Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Saving an endangered species, Arabian-style

By Tom Jordan, for CNN
updated 4:26 AM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Animal lover and UAE-founder Sheik Zayed transformed Sir Bani Yas from desert island to wildlife reserve for creatures like these caracal (also known as desert lynx) kittens. Animal lover and UAE-founder Sheik Zayed transformed Sir Bani Yas from desert island to wildlife reserve for creatures like these caracal (also known as desert lynx) kittens.
HIDE CAPTION
Sir Bani Yas
Free to roam
Only the oryx
Gazelle power
Here, gazelle ...
After-dinner bath
Imports
Hot walk
Island on wheels
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • UAE founder Sheik Zayed "made the desert bloom" on Sir Bani Yas island
  • His goal was to protect the Arabian oryx and other threatened species
  • Tourists can stay on the island in luxury resorts
  • Cheetahs, hyenas and other animals have been brought in

(CNN) -- What do you give the sheik who's already checked palaces and private planes off his royal wish list?

How about a menagerie of exotic animals?

That's partly the story of how a Noah's Ark of indigenous and introduced species came to populate Sir Bani Yas, once an inhospitable salt dome island in the Arabian Gulf.

Part of Abu Dhabi emirate, the previously private royal playground now welcomes visitors seeking an Arabian safari experience combined with an encounter with that non-indigenous desert species, the multi-star luxury hotel.

Animal-loving emir

The founder and first ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan started collecting many of the species now thriving in the island's huge wildlife park after, so the story goes, being given a bevy of exotic creatures as a gift when exploring Africa as a young royal.

Long before cheetahs, giraffes, Ethiopian hedgehogs -- and well-heeled tourists -- were introduced to Sir Bani Yas, however, Sheik Zayed was transforming the island with a particular aim: to save a native species that had virtually been wiped out.

The Arabian oryx, a kind of antelope, was officially declared extinct in the wild in the late 1960s.

Its plight moved the animal-loving emir to begin developing Sir Bani Yas (named after the local Bani Yas tribe) as a place to protect it.

Only the oryx

Arabian oryx: Sheik Zayed\'s first conservation love.
Arabian oryx: Sheik Zayed's first conservation love.

"The oryx is the main reason the island is the way it is today," says Matt Bottomer, an adventure guide who familiarizes visitors staying on Sir Bani Yas with its many resident creatures.

"Sheikh Zayed searched the world to see if there were any oryx in captivity.

"He found a handful and started a breeding program here."

MORE: Beyond Dubai -- 6 exotic escapes

To prepare the island for those few remaining antelope in the early 1970s, the late sheik launched an extravagant project that might now be seen as a precursor to other slightly incongruous Middle Eastern behemoths, such as Dubai's indoor ski resort.

He decided literally to make the desert bloom.

Once desert, now forest

Hundreds of thousands of trees, including acacia, ghaf (the national tree of the UAE), frankincense, gum and mangrove were planted in the desert scrubland of the 87-square-kilometer island to create a habitat for the oryx and other animals.

The first trees didn't fare so well.

The antelope nibbled away at them a bit too eagerly, and they had to be replanted.

They've since grown to a forest of 4 million, irrigated by desalinated water pumped through an undersea pipeline from the mainland, giving the island an improbably green sheen in this desert environment.

As for the oryx, "now we have around 500 on Sir Bani Yas," Bottomer explains.

The herd has become healthy enough that animals bred on the island are released into the desert wilds of the mainland.

Indeed, some species have come to feel so at home in the wildlife park that other animals have been brought in to keep their numbers down.

Cheetahs were shipped over to eat the Arabian sand gazelle, which they hunt in the wild, Hyenas and jackals were brought in to clean up anything the big cats left.

Animal spectacle

Imported hyenas clean up after the imported cheetahs.
Imported hyenas clean up after the imported cheetahs.

All of this makes for a great spectacle.

Only a limited number of visitors were allowed on the island when the wildlife park was established in the 1970s.

The weekend tours became so popular they had to be booked more than a year in advance.

Since Sheik Zayed's death, in 2004, Sir Bani Yas has gradually become more accessible.

READ: 8 great Middle Eastern winter adventures

Reached by a 50-seat plane from Dubai or Abu Dhabi, or a 250-kilometer drive from the UAE capital followed by a ferry crossing, Sir Bani Yas recreates a wilderness, but you won't be staying in a tent.

Accommodation is in one of three luxury resorts, meaning the wind-down from exploring the wildlife park on a safari-style drive, by foot on a guided walk or by mountain bike, is pretty pampered.

Wild drives

"You can get really close to the animals on the wildlife drives," Bottomer says.

"I've driven along and the cheetahs have been five meters from the car."

Guided wadi hikes in the mountains, nature walks on the southeast of the island and mountain biking inside and outside the park are even more direct ways of experiencing the territory.

Not all luxury: boot work on the island.
Not all luxury: boot work on the island.

"Each offers the chance to find different animals in different habitats," Bottomer says.

The animals are the main attraction for most visitors, but you can also kayak along the mangrove shores or scuba dive off the island.

Funnily enough, one of animal you won't spot on Sir Bani Yas is a camel.

These ships of the desert do well enough on the mainland without needing the island's protection

They were also probably never a terribly original idea as a gift for a royal sheik.

Getting there

Rotana Jet (+971 2 444 3366) flies from Abu Dhabi and Dubai to Sir Bani Yas Island, with single fares starting from $54.

Become chummy enough with the Abu Dhabi royal family and you might get an invitation to one of two palaces they maintain in the island's southern section.

Failing that there are three resorts on the island, with accommodation ranging from rooms in a former royal palace to upscale villas, all run by Anantara (+971 2 801 5400), which can also arrange day trip tours. Rooms from around $220 a night.

Find out more about visiting Bani Yas at Desert Islands Abu Dhabi.

READ: And the world's safest airline is ...

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:17 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Scrap all those other bucket lists you've been compiling and start saving -- these memorable-for-a-lifetime trips don't come cheap, or easy.
updated 9:40 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
A squabble over a device that limits how far a seat can recline has brought inflight etiquette into the spotlight again.
updated 6:23 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Thirst for victory competes with thirst for booze in event where competitors raise their glasses long before they cross the finish line.
updated 5:57 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
At these fun Los Angeles bars, the the drinks come with a chaser of kitsch.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
From dining next to massive predators to drinking atop a rock in the middle of the ocean, Africa boasts some of the most interesting places to eat.
updated 1:12 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Just weeks after Bill HIllman, known as a veteran, expert bull runner, was badly gored in Pamplona, he's back at other smaller bull runnings in Spain, but walking with a cane.
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Don't like the country you live in? Why not create your own, as many people have done. We uncover the parallel world of "micronationalism."
updated 9:41 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
LUSAIL CITY, QATAR: In this handout illustration provided by Qatar 2022, the Qatar 2022 Bid Committee today unveiled detailed plans for the iconic Lusail Stadium. With a capacity in excess of 86,000 and surrounded by water, the stadium would host the World Cup Opening Match and Final if Qatar wins the rights to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup. If Qatar is awarded the honour of staging the 2022 FIFA World Cup, construction of the Lusail Stadium will start in 2015 and be completed in 2019. It will retain its full capacity after 2022.
Grab a glimpse of the near future. Plans for the desert city of Lusail include man-made islands and a host arena for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
A CNN producer experiences China's poor on-time flight record firsthand as his plane takes off eight hours late.
updated 2:00 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
New Yorker Kerrin Rousset's exploration of Swiss city aims to lure cocoa fans over to the dark side.
updated 4:39 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Some things are just better after dark. These experiences around the world prove it.
updated 11:59 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Lebanon's winemakers are adopting new tactics to get their products noticed.
updated 2:26 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
the Teufelsberg or
Spooks have left their mark on a once-divided city still thought to be an espionage hotbed.
updated 6:06 PM EDT, Sun August 24, 2014
nanjing, handicrafts
With more than 6,000 years of history, Nanjing is one of the few cities in China still practicing the country's endangered traditional crafts.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT