ENHG Al Ain Newsletter, May 2001
ENHG Al Ain Newsletter, May 2001
Non-native or alien species can, and do, cause considerable damage to the host environment they find themselves in, usually at the expense of native wildlife. It was pointed out recently at the United Nations Biodiversity Convention in Montreal, Canada, that alien species are the second biggest threat to indigenous wild species after habitat loss. Alien species often out-compete native species for resources, introduce diseases or inter-breed resulting in a loss of species diversity and a general loss of biodiversity.
The UAE has its fair share of alien species and related problems. These range from donkeys (archaic transport) to unwanted pets released into the wild by "caring" owners such as Mollies (ornamental fish). Feral donkeys compete directly with the declining Gazelle and Tahr for grazing, which is often marginal, in mountainous areas. Feral cats and dogs also account for a substantial loss of native birds, reptiles and small mammals and is arguably not too difficult to control as other problem species.
According to the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) alien fish species threaten 20% of the world's freshwater fish with extinction. Locally the predatory fish, Tilapia (Oreochromis spp.), have been released as a source of food in local Wadi systems to the detriment of indigenous species such as the Arabian Killifish (Aphanius dispar), a predator of mosquito larvae.
Birds such as the Myna's of which 3-4 species are breeding residents to the Emirates, Masked, Streaked & Golden-backed Weavers, Scaly-breasted Munia, Red Avadavit and Pin-tailed Whydah, to mention but a few, often out-compete native species for food, nesting material and nesting space. Recently the beautiful and vocal Indian ring-necked parakeet has been cited as a source of influenza A viruses liable to infect chickens, mice and ultimately humans. Bird flu has caused recent human fatalities in Hong Kong (1999) and China (2000). The deadly Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 resulted in the death of 40 million people world-wide. Other flu epidemics in 1957 and 1968 killed over a million people. Unwanted pet birds should not be released into the wild so as to avoid above-mentioned disasters.
Fifteen species of introduced ants (20% of all ant species recorded in the UAE) have been recorded from the Emirates with 3 species posing potential problems as public health and nuisance pests while 2 species threaten the local entomo-fauna and biodiversity. In the southern USA an alien ant species was so successful that it almost entirely out-competed the local ant fauna and altered the local insect diversity. Controlling ants and other alien arthropods is also very difficult, time consuming and expensive.
Exotic trees such as Eucalyptus (Blue-gum spp.) generally use more water than indigenous species while exotic Prosopis spp. have the potential of invading marginal areas and ousting local flora, which is evident (in its initial phase) in the RAK and Fujairah coastal areas.
Many countries don't often realise the threats posed by alien species and that they can be eradicated. Feral cats and rats (both of which prey heavily on birds) are two species that have been successfully eradicated from islands off South Africa and New Zealand. Authorities should implement better monitoring, quarantine and overall environmental control to prevent exotic species from becoming a problem. "Do-gooders" should also realise that releasing those unwanted pets may cause more damage than good when released into an unfamiliar environment. Pet shop owners and other importers of exotic wildlife as well as illegal trafficking in live and other animal products should be eradicated and strictly controlled by the relevant authorities so as to avoid the type of publicity such as was recently published in New Scientist (10 March 2001). "Indian ivory joins African ivory before it goes to Japan or China. The biggest smuggling route out of India is through the UAE, and African ivory always comes that way".
Peter can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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April 24 - BSE and CJD, and more
It isn't that often that we are lucky enough to snare a visitor from the UK who happens to be on holiday in the area, who happens to be an expert in an appropriate field, and far less likely that we would be able to lure him to the InterContinental to give a lecture. This, however, was just the case on April 24, when UK-based research scientist, Tristan Bunn, who specialises in Creutzveldt-Jakob Disease, gave a most professional talk on BSE, Scrapie, Kuru, CJD and a number of its variants, backed up with a PowerPoint visual aid presentation - all seemingly at the drop of a hat. Impressed me no end.
I am confident that I followed the narrative and understood 95% of it but give me an exam on what I 'learned' right now and I would not reach a pass mark without some blatant cheating.
Evidently, the gathered ensemble were also impressed and some of them were sufficiently 'up' on the subject to put some deeply-searching questions to the young man, which were answered in detail if science did indeed have an answer at this time. Research continues in most capable, even if young, hands. Importantly, he is NOT a vegetarian! (Yet) -- the Editor
From the viewpoint of just one of the interested listeners, Laurence Garey, of the UAEU.
I suppose most people have an uneasy feeling in the back of their minds about CJD. We know it is rare but, then again, we hear of too many young people, especially in the UK, dying of it and we all know it is a horrible disease. It was a pure coincidence but on the front page of the ENHG Newsletter on the night of 24 April was a table produced by Peter Cunningham showing the probability of dying from a number of different causes. His idea was to show that death by snake bite, at 1 in 100,000, was pretty unlikely. However, we would have to go to a much less likely figure than that (1 in a million or more) to get the figure for death by CJD.
Maybe people's fear of the unknown explained the good turnout in the Ballroom for the talk on "Bovine CJD" given by Tristan Bunn that evening. Tristan is on holiday here with his parents, but his "day job" is to get a PhD at the prestigious CJD Surveillance Unit in Edinburgh. His remit was to give the latest news about theories and reality in the CJD field, as well as tell us a little about his own work. He succeeded admirably in both. He pulled no punches, and plunged us into some pretty esoteric science, but built up to it with a beautifully rounded and comprehensible introduction. He is to be congratulated on his very nice PowerPoint show, including its video-clip.
In trying to summarise his lengthy, and erudite, presentation, I hope he, and you, will excuse me if I introduce any unwarranted misinformation in what follows, but this is a subject that is close to my heart (not too close to my brain though, I hope).
CJD is a multifaceted disease. It exists in many forms, from the "sporadic" (which means in effect that its origin is unknown), through familial forms, to the recent and devastating "new variant" that kills young people (96 only known so far, and most of those in the UK, but with the haunting fear that we may only be seeing the tip of the ice-berg and that there could be an epidemic with hundreds of thousands of victims waiting round the corner). This is the one, of course, that may be due to eating meat infected with BSE (bovine spongioform encephalopathy), that has earned itself the ridiculous name of "mad cow disease". It may however also be transmitted by extracts of brain from human cadavers (e.g.: growth hormone), or of the meninges (dural transplants), or even corneal grafts.
Tristan introduced us to the "C" and the "J" of CJD (Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease). One was German, the other Austrian (he thought). In fact they were both, to my knowledge, nineteenth century German neurologists! But that hardly matters. They described a form of progressive dementia, affecting elderly people, with degeneration of the central nervous system leading to loss of muscle co-ordination and eventually death. It was originally thought that this was due to a form of virus (the "slow virus"). Later Gajdusek (in the 1950s) came to the same conclusion about "kuru", a disease of the Melanesian tribes of the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea. That work earned him a Nobel Prize, which is nice! The important thing was that he was able to trace the origin of the disease to the fact that these tribes ate the bodies of their deceased relatives. The strong, young, macho males ate the muscle, and the poor old women had to be content with the brain and offal! Gajdusek noted that the women suffered most from kuru (which means "trembling" in the local language), and put two and two together to make exactly four. He concluded that a slow virus, mainly in the brain but also in the muscles of the deceased family members, was transmitted to the other family members, and that those who ate mainly brain (the women) got the disease most.
The resemblance between CJD, kuru, and "scrapie", a disease of sheep, goats and moufflons ("What is a moufflon?", asked Tristan) and known since the 18th century in England, was striking. It was called scrapie because the affected sheep would scrape their skin to relieve their discomfort. Ugh! We now know that there are many more similar diseases, the most striking being one affecting mink (of all things!), and the infamous, but slightly amusing, "fatal familial insomnia". Since then, the poor old slow virus has been let off the hook, for we now know that all these horrible afflictions, and others, are due to "prions".
We all have normal "prion proteins" in our bodies, and particularly in our brains. We need them. What for, we are not sure. However, sometimes these proteins change in structure, and become locked in a sort of molecular straightjacket. At this stage, not only can they not be broken down by the body's own "proteases" (enzymes whose job is just that: to break down unwanted proteins), but they cannot be broken down by anything! Tristan reminded us that even burning them at 600 degrees C left them untouched! Worst of all, these altered prions can "infect" other, normal prion proteins and so they spread, and we get CJD, or kuru, or whatever.
Unfortunately for the world at large, and the Brits in particular, the British farming community and the Government, in their wisdom, decided to encourage the use of "meat and bone meal" from "rendered" farm animals as the basic foodstuff for cows. What this means in less polite terms, is that dead cows, and any bits of them left over from the butchers, were minced up, watered down, dried out, and turned into powder that was then fed to our unsuspecting cows, especially those who provided our milk. This was done for years until, belatedly, the habit was stopped by government decree a few years ago. The habit had spread by then to various other countries throughout the world, who may have continued to use this powdered cow a bit longer, even giving it to chickens.
So, just avoiding beef will not save you! Tristan told us that, originally, boiling water and organic solvents (acetone I suppose) were used in this process, but a disastrous fire in the USA led to their use being curtailed, on the grounds that they were too dangerous! It may just be that cutting out this step led to the multiplication of prions. Whatever, prions are with us for keeps. They may be rare in human pathology just now, but they might get commoner. The fact that this unpleasant bone meal started in the UK, and that the UK is the hardest hit by BSE and new variant CJD, seems not to be a coincidence (although scheduling this talk on the day after St George's Day probably was).
Tristan also took us on a rapid tour of his domain. He is working on the high-level molecular biology of prion protein in various parts of the brain. I imagine this is the first time . . .
(graphic is not available)
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WEDNESDAY JUNE 6
Moonlight climb to Hanging Gardens. Meet at Buraimi Hotel at 8pm. Bring 2L water, snack and tripod if you are bringing a camera. Probable return to town by 11pm. Should be a full moon, rising at sunset. Climb should take a maximum of 2 hours if moonlight level good.
FRIDAY JUNE 8
Brien Holmes will be leading a convoy via Mahdah to Wadi Agran, behind Jebel Qattara. Lots of evidence here of copper MINING, a new discovery by Mr. H. Meet at Inter-Con lower parking lot at 8am prompt and we should be back home by noon. As usual, bring plenty to eat and drink and good footwear. It will undoubtedly be hot! Maybe a hat? Yes! Your vehicle should be 4X4 and in good condition, as there is a lot of sand, gravel and some rocky roads. No danger of getting stuck, though. Good photo ops to be had! Sign up TONIGHT.
THURSDAY JUNE 14
The BioSaline Agriculture Research facility, just off the Al Ain to Dubai highway. See Sign-Up Sheet at the appropriate evening's meeting for your opportunity. Trip Leader TBA; we need a volunteer - no previous experience needed.
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ABBA - Arabian Breeding Bird Atlas includes all breeding species from the Arabian Peninsula, with the aim of publishing an atlas indicating past and present distribution and range extensions, etc.
Any sightings of breeding birds from Al Ain, or anywhere else for that matter, can be passed on to me and I will forward it to the appropriate people.
The type of data I would need would be: species (e.g. Black-winged Stilt), confirmation of breeding (e.g. active nest, eggs/chicks, feeding), location of nest (e.g. Al Ain Oasis - on ground under palm tree) and any "other" interesting data e.g. nest construction.
The ABBA Co-ordinator could also be contacted direct: Michael Jennings (email@example.com). Also See Webpage: http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/arabian.birds/
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Further to the above and to the Wadi Khutwa Field Trip recently, a pair of very large predatory birds were seen on our return trip, causing an emergency stop and a somewhat jerky backing-up performance.
The two were soaring on a thermal and, when first seen, they were but twenty feet up but an effortless, assisted, rotary glide-path soon had them at a very great height, when they effectively disappeared, even with the aid of binoculars.
The best efforts to identify them, once home and able to access the reference book (Why didn't I realise that it was on the back seat all the time?!), gives me no other real option other than - Imperial Eagles.
The reference tome notes that they are often mis-identified with Steppe Eagles but I strongly believe this not to be the case. If any other option is realistic, they could have been Bonelli's Eagles, but, if so, the habitat was not right. Dismissed.
Thus, I remain convinced that I and three other travelling companions were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time - and one of us with eyes open! Perhaps I SHOULD have been concentrating on the road ahead but you know how it is.
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My first attempt at an ENHG Newsletter was a little traumatic last month but, with copy coming in all of a rush at the last dying moment, we made it. I hope that you like the new style, even if there IS a switch to British English forms of spelling. Further improvements are on the way. Some of the photographs even survived the copier more or less intact and I feel more confident about placing more - if I get them. Your help here please.
There were one or two 'typos', even after my dear wife weeded out one really embarrassing one (I had left the 'p' off 'presented'!) I will do better next time and, yes, 'sheikh' should really have that final 'h'.
With there being no Festival and no Inter-Emirates Weekend reports to fill this second attack, what on earth will we fill seven blank pages with? Time will tell. I'm sure we will.
Again, though, an appeal for stories, tales, sagas, insights and with illuminating photos too, please. You MUST have done something interesting and appropriate . . . tell us, and tell us before I have to make that late-evening run to the copy-shop?
I look forward to getting mail from you!
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With the sun already rising and the cool of the morning even now beginning to melt away, nineteen early-risers had gathered at the Inter-Con for a morning at Wadi Khutwa, where Brigitte Howarth and Jerry Buzzell combined their 'tour-guide' hats to lead the group, firstly, through the oasis, to the site of the copper smelting activities.
Those who had not been before were surprised to find this evidence and even more surprised to find that it all happened circa 1200 years ago, the hand-prints of those who had laboured here then making it even more of interest - even some delight!
Walking the falaj (above), back past some new house building activity IN the oasis, other diversions were brought to our attention - the most important being the insect infestation of all the trees, and the consequent degradation of the potential date crop, although this was seen to be less active than during the previous visit by Brigitte. Insect collection was successful for Debbie Handley but the dragon-flies were most adept at avoiding the net. The sighting of a humming-bird made some amends.
The falaj 'solar clock' in the 'village square' was seen in action, with the appointed man waiting for the end of the shadow to hit the mark and then hastily striding off to make alterations to the irrigation flow direction.
The disused house containing the date pot was probed cautiously before all fired up the A/C and headed for Al Ain and, for me, a hot strong black sweet 'man-size' coffee.
A brief resume of a pleasant Friday stroll amid a harsh environment, a cooler oasis and in the company of some like-minded souls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . by Keith Evans
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All you wanted to know about . . . The Tuesday Lectures May 8 - Abu Dhabi Marine Atlasby Brien Holmes
It may be, as our guest speaker, Ron Loughland, suggested, that the Emirates Heritage Club is one of the UAE's best-kept secrets. Its misleading name may be a contributing factor. It is apparently due to change.
Quietly, but diligently, the Emirates Heritage Club carries on its work throughout the UAE. Some of us learned, for example, that the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History, in Al Ain, is a part of the EHC.
Established in 1993 by HH Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed AL Nahyan, the UAE Deputy Prime Minister and the Chairman of the EHC, the organisation was intended for the 'protection and dissemination of the heritage and traditions of the UAE'. Under this generous umbrella, the group has undertaken a wide variety of projects and programmes, including astronomy, marine studies, flora and fauna surveys, camel racing and traditional crafts.Ron Loughland
Officially, the group's objectives include protection of the UAE heritage and its dissemination to future generations, studies of UAE heritage, environment and popular traditions, and sponsorship of events featuring traditional sports and activities. For example, at the Zayed Centre here in Al Ain, students from the UAE University were gathering an 'Oral History' of the UAE by interviewing and recording conversations with women around the UAE.
Ron spent most of his talk discussing the EHC and the Commission of Environmental Research, where he is currently employed and involved with the research to produce a Marine Atlas of the UAE. That research has already generated valuable statistical data on marine plant life, marine mammals, fish and birds.
It is hoped that Ron will be available to return to speak to the Group next autumn, when the Marine Atlas will be published.
The C.E.R. is based on Al Sammaliah Island, a 14 sq. km. island located about 12 km northeast of Abu Dhabi. Much of the island has been set aside as a reserve for plant, marine and bird life, especially the mangrove plantations. Portions of the island are also used for a variety of sports activities, including horse and camel riding, falconry and aquatic sports.
The survey conducted to date has produced some interesting results, Ron reported, including the confirmed sighting of a pod of whales in the Arabian Gulf. The C.E.R. also now has an accurate accounting of the dugong population.
Not all the news has been good, however, and Ron reported a marked decline in some marine mammal populations, especially one species of porpoise. He also explained that there is evidence of the 'Greenhouse Effect' of global pollution here in the Gulf, where the average temperature here has increased by almost 2 degrees C in the past decade, with the result that many coral species have died.
The Commission, as other branches of the EHC, hires young UAE national men and women to work on research projects and to participate in the activities sponsored by the group. Dozens of students are hired each summer to, for example, continue the work on the island or at the heritage site established on the breakwater at Abu Dhabi, The site is, incidentally, open to the public.
If you would like more information on the CER or the EHC, please visit their web site.
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Motivate Publishing, Dubai, 2000
This account of a recent and much publicised (thanks to Brien's efforts to keep the ENHG informed) crossing of the Empty Quarter by camel makes an interesting read but is a very pale imitation of Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. A few obvious mistakes reveal that three young Canadians would be unable to emulate Thesiger, particularly as none of them had any cultural knowledge of Arabia prior to their arrival in Muscat to attempt the journey. Ultimately the book is about the travellers and not their journey.
The danger and deprivation seem a little contrived, it was obvious that they were never really alone in the desert, support always seemed to be at hand. There were also several rest stops at outposts of urban penetration of the sands.
The colour photographs are a little pedestrian, camels in the sand etc. but made me appreciate the classic quality of some of Thesiger's black and white photographs.
The value of the book for the reviewer was in the descriptions and observations of the contemporary Bedu culture recorded by Kirkby. Worth reading if you can borrow a copy, perhaps the library will have one?
Reviewed by Phil Iddison
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An update on current thinkingby Laurence Garey, Professor of Anatomy, UAEU
It occurred to me that our members might like to have an occasional update on some of the latest ideas in biology and medicine that are topical at the time of publication of each of our Newsletters.
Keith Evans agreed to let me have a go at summarising a topic or two, or three, on a regular (I hope) basis. There are lots of sources for such information, but the number of journals is so great, and most of the stuff of little general interest, that I thought I would try to select out some that might amuse, as well as educate you! I shall use the journal "Nature" as one the most frequent sources, as what it publishes is both good and topical. I therefore acknowledge it as a source, among others. I shall depend on feedback from readers as to whether to 1: change, 2: expand or 3: abandon, the thrust of these columns, so please let me know your thoughts.
No 1: The love-life of a dove: Wedding rings and Broken rings
Here in Al Ain, we are very used to seeing the doves flying around and hearing them cooing away merrily. But what do you know about their love-life? Male doves, like male anything, need to be both tough and tender, and each at the right moment. When a male dove goes a-wooing he must strike a subtle balance between strutting his stuff and showing his sensitive side. A female needs to be convinced that he is macho enough to sire strong offspring, yet tender enough to help her raise them, and perhaps, too, to give her a peck and a coo from time to time. However, his basic instinct is like that of all things male, pretty overbearing.
When the time is right, an enzyme (a biological protein that catalyses chemical reactions in all our cells) called aromatase puts a stop to the rough stuff. Nature has just reported some work at the Max Planck Research Centre for Ornithology in Andechs, Germany. It is aromatase that, by breaking some chemical rings that hold together some very complicated cell molecules, brings on the billing and cooing. How does it do that? Well, not surprisingly the male's aggressive behaviour is dependent on the hormone testosterone; his gentler, mating and home-building sides are mediated by the 'female' hormone oestrogen. Aromatase simply converts testosterone to oestrogen.
Researchers had long suspected that aromatase played a role in reproductive behaviour, but this study really nails it down very nicely. When doves were treated with an aromatase blocker they began their courtship as usual with boisterous macho womanising. But when the time came to start home-building, they were unable to turn on the charm. Without the full range of behaviour, successful mating was impossible. The females needed gentle stimulation from the males in order to ovulate! As aromatase is found in most vertebrate animals, we ought to be a bit more careful in future to let it do its job and make us men a little more dove-like.
To contact Laurence, click here.
Next month - Earthworms, their social & dining preferences.
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During the recent Archaeology Conference in Abu Dhabi, a visit was arranged for the delegates to the important archaeological remains on Umm an Nar island located to the east of Abu Dhabi.
The island has given its name to a culture characterised by burial of the dead in massive circular stone communal tombs. The first tombs were excavated by Danish archaeologists on Umm an Nar and this group of tombs is still the largest aggregation anywhere in the region. The tombs date to the third millennium BC. The Hili tombs are of the same culture and a detail of the stone carving on one of these tombs is used for the ENHG logo.
The first impression on approaching the site is the large number of tombs located on the low rock plateau capping the island and overlooking the sea to the north. A count rapidly ascended into double figures. Some were merely piles of unworked core stones, others had been more or less restored and some have not been excavated.
The restored tombs generally had the ashlar facing stones up to a height of about two metres. These stones clearly show the technique of chipping with stone tools, which created the smooth facing surface and also the faces in contact with the rest of the facing stonework. Entrances into the tombs comprised a small arched opening at waist height and led into the labyrinth of internal spaces inside the tomb. There had been a paper at the conference about these tombs with speculation on how the burials were made. It is thought that full cadavers were taken into the tomb and left on an upper layer of shelves formed from flat slabs of rock. At a later stage the skeleton was disarticulated and the bones were packed into the lower level below the shelves. One of the more fragmentary tombs had some self fragments in place and even a leg bone!
One tomb caught my eye as it was built with much smaller stones than the other tombs and the rock was of poorer quality. Perhaps it was built when supplies of better quality stone were not available or perhaps it was a prototype. It was also one of the smaller tombs, they range in size from about 7 to 15 metres diameter, measurements made by simply pacing a few of the tombs.
Associated with the tombs, there is a settlement down on the foreshore. Quite possibly there were mangroves at that time, it was certainly a wetter period. There were the remains of simple rooms built right up to the beach edge but perhaps water levels were different five thousand years ago. Around the whole area there were scatters of shells and some simple stone tools such as hammer stones.
There was evidence that work is continuing on the site, either restoration or further excavation.
For security reasons we were not allowed to take photographs so I have to rely on visual memories. The photograph above is an Umm an Nar tomb at Shimal north of Ras al Khaimah excavated by the RAK Museum four years ago. The photo shows the foundation of the external ashlar wall and some of the internal dividing walls. The tomb had been quarried for stone, particularly the ashlar stones. However, one was found with the impression of a footprint carved on it. The excavation produced interesting finds, including the skeleton of a woman, apparently buried with a dog. Additionally, at about thirteen metres diameter, this is one of the largest Umm an Nar tombs excavated in recent times.
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A visit to Hatta Pools on May 3, with the intention of perhaps a pleasant water-side picnic, and maybe even a total interface between selves and waters, was to come nowhere near the target.
While lots of (unidentified) fish of seemingly two species were observed and one close encounter made with a nervous toad, their environment was also shared with rather too many, and very persistent, flies.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the flies' presence was the widely scattered discarded garbage and this despite there being a sizeable refuse bin at the site entrance. Thus, during our entire time at this location, Diane was on self-appointed garbage-clearance duty, making a sizeable dent in the debris but it was rather a mammoth task for such a small work-force.
Meanwhile, of course, two other groups of picnic-makers totally ignored her efforts and were happy to 'enjoy' their environs and obviously quite blind to their blighted surroundings. I realise that you are not surprised by the inaction and 'blinkered' attitude of other humans and that this short tale is only a case of preaching to the converted. It does, however, give me the opportunity to express appreciation to those few anonymous members of the Al Ain ENHG who regularly venture out into the locale with the sole intention of garbage clearance.
'Wadi Clean-ups' are not announced 'Field Trips' for members and are done on a regular basis by a nucleus of dedicated volunteers - 'unsung heroes', no less!
While they would not bring attention to themselves and their behind-the-scenes efforts, I do so now. I also appeal to you to consider contributing on an imminent 'Trash Patrol'. At its worst, it would be a day out with sociable people and a clean location at the end of the visit. You could even derive a lot of personal satisfaction from it all and, maybe, even see some locations you never would otherwise. Hidden benefits abound!
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