by Peter Hellyer
Founded in 1977, following a talk on dugongs given by a visiting scientist to a small group of interested expatriate residents of Abu Dhabi, the Emirates Natural History Group is the oldest and largest of the voluntary societies in the United Arab Emirates dealing with natural history. One of its former chairmen, and a member of the Editorial Board of its journal, Tribulus, Peter Hellyer, tells of how it all began and what it has achieved.
Like many other such organizations in the Arabian Gulf the Emirates Natural History Group grew, somewhat indirectly, out of the country's oil industry. Its founder, J.N.B. 'Bish' Brown, originally worked for the Kuwait Oil Company where he was an active member of the Ahmadi Natural History Group, before moving to work for the main offshore oil company in Abu Dhabi, ADMA-OPCO, in the mid-1970's.
Brown and the similarly minded friends and colleagues who quickly gathered around him were characterized by a typically deep and abiding interest in the natural history and archaeology of the country in which they were living. Some followed particular interests such as birds or butterflies whilst others, like Brown himself, were polymaths interested in a whole range of subjects. None of them were trained scientists, and some came to an interest in natural history only once they arrived in the Emirates, though over the years, a few developed very considerable scientific skills and knowledge.
All recognized, however, that knowledge was not that essential for a beginner, and recognized too that the Emirates, both desert and mountains, were largely virgin territory from the viewpoint of studying natural history. Local inhabitants, particularly the fishermen and Bedouin families, knew a great deal about local wildlife, but theirs was primarily the knowledge of the hunter, rather than that of the natural historian. Thus, while some early ENHG members simply took part in activities in order to get a little more from their weekend forays into the mountains and sands, others recognized that they had the opportunity, should they wish to do so, of making a very real contribution to beginning a study of the UAE's natural history.
Today there is considerable interest in and support for the group's activities from all levels, including direct personal support from President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan. With the creation in early 1993 of the Federal Environmental Agency, charged with overseeing environmental protection and research on behalf of the Government of the UAE, the torch originally raised by the Emirates Natural History Group back in the 1970's is now being passed on to local hands, something that was always the long-term intention of the group's founders.
From its inception, the Group placed a strong emphasis on the need for members to record their sightings of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, flora, insects and so on, quite apart from an archaeological interest. Over the course of years, a very substantial amount of data has been collected that has already proved its value to science. Take for example the society's bird records. The Group's bird-watchers have created a database that now has well over 20,000 records of both common and rare species. Whilst no endemic species have been found an endemic sub-species of the white-collared kingfisher (Halcyon chloris kalbaensis) has been known since the late nineteen sixties, and other species may yet be identified. Other important discoveries include internationally important breeding colonies of the Socotra cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis), and the crab plover (Dromas ardeola), as well as the first Arabian breeding record for over seventy years of the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber), while a number of Asian firsts have been recorded.
Over the last few years Abu Dhabi's Government funded National Avian Research Center has brought professional ornithologists to the Emirates for the first time. NARC will eventually take over the task of maintaining a national avian database, and is already collaborating closely with Group members both on recording and on an incipient bird ringing program.
Significant contributions to our knowledge of the UAE's natural history have been made in other areas such as plant-life, land- and sea-mammals, insects, reptiles and so on, which are in many cases the earliest (or only) data available. The practical value of this sustained effort was vividly demonstrated during a pollution incident in Abu Dhabi's offshore waters during September 1993 when it was discovered that the only records available of strandings or other unexplained deaths of marine mammals were the few held by the Group.
Thanks to developing interest and support from official bodies, local business people, and corporations ENHG has enhanced the quality and content of its publications, the once thrice-yearly duplicated Bulletin being converted in 1991 to a bi-annual printed journal, Tribulus. Content has become significantly more scientific in nature, although still comprehensible to the general reader. Success in attracting corporate sponsorship has also enabled the Group to provide its own support to others; beneficiaries including the annual Emirates Bird Report, largely dependent upon a Group donation, and an archaeological excavation in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah together with a number of other projects.
Group members have given assistance to the Federal Environmental Agency and have prepared briefing papers on a number of issues. Over the course of the last couple of years, there has been a steady emergence of a clear-cut Government commitment to the environment, and to the protection of the UAE's wildlife, shown both in new legislation and in the creation of bodies like the FEA and the National Avian Research Center. This, in turn, is leading to more activity by professional scientists in the field, both from the UAE and from overseas. When the Emirates Natural History Group was founded, despite its amateur and voluntary basis, it was the only group in the country devoted to the study and protection of wildlife in all its forms. As such, it was obliged to try to perform, somewhat ambitiously and not always successfully, the roles normally divided between voluntary and statuary bodies. In the future, the statuary role is likely to be performed by official bodies, with whom the ENHG will continue to develop close relations. As a voluntary organization, it will continue to seek to inform, to educate, to lobby, to record, to publish, and to provide a forum whereby, through meetings and trips, it offers both expatriate and national residents of the Emirates the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure of learning about the country in which they live.
Another history of the ENHG written by Marijcke Jongbloed appeared in Al Shindagah, the magazine of the Al Habtoor Group, in the November/December, 2003 issue.