An astonishing Arabian ark of creatures inhabit the desert island of Sir Bani Yas to the south west of Abu Dhabi. They include a magnificent herd of Arabian Oryx, now classified as extinct in the wild. These beautiful creatures are the pride of what was once a private royal wildlife collection.
Sir Bani Yas was once the personal retreat of the late Sheikh Zayed, who had developed it specifically for his exotic private menagerie. Since his death the island has become the crown jewel in the multi-billion dollar Desert Islands tourism project. Several other islands about 250 kilometres west of Abu Dhabi city are involved but Sir Bani Yas is the flagship attraction and Sheik Zayed’s former guest house is now the luxurious 64-room Desert Island Resort and Spa.
There are two reserves on the island. One of them is the Arabian Wildlife Park while the other reserve contains the sheikh’s collection of African animals. These include giraffe, ostrich, hyena, eland, gemsbok, Barbary sheep and other oryx species.
There are also Australian emu, Peruvian llama, Urial sheep from Asia and Sri Lankan deer. Cheetah have been added to the mix to control the number of antelope, which multiplied rapidly in the absence of predators.
More than three million trees planted on the island over the last 20 years have transformed this formerly desiccated landscape of salt domes, sand and stone into a pocket-sized fertile crescent.
I’m amazed that each tree is individually drip-fed by irrigation tube, a massive undertaking that swallows a large percentage of the 32 million litres of water that’s pumped daily from desalination plants on the mainland. And every day some 30 tons of feed is needed for the animals, much of it consisting of grasses grown on nearby Dalma Island.
As well as wildlife watching, I kayak in the mangrove swamps and ride around on a mountain bike. Visitors may also go snorkelling and scuba diving.
Archaeological sites on Sir Bani Yas include the remains of a pre-Islamic monastery dating from 600 AD.
Several rocky ocean outcrops known as the Discovery Islands have also been earmarked for tourism development with talk of two getting resorts, another two with tented camps and the remaining two as breeding reserves for birds, turtles and other marine life.