animals in the Gulf. www.uaedolphinproject.org.
Animals of the UAE
Smaller than its European counterparts, it is still identifiable by its large ears. There are no wild rabbits in the UAE, so you can be sure any cotton-tails spotted are actually hares.
Arabian horned viper
A snake with horns? Yes, really. Typically around 50cm long, but capable of growing upwards of 80cm, they hide underneath sand in wait for their prey.
Arabian mountain gazelle
With the speed of a sand-sprinter but the agility of a sure-footed mountain goat, these animals roam across the northern emirates.
One of the symbols of the Arabian Peninsula is this mammal, similar to an antelope and which has been extinct in the wild since the 1960s. Conservation efforts may soon see their status reversed.
Misunderstood in the extreme, they’re not as ferocious as you'd think. For starters, they don’t eat camels. Nor are they spiders. This fast and hairy arachnid scurries between pockets of shade to avoid the sun.
Numbers are declining, but the world’s only herbivorous marine animal can still be seen in UAE waters. Sometimes known as a sea cow, it can reach three metres long and weighs more than 500kg.
Supported by UAE hotels, this protected turtle can be seen in captivity. It is not uncommon, however, for scuba divers or even snorkelers on the east coast to see them in the wild.
Flocks of the bright green parakeets, while not indigenous to the UAE, have become a common sight over parks and urban areas across the UAE, stripping palms of dates.
Sightings are common among divers and snorkelers, with the occasional lost shark finding itself circling Dubai Marina. Whale sharks and black-tipped reef sharks are among the most-seen species.
Spiny tailed lizard
Known locally as a dhub, this sunshine-loving reptile has the look of a mini komodo dragon and can live for around 80 years, growing up to 70cm long.
Two major attractions soon to launch in the UAE are backed by conservation groups and aim to educate the region about the importance of animal care and the natural world.
Dubai Safari The gates to the highly-anticipated game reserve are now expected to launch after summer this year. By the time it opens, the sprawling site will be home to almost 10,500 animals from around the world, including around 350 species of rare and endangered animals. The Dhs1 billion project, which has been built on top of a landfill site in Al Warqa’a, will be no “circus”, says the park’s technical director. Instead, the 119-hectare site, which is divided into three main villages – African, Arabic, Safari – will allow animals to live and behave naturally, with the team working to rehabilitate exotic pets, too.
SeaWorld Abu Dhabi Set to be built on Yas Island by 2022, the project is branching out from the US for the first time and promising a bold new outlook on research, animal rescue and rehabilitation. Being brought to the region by the Abu Dhabi government-backed Miral, the world-famous sealife centre looking for a brand rehaul is said to be a “theme park with focus on education about ocean conservation”. www.seaworldabudhabi.ae.