By Fran Gillespie
IN THE midst of some of the driest, most barren landscape in Qatar is a green oasis filled with mature trees and gardens, where some of the world’s rarest species of birds and animals are being successfully bred. This the Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation.
Founded as a hobby farm by the father of the owner, Sheikh Saud bin Mohamed bin Ali, a member of the ruling family, the Al Wabra reserve has now been transformed into a state-of-the-art breeding and research centre for endangered species. It currently holds 1,820 animals, of which 60% are mammals, 35% are birds and 5% are reptiles.
On Wednesday evening members of the Qatar Natural History Group attended a talk by the Curator of Mammals at Al Wabra, Catrin Hammer. She and her husband Dr Sven Hammer have now worked at Al Wabra for nine years, establishing a breeding programme for endangered species that is now renowned among zoos worldwide, although it receives little publicity within Qatar.
Their mission is to maintain a healthy reproductive and genetically varied breeding population, with the possibility of reintroduction to the wild. Although with some species, the Hammers admit, given present conditions the chance of successful reintroduction is small.
Animals are threatened by hunting, destruction of habitat, competition with domestic livestock, pollution and - especially in the case of birds – illegal trade in endangered species.
Some of the breeding programmes at Al Wabra are unique. There is the only breeding herd in the world of the rare Beira antelope, with a current population of about 50 animals.” A small, delicately-built antelope that inhabits the arid regions of Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, the Beira is just one of several species of antelope, gazelle and oryx held at Al Wabra.
Other notable mammal breeding successes at Al Wabra include the Somali wild ass, the Dama and Speke’s gazelles, the Addax, the Nubian ibex, the Phillip’s dikdik and, nearer to home, the Arabian sand cat, a few of which still survive in the wild in Qatar.
The speaker referred to some of the successful reintroductions to the wild by zoos of captive-bred species world-wide. These include species as diverse as the Arabian oryx, which got off to a rather shaky start in Oman, Prezewalski’s horse, The Hawaiian goose, and beavers and otters in Europe.
Since 2007, Al Wabra has been a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Animals are regularly exchanged between the reserve and European reserves and zoos, thus maintaining a healthy breeding stock. Specialists and students from Europe regularly visit Al Wabra.
The work being undertaken at Al Wabra is now internationally renowned, but here in Qatar is deliberately kept out of the limelight. Al Wabra is not a zoo, and visitors other than professional zoologists and animal management experts are not generally admitted. There is a fear that infection could be introduced, and breeding animals disturbed by too many people near their enclosures.
A constant shadow on the horizon is the nightmare of avian flu, and the detection of this last year in Saudi Arabia has brought this potentially disastrous disease a step nearer.
The staff who care for the birds of Al Wabra can only keep their fingers crossed and hope that their breeding programmes will continue to save endangered species for years to come.
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