6 places to get up close to wildlife in the UAE
While the UAE might be well known for its skyscrapers, luxury hotels and mammoth malls, beneath that glittering façade, the region is home to a remarkable array of wildlife. Fortunately, thanks to conservation efforts across the country, there are plenty of opportunities to see wild animals in their natural and specially-made habitats, from the roaming herds of an African-style safari to the indigenous dune-dwelling creatures that populate the desert.
Animal lovers are guaranteed a wild time at Al Ain Zoo – not only is it home to a vibrant population of exotic creatures, there are also a number of visitor experiences that allow guests to get close to their favourites. These include feeding the giraffes from a special viewing platform, watching the hippo training sessions, riding a camel and watching a bird of prey show. There’s also the opportunity to take a free 25-minute train trip through the zoo grounds.
Along the way, you can see many of the 4,000 animals that call Al Ain Zoo home, such as elephants, leopards, monkeys and even penguins. The zoo is one of the longest established wildlife attractions in the UAE – located in Al Ain, known as the Garden City, it was founded in 1968 by the late Sheikh Zayed, with a conservation mission at its heart. In fact, the centre has been integral to the successful conservation of indigenous species such as desert antelopes, gazelles and the Arabian oryx, a once-endangered species whose population has been boosted by the zoo’s breeding programme.
Al Ain Zoo has expanded with the addition of Al Ain Safari Park. Set over 217 hectares of desert landscape and overseen by a team of knowledgeable Emirati tour guides, it’s the largest man-made safari park in the world.
It is no exaggeration to say that Dubai Safari Park was one of the UAE’s most hotly anticipated openings of 2017. The AED1 billion project is one of the biggest wildlife attractions in the UAE, with picturesque grounds covering around 119 hectares and home to around 3,500 animals including lions, tigers and more. The safari park is divided into various ‘villages’ according to the theme: an Arabian Village, for example, boasts desert, mountain and meadow landscapes to mimic the region and is populated by indigenous animals, such as Arabian oryx and gazelles.
There’s also an African Village, and an Asian Village that’s due to open later in 2018. A highlight of the park is the Safari Drive, where guests board an eco-friendly, air-conditioned bus and travel through the park’s drive-through enclosures, populated by lions, tigers, baboons, hippos and more. Look out for the world’s only drive-through crocodile exhibit.
This beautiful nature reserve in Ras Al Khaimah boasts 600 hectares of rolling dunes, ghaf trees and a thriving population of local wildlife, from desert foxes to Arabian oryx. The best way to explore is on horseback. Book a ride with the Al Wadi Equestrian Centre, accessed by entering the Ritz-Carlton Ras Al Khaimah, Al Wadi Desert Resort. The horses have a calm, well-behaved temperament, even with the most nervous of riders. Schedule your ride for early morning or late afternoon; seeing the desert on horseback, with the dunes bathed in the glow of sunrise or sunset, is an unforgettable experience.
The Green Planet is the first ever indoor rainforest to be built in the Middle East. Located in City Walk, at the heart of this five-storey building is the world’s largest man-made, life-sustaining tree. Around this impressive centrepiece discover a miniature rainforest with more than 3,000 animals including exotic birds, reptiles, sloths and even monkeys.
The temperature and humidity levels are controlled to mimic the environment of a real rainforest and ensure that the exotic flora and fauna are able to thrive. The fact that it’s a man-made environment doesn’t detract at all from the experience of seeing these exotic species up close. On-site biologists and expertly trained ground staff are there to help visitors learn more about the wildlife and even get close to the animals, whether that means watching feeding time at the freshwater tank or meeting the resident sloths.
Luxury hotel Jumeirah Al Naseem is home to the region’s first and largest purpose-built turtle lagoon. Conceived as part of a partnership with the Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project, the unique outdoor lagoon houses endangered turtles that are being rehabilitated for illness or injury, before they are eventually released back into the wild. Visitors can see the animals by taking part in feeding sessions, before learning more about the turtles and the region’s other sea life from the lagoon’s discovery trail and observation island.
With giraffes, gazelles and even cheetahs roaming across its wild natural landscape, Sir Bani Yas Island feels less like the UAE and more like a slice of Africa. That’s all thanks to the Arabian Wildlife Park, a 1,400-hectare nature reserve that takes up more than half the island and is home to over 10,000 animals. The island was established as a nature reserve in 1971 by the late UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in a bid to protect wildlife, particularly those native to the region. Today, visitors get to enjoy the thrilling experience of seeing these animals in the wild, including species such as Arabian oryx, flamingoes and even a small family of hyenas.
The island, which can also be reached via seaplane, is located off the coast of Abu Dhabi and if you’re looking for the best way to get close to the animals, book a Nature and Wildlife drive through with one of the hotels. Alternatively, the island can also be explored on foot, on mountain bikes and even on horseback.