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The other Dubai: defending the emirate’s last patch of pristine desert and its rare residents

Simon Calder’s Travel

Where dune meets sky, sketched in the sand like a hieroglyph, we find our first sign: the jagged ‘w’ of two talon prints.

These prints are fresh, and they justify our 5am start. By midday, the sand’s diary of crisscrossing tracks of nocturnal hunters like the pharaoh eagle owl have been erased by the remorseless wind. A species almost extinct in this region, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) has helped to reintroduce it. But to prove the owl’s presence – and the value of the reserve’s efforts – we need more than prints; we need evidence.

Silhouetted before me is Naswa, a cathedral of rock covered in crevices that could well shelter owl nests. “I’ll look into this one, you take the one on the left,” says Pete, who’s been on this expedition three times before, gesturing to two gaping crags. Like bathers dipping toes into boiling bathwater, we test each step – duly sending showers of stones down the mountainside.

Within minutes Pete has found a pellet: a thumb-sized clump of undigested bone and hair, regurgitated by an owl after breakfasting on a rodent or two. We record the coordinates on the GPS, and clamber around spires of stone, hot on the scent. Eventually the sunrise illuminates something even more special: a shapely feather, in the pharaoh eagle owl’s regal livery.

The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a pristine patch of wilderness just outside the metropolis

(Chris Zacharia)

“This is why the data you guys collect is so important,” says Basil Roy, one of the reserve’s conservation officers, as he examines the feather back at the DDCR office. “Dubai is coming closer. There’s only so much coastline to build on. And then…”. We all know what comes next.

For the DDCR, the approaching wave of highways, concrete and tourist traps isn’t just an eyesore. It’s an existential threat. A haven for wildlife and a beacon for biodiversity, the reserve is one of the most successful conservation projects in the Middle East – representing five per cent of Dubai’s total territory. Yet with the Emirati economy booming, every square metre of territory is a potential Ferrari World or Barbie Land. After all, it’s only desert, right?

“Overcoming the myth that the desert is empty is one of our biggest hurdles,” says Roy. “We have to prove that there is something worth protecting…

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