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  ENN 3 Jul 06
Booming Development Driving away Persian Gulf's Endangered Wildlife
By Jim Krane, Associated Press

KHOR KALBA, United Arab Emirates It is one of the world's rarest birds, but there it sat on a mangrove branch, motionless, its eyes peeled for a fiddler crab. The handsome white-collared kingfisher, its iridescent green back flickering in the 43-degree Celsius, (110- degree Fahrenheit) dappled sunlight, suddenly disappeared. A loud splash came from the swampy thicket. A millisecond later, the bird flashed past on its way to a hideaway to crunch a live crab in its sharp black beak.

Although kingfishers are common, this is the Arabian kingfisher of the kalbaensis subspecies. Only a few dozen are thought to remain on the planet since their nesting grounds are restricted to the hollows of knotty old mangroves.

That leaves them with only three known places: this ancient mangrove swamp 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Dubai and two smaller ones just across the border in Oman. But all three are threatened by the rampant coastal development that is turning hundreds of kilometers (miles) of pristine Arabian coastline into luxury resorts and housing.

The kingfisher is just one of the species threatened by the building boom.

In Oman, a luxury hotel was just finished on a stretch of beach used as a nesting site for the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. Other developments have taken habitat from the rare Socotra cormorant and the dugong, or sea cow, a marine mammal akin to the manatee.

But conservationists here worry the white-collared kingfisher could become the 21st century's first candidate for extinction. "There's around 40 pairs there and half a dozen in Oman, and that's it -- in the world," said Peter Hellyer of the Emirates Bird Records Committee. "If that population is put under excessive pressure, you could wipe out an entire species."

Unfortunately for the kingfisher's survival, a United Nations plan to protect the mangroves as a globally significant habitat appears to have been scuttled by the emirate of Sharjah, which allowed the dredging of a channel bisecting the wetland and the construction of an adjacent concrete walkway.

Hellyer and others say the dredging could eventually kill the mangroves by changing currents or blocking the supply of fresh water. Calls and e-mails seeking an explanation from Sharjah's environment minister, Abdul Aziz al-Medfa, were not returned.

Reporters visiting the Khor Kalba mangroves this month found them open to swimmers and groups of men in four-wheel drive vehicles who picnicked in the shade listening to loud music.

Environmental watchdogs are few in Arabia. Those that exist acknowledge they stand little chance against developers, many of whom have connections to royal families and huge profits from oil and gas to invest. Areas once protected have been developed.

In Dubai, a designated wildlife zone with coral reefs and sea grasses was buried beneath a manmade island shaped like a palm tree. A mangrove and flamingo sanctuary in Dubai has just been approved for a luxury development called The Lagoons.

"We try to be positive. But sometimes for your own sanity you block out what's going on," said Habiba al-Marashi, chairman of the Emirates Environmental Group. "In the end I can only do so much."

In Oman, developers of the Shangri-La Barr al Jissah resort were asked to move the hotel back from the beach so its lighting wouldn't interfere with the Hawksbill turtle nesting site, but that did not happen, said Earl Possardt, a turtle specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who consulted with Omani environmental authorities.

Now, Possardt says, conservationists are worried about further bulldozing of Oman's pristine beaches, still some of the world's most important nesting grounds for green turtles and loggerhead turtles.

"Oman is still a beautifully intact country. But they've got humongous plans for development coming up. I'm afraid they're going to be overrun," Possardt said by telephone from Georgia.

Besides beaches, the Gulf's delicate mangrove wetlands are also sought-after locations for luxury housing.

Mangroves, which need fresh as well as salt water to survive, are nurseries for crabs, small fish and insects -- and the birds that eat them. Hundreds of thousands of migratory birds stop each year in Arabian mangroves while traveling between Africa and Asia.

Developers like mangroves because adjacent homes can sit within eyeshot of the wildlife -- or that portion that is not chased away.

"These are some of the world's great nesting areas. If you start taking their habitat and food resources, it can affect not just individual birds but the entire population," said David Aubrey, chief executive of the Woods Hole Group, an American environmental surveying firm working in Saudi Arabia.

In Khor Kalba, schools of tiny fish splash among the mangrove roots where crabs retreat from their burrows at high tide. But the presence of kingfishers seems less assured.

In 1997, when Dubai filmmaker Yusuf Thakur spent five months filming a documentary on the white-collared kingfisher, he counted 14 breeding pairs in the muddy thickets. When he returned in March seeking more footage, he could find only two nesting pairs in a section of the mangroves that previously held eight pairs of the birds.

"The place has changed. Development has taken place," Thakur said. "I don't know whether the population will rebound." The kingfisher's two other mangrove haunts, both in Oman, are also slated for development.

A nesting ground at Luwa lies close a port being built at Sohar, and Ian Harrison of the Oman Bird Group said the bird's home at Shinas is threatened by a planned resort.

Harrison said the same developments also menace Oman's only populations of booted warblers, a shy and rare bird that also prefers life in the shade of the mangrove.

Related articles on Global issues: Biodiversity and Sea turtles
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