Fujairah, United Arab Emirates - Dr Jacky Judas paused over a photograph from the field. The dragonfly captured by his camera was different than any other he had seen before. It was red-bodied, with a distinctive pattern of cross-veins on its lower wings.
Carefully, working from home, he checked the specimen against all known species in the region. But it was nowhere to be found. He dispatched the photo to an expert in Europe, a dragonfly specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The expert tested the image across a larger database, and it did not take long for Judas to get an answer.
The dragonfly was a species that had not been seen since 1957. It was considered extinct, and was never known to have even inhabited the area where Judas found it. "You always hope to make new discoveries … but this wasn’t expected," he says.
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Judas works in the United Arab Emirates, a wealthy but geographically-small desert federation. Known best as a desert oasis of opulence, the UAE is not a country often associated with wildlife and biodiversity. But beyond the concrete jungle, rare animal and plant species are seeking refuge from rapidly deteriorating habitats.
|The Omani dragonfly was thought to be extinct for the last five decades [Jacky Judas/EWS-WWF]
"In Dubai, of course, there are so many people who don’t even know that there are mountains in the country. You show them a picture and they say, ‘Oh, where’s that!’" says Gary Feulner, chairman of the Dubai Natural History Group.
At one point in time, the UAE was unique in the world for its easily accessible deep desert, mangrove swamps and mountain ravines, with roads winding slowly through nature, he says. Today, in their place, are endless fences and highways. Thirty years ago, the 16 ravines, or wadis, were said to have contained large reserves of freshwater, but the land has continued to dry up and entire freshwater ecosystems have collapsed. Elsewhere, urban development has caused extensive damage.
In the past 10 years alone, two species of freshwater fish are thought to have been bulldozed to extinction in the UAE when their only habitats were dammed, sucked dry or paved over, Feulner told Al Jazeera. Their disappearance has potentially left just one species of native freshwater fish in the UAE, found in the sole remaining source of permanent natural freshwater.
These animals used to travel all the mountains, but the UAE is now enclosed behind a very high chain-linked fence, and it’s preventing natural migration. It’s becoming an island.
With the exception of a site where the water is down to a trickle, just one ravine, Wadi Wurayah, still has freshwater year-round.
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The wadi lies in the mountains north of Fujairah, a port city on the Gulf of Oman. En route, huge oil storage tanks line the coast for miles, saturating the air with a distinct chemical odour. From a distance, the mountains appear as sheer rock faces, dry and lifeless. But within them, canyons cut through the stone, hiding precious vegetation. The plant life shelters an ecosystem that is just barely surviving.
Olivier Combreau, tasked with developing a conservation plan there, rumbles his 4WD over the boulders in the wadi bed. As the truck is thrown from side to side, Combreau says the rocky landscape is the last natural refuge for wildlife in the UAE. The wadi’s main public attraction is a graffitied rock puddle fed by a trickle of water, the only permanent waterfall in the country.
"There’s no place like this in this [region]," Combreau tells Al Jazeera.
The wadi, with its natural springs and pools, is a rare sanctuary in the country’s desert landscape. Mountain lynxes, foxes and Arabian tahr - endangered wild goats - live in its remote reaches. They have disappeared almost everywhere else.
"It’s like this because the mountains aren’t an easy place to get to," Combreau says. "When [the animals] are pressured from all directions, the last place of untouched land is the place they’ll be. Only where it’s very remote, survival is possible. That’s what’s happened here."
As dwindling populations have become increasingly isolated, conservation has turned into a fragmented undertaking. Populations that once spanned national borders have been cut off from one another.
"These animals used to travel all the mountains, but the UAE is now enclosed behind a very high chain-linked fence, and it’s preventing natural migration. It’s becoming an island," Combreau says.
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The UAE once had wild wolves, hyenas, and even ostriches and lions. Its wildlife represented a meeting point for a number of species from Eurasia, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. Feulner, from the Natural History Group, says the fierce pace of UAE’s development has been overwhelming natural habitats.
|Dr Jacky Judas, research manager at Wadi Wurayah National Park in the UAE, has found a dragonfly species not seen since 1957 [Michael Dickison/Al Jazeera]
"You can’t take a small country, give it a lot of money and bring in a lot of people, and expect it to stay the same."
It is a sobering thought for someone who has seen the scale, pace and extent of changes brought upon the landscape since he emigrated three decades ago. He has mostly become resigned to taking an academic interest in the UAE’s biodiversity.
"I don’t see enough good prospects on the conservation front to put my heart into it," Feulner says. "There’s just too high a risk of being disappointed.
"But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to preserve parts of it," he adds. An association between the Emirates Wildlife Society and the WWF has taken up the management of Wadi Wurayah as a national park, with support from Fujairah Municipality and the emirates' rulers. Park rangers are being recruited to regulate holiday campers who have, until recently, been flocking to the wadi in the thousands, leaving litter, ash and graffiti. The area has been temporarily closed to the public since December to help the environment recuperate and allow the park to be set up. In the short term, an ecotourism zone will be created to keep most visitors within a small area of the park, leaving the rest for conservation.
Eventually Combreau, the park’s conservation adviser, hopes to reintroduce Arabian leopards into Wadi Wurayah. They were last seen approximately two decades ago.
"It’s in the management plan. For 2030 or 40," he says. Other UAE sanctuaries, which generally depend on man-made facilities and environments, have begun breeding programmes for some rare types of mammals.
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During a night watch on the wadi, Judas’ habitual frown glows from under a headlamp. Tonight, he is on the lookout for owls and bats under a starry sky. His "bat detector", a handheld gadget, transposes ultrasonic calls into audible frequencies. Judas spins a dial in search of signs of activity, and it hums a faint static noise.
In recent weeks, he has acquired a laboratory on-site, and has begun to breed some unidentified dragonfly larvae found in the field. Dragonflies are drawn to the wadi’s waters by necessity; they mate over ponds and spend the first phases of their lives underwater, swimming for as many as seven years until they emerge as adults with wings.
In the Arabian Peninsula, suitably wet habitats were already scarce. But with urbanisation, overuse of water resources, the encroachment of animal grazing areas, hunting, fires and littering, they had eroded until there was no escape. The extinction of many native species followed - including, or as it was thought for five decades, the red-bodied Omani dragonfly, Urothemis thomasi, rediscovered by Judas.
With his new larvae, however, he has stumped overseas experts: No record of them seems to exist. He will have to wait for the next stage of metamorphosis to see what emerges from their shells.