How did I end up in the Arabian Desert, sitting outside my tent, watching an eagle drifting overhead and marvelling at the soft afternoon light on the dunes? I’d signed up through wildlife conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions with nine other citizen scientists to monitor the numbers of the Arabian oryx – a species of antelope, white with black horns nearly three feet long and black-splashed faces – along with two types of fleet-footed gazelle, elusive foxes, eagle owls and vultures in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR).
The DDCR is a very accessible desert, just 40 minutes’ drive from the cosmopolitan city of Dubai yet it feels as remote as a corner of the Sahara. Our camp had a big traditional Bedu tent with solar lights, but after nightfall we found our one-person tents by torchlight or the moon.
We were up before sunrise every day, wrapped up against the desert cold and sipping coffee before heading off. First stop was breakfast in the reserve workers’ canteen. By now the sun was up, the white-cheeked bulbuls were in full song in the thorn trees and a couple of semi-tame gazelles tip-toed across the terrace. It was blissful, but no time to linger: there were oryx to be counted.
The national animal of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was declared extinct in the wild in the 1970s. In 1999, a small herd was reintroduced into the reserve. Since then the DDCR trust has monitored the oryx to see how they are faring, while also studying the reserve's populations of other mammals large and small (including the elusive Arabian hare) and birds, as well as measuring any changes in the plant life.
We set off in 4WD vehicles – the DDCR is criss-crossed with tracks, kept clear by tractors against encroaching dunes – data sheets, binoculars and GPS at the ready to note down anything that crossed our path, no matter how small, such as the sandfish (a type of lizard) that one minute is running across the sand, the next diving below the surface of the sand, to the toad-headed agama, a tiny lizard with, you guessed it, a toad-like head.
Counting oryx in a herd was tricky but not impossible – noting sets of horns worked well for groups of 40 or so adults. Lone animals were easy to spot from afar – no camouflage necessary as there are no predators.
First stop was the small mammal traps. Over the week we caught (and released) delightful Cheesman’s jerboa and the spiny Egyptian mouse – its fur is surprisingly stiff, hence the name. (We’d set bigger cage traps too, baited with smelly tinned sardines hoping to lure an elusive Gordon’s wild cat but they remained disappointingly empty.)
There were fox dens to monitor, looking for signs of activity – paw prints, animal bones and fresh scat. We walked past oryx resting places scooped out under the shade of the firebushes – tempting to crawl in for a rest.
For a seemingly hostile environment the desert is alive with movement, from clouds of painted lady butterflies to locusts, dragonflies and hawkmoths, crested larks and laughing doves. Plants grow too: tall evergreen ghaf trees, firebushes (like wild broom) and the Sodom’s apple tree with purple flowers.
The most challenging part of every day’s work was making observations from the highest points in the landscape. It’s hard work walking uphill in sand. High dunes that seem tantalisingly close frustratingly recede as you reached the top of one dune only to find more crests between you and your goal. We regularly clocked up 10km a day. Some dunes were soft and billowing, others honed to a knife edge by the wind and rippled and pleated. It seemed sacrilege to mess up this natural artistry by tramping across, leaving ugly tracks.
The Arabian Desert isn’t all dunes, however; there are gravel plains – good terrain for rodent spotting – and a rocky mountain at the extreme north of the reserve, where a pharaoh eagle owl stared down at us from a cave.
After inputting the day’s data on to the laptop in the DDCR offices – you can’t get away from spreadsheets even in the desert! – we had dinner in the canteen, an amazing mix of fusion cooking – pasta, pesto, curry, roasts and flatbreads – before heading back to camp and complete night-time silence. Most evenings we were safely tucked up in our sleeping bags, exhausted, by 8.30pm. Except for the time we went scorpion hunting by UV light. After spotting the reassuringly named Arabian deathstalker glowing in various spots nearby, it made you think twice about going to the loo in the night. (The toilets were Western flushing ones behind a bamboo screen and no roof – great for star-gazing.)
There were rare moments of relaxation: an exhilarating afternoon’s training in dune driving – a rollercoaster ride not for the faint hearted. Camel rides and sandboarding (like snowboarding without the snow) followed by an evening feast, lounging on cushions and carpets, at an upmarket desert lodge.
Most satisfying of all was the knowledge that you were contributing something really valuable. And that's a great feeling.
The trip was organised by the charity Biosphere Expeditions, which matches projects that need budget-busting amounts of data collection with people willing to pay (£1,318 excluding flights) for the experience of doing it. In return you get the privilege of spending time in extraordinary places, many inaccessible to regular tourists. The charity insists these expeditions are not holidays, not even working holidays. This is serious research and you need to be ready for challenging field work. biosphere-expeditions.org
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