Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 October 2009
Issue No. 966
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sanctuary for the hunted

A game drive in Kenya is normal; a game drive in the United Arab Emirates is always a surprise. Mohamed El-Hebeishy is refreshed by a unique experience in Sir Bani Yas Island

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photos: Mohamed El-Hebeishy

When I first found out that one can go for a wildlife safari and a game drive in the UAE, I was astonished. After all, this is largely a desert island, with scarce wildlife of elusive creatures. Located some 250km from the capital Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island was turned into a natural reserve in 1971. Dedicated to protecting and preserving Arabia's endangered species, the island plays a key role in the survival of some native species. In addition, it provides a rare chance to enjoy animals freely roaming the island.

Millennia ago, man was restricted to living in caves while wildlife roamed the planet. Today, animals are confined to national parks, private reserves and wildlife sanctuaries, while man strips the planet to the bone. Beautiful Arabian oryx are no exception, and can even be considered having come back from near extinction.

Categorised as "endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), poaching and overhunting are the main threats to this large antelope's future. Although it once roved the desert slopes of most of the Middle East, Egypt included, gunfire has reduced its numbers to a shocking 250 mature beasts in the wild. And this tiny population of white-bodied long-horned animals was scattered across three countries, namely Oman, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In an attempt to boost the numbers of the Arabian oryx and protect the species from extermination, plans for several wildlife sanctuaries were put in place, among which is Sir Bani Yas Island. According to a recent assessment, breeding programmes and wildlife sanctuaries have given Arabian oryx a fighting chance. Today, there are between 6,000-7,000 oryx living in large fenced enclosures in Syria, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE.

But the Arabian oryx is not the only endangered species enjoying a refuge in Sir Bani Yas Island. Other native species include sand gazelle, Arabian mountain gazelle, ostrich as well as cheetah. The latter is the Asiatic cheetah, a subspecies of the fastest creature on land living outside Africa.

A century or so ago, the Asiatic cheetah could be found in Arabia and all the way east to India. Unfortunately, it has become extinct in most of its former range, although there are rare sightings in Iran. In an effort to reintroduce this cheetah to its Asian habitat, a pair was brought to Sir Bani Yas Island. It is still too early to judge the homecoming, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Being a wildlife sanctuary, the island is also home to non-native species, such as the greater kudu antelopes, Africa's common tree hyrax and Namibia's famous beisa oryx. Sir Bani Yas, however, is also haven for several species of migratory birds -- keep an out eye for pink flamingos wading through the mangrove thickets. But the shelter island has big plans to bring in more species, including the Nubian ibex, Arabian tahr and fringe-eared oryx.

Other wildlife reserves close to Sir Bani Yas Island are a congregation of six small islands called Discovery Islands. These are an ecologically vital breeding site for green turtles.

A trip to Sir Bani Yas is not a rough out-in- the-wild type trip. It is encompassed by the lavish Desert Islands Resort, which is managed by the masters of hospitality -- Anantra Resorts. This is a place to relax, unwind and indulge in supreme pampering. With an exotic colonial feel and a blending in structure, every single piece of decoration in the hotel evokes the early explorer in you.

While maintaining a professional level of service, Desert Islands walks a fine line between providing the privacy you long for and the right tempo of activity. In addition to game drives, the activities on offer include kayaking, archery, snorkelling and mountain biking. The resort's world renowned Anantra Spa comes as the jewel in the crown of luxuries. With mind relaxing and body soothing aromas and botanical rich oils, this is the ultimate experience which will put your wellbeing on a different level. Miss on the cheetah if you want, but don't miss on the spa.

You can drive from either Abu Dhabi or Dubai to Sir Bani Yas's designated jetty, where you can park your car and hop on a boat to the island. You can also arrange a flight to take you in a matter of minutes. The Desert Islands Resort is an out-of-the-box idea which crosses the boundaries of classical tourism. It is a luxuries experience with an exotic side to it; and while Arabia is largely known for its desert, this offers a wildlife- rich experience.

For reservation and prices, please call +971 2801 5400 or log on

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