International Symposium on
Drylands Ecology and Human Security

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Challenges Facing Biodiversity of the United Arab Emirates

Frédéric Launay & Christophe Tourenq
Emirates Wildlife Society – World Wide Fund for Nature - UAE Project Office


Habitat destruction and fragmentation have increased dramatically in most countries over the past three decades due to human population and resource consumption growth. Degradation of unique terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and loss of genetic resources are the main biodiversity issues in West Asia. Water resource management and the maintenance of inland water biodiversity, as well as overhunting of large mammals and birds, are therefore among the most important issues affecting biodiversity in the region. Rapid population increases and changes in lifestyle have contributed to the degradation of wetland ecosystems due to increased exploitation of surface and groundwater. Food self-sufficiency policies in the region have resulted in the cultivation of marginal lands for irrigated intensive agriculture. This has strained water resources and caused salinization, with negative effects on freshwater biodiversity. The breakdown of traditional systems of resource management has also had a major impact on biodiversity. For example, the traditional Al Hema system, which facilitated the sustainable use of rangelands and other natural resources by setting aside large reserves during times of stress was abandoned in the 1960s in the Arabian Peninsula and Mashriq countries. While about 3 000 hema reserves existed in Saudi Arabia in 1969, only 71 were still in existence under various degrees of protection in 1984 and only nine were on the 1997 Protected Areas list.

Coastal and marine biodiversity is threatened by several human activities including pollution (oil spills, industrial and domestic discharges into the sea), physical alteration of habitats (sand dredging and landfills), climate variability and alien species introduced by ballast water. The extent of coastal development is the various Gulf Countries is now largely contributing to the disappearance of key resources and habitats such as mangroves and corals.

Over the last few decades the desert has, unfortunately, witnessed local extinctions in the wild populations of Canis lupus arabs, Oryx leucoryx, Hyaena hyaena and Canis aureus. The Gazelle subgutturosa and G. gazella still survive, though with very small populations and restricted ranges. The sand cat (Felis margarita), Ruppell's fox (Vulpes rueppellii) and the desert hare (Lepus capensis) are thought to be far less numerous than they were.
A comprehensive decline in the larger terrestrial species has been recorded. This is primarily because of excess hunting resulting from the decline of traditional resource management practices, and the increased availability of four-wheel drive vehicles and automatic weapons.

Most countries have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In addition, some have ratified other biodiversity-related conventions such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Countries are also adhering to other international and regional agreements such as the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) and Regional Organization for the Protection of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In addition, the establishment of protected areas in West Asia has been gaining momentum. However, it is important to note that local communities are generally unhappy with the existing biodiversity conservation programs, since they have been excluded from the decision-making process.