Every time I pass the flower shop near my home, I am met with the magnificent landscape painted on the poster up against the entrance. The owner of the store is an elder Yemeni man, and the poster looks like a Middle Eastern paradise, reminding me of the Arabian Nights stories I used to read as a child. It depicts a fertile land on the seaside with exotic birds flying over the landscape and large mammals dotting the scenery. When I asked where this place is and if it was real, the shopkeeper laughed and happily told me it was not fictitious; it is the island of Sir Bani Yas.
I had to see it in person so last week I went to visit Sir Bani Yas Island. I was in amazement at what I experienced. It was hard for me to believe that I was still in the Middle East, as there were about 20 gazelles and three peacocks just outside one of the restaurants. As I was sipping coffee, many exotic birds were flying around, each covered in different and beautiful colours. Before moving on to a tour of the island the guide came to tell me about the it is interesting history.
Sir Bani Yas is a desert island 170 km southwest from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. It is a relatively small island with its modest proportions of 17.5 km from north to south and 9 km from west to east. Despite its small size on the world scale, it is the largest island in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1977, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan originated the biggest wildlife reserve in the country on Sir Bani Yas. According to an article in the Gulf News written by AUD alumnus Maria Botros, who interviewed Marius Prinsloo, general manager of operations in Sir Bani Yas, the island is home to as many as 13,000 animals and millions of plants thanks to several decades of careful conservation and breeding programs. Even though it is conservation efforts are the pride of the island, travellers uninterested in wildlife can partake in many leisure activities such as kayaking, hiking, biking, archery, pearl diving and snorkelling.
The name Sir Bani Yas derives from the name of the local tribe that populated the island, and speaking about the natural origins of the island; it formed as the salt dome in the Persian Gulf millions of years ago. Quite interestingly, the first settlers arrived at the Sir Bani Yas thousands of years ago and, as such, the island is an important historical heritage site. More than forty archaeological sites of the Late Stone Age and early Islam located here. One of the most prominent sites is the remains of a Nestorian Christian monastery dating as far back as 600 AD, which is also the only discovered Christian monastery in the United Arab Emirates (Visit Abu Dhabi 2016). All its treasures have not discovered yet, and only recently launched excavations will help archaeologists to dig out all its secrets.
Today the island is a vibrant sanctuary for wild animals housed in the Arabian Wildlife Park. The Arabian Wildlife Park is located on the perimeter spanning some 4,100 hectares of land, which is more than a half of the island, and for the last forty years, it has provided a secure place for animal breeding and rehabilitation. Thanks to the Sheikh Zayed’s patronage and his generous green investments, numerous species that once were at the risk of extinction are now safe inhabitants of the island.
According to Sir Bani Yas’ official web-site, upon the Island dwells a breath-taking variety of fauna. For example, there are four spectacular large size carnivorous species such as the Northern Cheetah, Golden Jackal, Caracal and the Striped Hyena. Also, the reservation has long been home to three Gazelle species, eight Antelope species, and three Deer species. The Arabian Wildlife Park also boasts “eight small mammal species including the Lesser Jerboa and Cheesman’s Gerbil, Giraffes, two Mountain Sheep species, three Snake species, seven Gecko species, two Skink species, six Bat species and more than 100 anthropoid and insect species”. According to activities manager Arnaud Laviolette, “these animals are kept on supplementary food and roughages, with pastures and veterinary facilities for treatment also provided”.
It is also noteworthy that the island serves as a home to several critically endangered species such as the Hawksbill Turtle, the Arabian Oryx and the Scimitar Horned Oryx. “The Scimitar Horned Oryx is originally a North African species that is extinct in the wild,” says Arnaud Laviolette, “In 2008 it was (estimated) that there are more than 4000 of these animals in private collections in the UAE. Sir Bani Yas holds one of the largest herds in the Emirates. These animals are successfully breeding here, and an environmental agency has recently asked for breeding exchange from our herd.”
The island treasures are not only restricted to its mammals either. Specially trained Barari forest management, consisting of a litany of botanists manage the gargantuan task of maintaining the eternal plant life. This includes indigenous plant species, such as that, frankincense trees from Oman, as well as orange and olive orchards. The island also accommodates a wide variety of birds (estimated to be as many as two hundred species), permanently and some migrate to the island during the warmer seasons. The island’s marine life is incredibly rich and exceedingly diverse as well, for it shields and shelters dolphins, sharks, hundreds of fish species, turtles, and reptiles.