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Saving an endangered species, Arabian-style

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Animal lover and UAE-founder Sheik Zayed transformed Sir Bani Yas from desert island to wildlife reserve for creatures like these caracal (also known as desert lynx) kittens.

What do you give the sheik who’s already checked palaces and private planes off his royal wish list?

How about a menagerie of exotic animals?

That’s partly the story of how a Noah’s Ark of indigenous andintroduced species came to populate Sir Bani Yas, once an inhospitable salt dome island in the Arabian Gulf.

Part of Abu Dhabi emirate, the previously private royal playground now welcomes visitors seeking an Arabian safari experience combined with an encounter with that non-indigenous desert species, the multi-star luxury hotel.

Animal-loving emir

The founder and first ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan started collecting many of the species now thriving in the island’s huge wildlife park after, so the story goes, being given a bevy of exotic creatures as a gift when exploring Africa as a young royal.

Long before cheetahs, giraffes, Ethiopian hedgehogs — and well-heeled tourists — were introduced to Sir Bani Yas, however, Sheik Zayed was transforming the island with a particular aim: to save anative species that had virtually been wiped out.

The Arabian oryx, a kind of antelope, was officially declared extinct in the wild in the late 1960s.

Its plight moved the animal-loving emir to begin developing Sir Bani Yas (named after the local Bani Yas tribe) as a place to protect it.

Only the oryx

“The oryx is the main reason the island is the way it is today,” says Matt Bottomer, an adventure guide who familiarizes visitors staying on Sir Bani Yas with its many resident creatures.

“Sheikh Zayed searched the world to see if there were any oryx in captivity.

“He found a handful and started a breeding program here.”

 

To prepare the island for those few remaining antelope in the early 1970s, the late sheik launched an extravagant project that might now be seen as a precursor to other slightly incongruous Middle Eastern behemoths, such as Dubai’s indoor ski resort.

He decided literally to make the desert bloom.

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