Meet the Animals of the UAE: Nature Reserves and Wildlife Hotspots

We are blessed in the United Arab Emirates to have some incredibly diverse landscapes; far beyond simply desert dunes, there are many creatures, from magnificent marine species to unique birds, that call the UAE home.

Arabian oryx with text overlay Wildlife in the UAER

You might immediately think of camels when you imagine animals in the arid Arabian Peninsula, but they are actually an introduced species – albeit over 2000 years ago!

Native wildlife you might encounter in the United Arab Emirates include the Arabian red fox, sand cats, Arabian wolves, Arabian sand gazelles and the striped hyena. In the water, you’ll find several species of turtles, humpback dolphins, whale sharks and stingrays.

Some of the endangered and very rare species that you will have more difficulty encountering include Arabian leopards, the Houbara Bustard, the Dhub (spiny-tailed lizard), and the Arabian Tahr (a goat-like species). The Arabian Oryx has been brought back from the brink of extinction through extensive conservation projects.

Not all of these locations can be visited at this time, but where there are facilities for tourists, we have listed operators and nearby hotels to complete your UAE wildlife experience.

Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre (Kalba, Sharjah)

At Al Hefaiyah Mountain Conservation Centre in Sharjah (Kalba exclave on the east coast), visitors can discover a wide range of indigenous species that inhabit the Hajar Mountains, including the Arabian leopard, caracals, and Arabian wolves.

The centre, run by the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority, focuses on the conservation and rehabilitation of local wildlife, providing an educational insight into the region’s biodiversity and efforts to protect these species.

How to Visit: Tickets are available to purchase at the entry. Entry is 25 AED for adults and free for under 12’s.

Where to stay: Accommodation in Kalba is limited, but Kingfisher Retreat for unique villa-style accommodation for families. Alternatively, you are within easy driving distance of several hotels in Fujairah

Al Marmoon Desert Conservation Reserve (Dubai)

Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve, is the largest unfenced nature reserve in the UAE, taking up around 10% of the desert landscape of Dubai Emirate. It is known for its rich biodiversity, including over 200 species of native birds, 50 species of reptiles, and numerous mammals like the Arabian oryx and gazelles.

The reserve is managed by the UAE’s Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE) and includes the country’s largest solar plant as well as 10 square kilometres of lakes, encompassing Al Qudra Lakes and the famous intertwined ‘Love Lakes’ which have been man-made over a period of several years to attract migratory birds to the area.

Al Qudra lakes in Marmoom desert conservation reserve

The reserve offers a range of activities such as bird watching, camel trekking, and guided tours, providing visitors with an opportunity to explore the desert ecosystem and learn about conservation efforts in the region.

How to Visit: Entry is free; look for the designated parking and off-road areas and stick to designated tracks.

Where to stay: The perfect spot to pull up a tent and camp in the UAE as it’s largely 2WD accessible (though winter weekends can be quite noisy – head midweek if you want to enjoy more of the serenity of this setting)

Al Wathba Wetlands (Abu Dhabi)

The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in Abu Dhabi is a unique natural oasis renowned for its rich biodiversity, particularly its flamingo population, which flocks here during the winter – often as many as 4000 can be spotted! This protected area encompasses a variety of habitats, including wetlands, sabkhas (salt flats), and fossilized sands and dunes, supporting a wide range of migratory and resident bird species.

Flamingo watching at Abu Dhabi's Al Wathba Reserve
Al Wathba Wetlands flamingos (image courtesy of our contributor Shea Wittig)

In addition to flamingos, visitors can spot over 250 bird species, various plant species, and a plethora of aquatic life. The reserve is also famous for its conservation efforts, especially in breeding the endangered Arabian Oryx.

Once a coastal salt flat (sabkha), it has now flourished into natural and man-made lakes that enable many of Abu Dhabi’s species to thrive. In 2018, the reserve was placed on the IUCN Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas, making it the first site in the region to receive this recognition.

How to Visit: The visitor centre is temporarily closed for redevelopment work (though it has been this way for quite some time now; no estimated reopening date)

Where to stay: The closest accommodation on this side of town is the luxurious Al Wathba Desert Resort & Spa, or pack your camping gear and head nearby to Al Wathba Lake, which will reward you with further wildlife spotting opportunities (though sadly, weekends have become inundated with ungrateful campers who think its a nightclub).

Al Zorah (Ajman)

The Al Zorah Natural Reserve in Ajman is a vibrant ecosystem comprising mangroves, turquoise lagoons, and sandy beaches. This protected area is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including over 60 species of birds, such as the pink flamingo, herons, and egrets.

It’s a haven for nature lovers and bird watchers, offering opportunities for kayaking through the mangroves to observe the rich biodiversity closely. The reserve emphasizes conservation while providing a serene escape into nature within the rapidly urbanizing landscape of the UAE.

How To Visit: Tour operators such as Quest for Adventure can take visitors deep into the mangroves by kayak See location map.

Where to Stay: Several accommodation options in nearby Ajman; families try Radisson Blu Hotel Ajman, or the ultra-luxurious beachfront resort, The Oberoi Al Zorah

Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (Dubai)

The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) is a protected area that showcases the natural beauty of the Arabian desert. It is home to many species, including the Arabian oryx, gazelles, and various bird species.

There is a wide range of activities that can be done inside the DDCR, such as desert safaris, camel trekking, falconry displays, and hot-air ballooning. These allow visitors to experience the desert’s unique ecosystem and cultural heritage. Conservation efforts within the reserve focus on preserving the fragile desert habitat and its wildlife, making it a vital sanctuary for research, education, and sustainable tourism.

Oryx in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve
Image Credit Dubai Travel Planner

You can choose to do a tour with one of the selected operators with permission to work within the DDCR-protected area. Alternatively, as a day visitor, you could pop into the DDCR Visitor Centre for an immersive introduction to the flora and fauna of the region and learn more about the reserve’s history and conservation efforts.

How to Visit: Bookings should be made in advance through an accredited operator to head deeper into the desert, or drop-in visitors are welcome at any time to the DDCR Visitor Centre – AED 35 Adults, kids AED 25

Where to stay: Accommodation is offered within the reserve at Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa (ultra-luxurious tented villas), Sonara Camp, operated by Nara, offers glamping ‘Nests’, and Sand Sherpa offers fully fitted camping trucks and done-for-you camp set up. Newcomer 57 Safari also offers an overnight luxury tented stay.

Jubail Mangroves (Abu Dhabi)

Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi offers a glimpse into the rich biodiversity of mangrove habitats. Visitors can explore a variety of bird species, such as herons and flamingos, along with marine life, including fish and crabs. The park features boardwalks for educational and recreational purposes, allowing an immersive experience of the conservation of these vital ecosystems.

Jubail mangroves park wooden boardwalk over the mangroves

Although privately run rather than a protected reserve in the UAE, Jubail remains one of the most accessible due to the boardwalks and tourism infrastructure that has been implemented. The boardwalk allows visitors a close look at how the mangrove system works without compromising the marine life beneath it.

You can also join kayak and electric watercraft tours for more in-depth exploration of the mangroves with a park ranger.

How to visit: Open daily 7:00 am to 9:00 pm, there is an entry fee of AED 15 for adults and kids AED 5 (6-12 years), or check out the various guided tour activities you can join

Where to stay: There’s nowhere directly to stay at this time on Jubail Island (the Pura Eco glamping retreat looks to have permanently closed), but you are immediately adjacent to both Saadiyat Island and Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, offering multiple hotel choices in Abu Dhabi

Mangroves National Park (Abu Dhabi)

The Mangrove National Park, also known as the Eastern Mangroves in Abu Dhabi, serves as a critical habitat for a diverse array of species, including migratory birds, fish, and the dense mangrove forests that are pivotal for coastal protection.

Kayakis in the eastern mangroves with seahawk
Image credit Abu Dhabi Travel Planner

Established as a protected reserve to conserve the unique mangrove ecosystem, it offers visitors the chance to see herons, flamingos, and even dolphins. This area emphasizes the importance of mangroves in environmental protection, education, and research, showcasing the UAE’s commitment to preserving its natural heritage.

How to visit: You can observe from afar across the Al Gurm Corniche, follow the E10 freeway into Abu Dhbai city. Or park at Eastern Mangroves then there are several marine operators here who can help you with guided kayak tours, kayak hire, eco boats or boat cruises – learn more about exploring the Mangrove National Park here

Where to stay: There is just one hotel overlooking the mangroves directly and ideal to base yourself, the Anantara Eastern Mangroves.

Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area (Abu Dhabi)

The Qasr Al Sarab Protected Area in Abu Dhabi is a remarkable desert landscape known for its stunning dunes and diverse ecosystem. This 308 km2 protected area on the border with Saudi Arabia, while not as widely recognized as other conservation efforts in the UAE, plays a crucial role in the preservation of the desert habitat and its native species.

It’s a place where the natural beauty and tranquillity of the desert can be experienced, emphasizing the UAE’s commitment to environmental conservation.

How to Visit: There are no barriers to entry2 4/7, but do note the remote nature of the area and the need to protect the natural habitat; no tours operate, but you will be able to get guided tours of similar habitats from the neighbouring resort. Map reference.

Where to stay: None other than the Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, possibly the most beautiful and opulent of all the desert resorts in the UAE.

Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary (Dubai)

This is the one most living in Dubai are familiar with as it sits an incredible stones through away from the city at the end of Dubai Creek. The 6.2 square kilometre protected zone was established in 1998 and protects upwards of 226 species of animals and 47 species of plants.

flamingos ras al khor uae

The Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai is a vital wetland reserve, serving as a critical stopover for migratory birds and is home to a large population of flamingos, which can be seen particularly during the winter months.

The sanctuary also supports other wildlife, including a variety of bird species, small mammals, and crustaceans, highlighting Dubai’s commitment to preserving its natural environment amidst rapid urbanization.

How to visit: Entry is free, and it looks like they no longer require appointments to be made via the Dubai Municipality website

Where to stay: It’s not far from the city and Downtown area though the closest areas to stay are Dubai Creek Harbour and Dubai Festival City

Sir Bani Yas Island (Abu Dhabi)

The history of Sir Bani Yas Island can be dated back some 5000 years as a trading settlement during the Bronze Age. However, it is most well known these days as a protected island reserve for nature retreats.

wildlife on sir bani yas

Sir Bani Yas Island Nature Reserve is a unique blend of natural and introduced species, created as a wildlife sanctuary. Native species include various bird species and marine life around the island. Introduced species, part of a conservation effort, include the Arabian oryx, gazelles, giraffes, and cheetahs.

This island demonstrates successful conservation practices, offering a sanctuary for endangered species and an educational experience for visitors.

How to visit: Situated some 2.5 hours west of Abu Dhabi city, you will need a ferry across from Jebel Dannah Jetty to the island, operating 4-5 times a day, this is complimentary to guests.

Stay on Sir Bani Yas:  After making the long drive out to Sir Bani Yas Island, you will want to stay the night at one of the luxury resort offerings operated by Anantara. There is Desert Islands Resort and Spa, and the exclusive private villas of Al Yamm and Al Saheel.

Further Animal Experiences in the UAE

Whilst these are the best wildlife experiences in the UAE, we’d be remiss not to mention some other opportunities to interact with animals in the UAE and learn more about the native species of the Arabian Peninsula.

Whilst the UAE has come a long way when it comes to zoos and animals in captivity, we still encourage you to do research before undertaking animal-related experiences in the UAE; we have left off the worst offenders from this list:

  • Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital – A fabulous insight into the importance of falcons in the Bedouin culture. Learn how falcons are cared for and transported on one of their twice-daily interactive tours.
  • Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre – Located inside Al Ain Zoo, this is an excellent educational facility. The centre combines knowledge and learning about the UAE’s natural environment through interactive exhibits, multimedia and visual materials. We’d argue it’s one of the best educational centres in the country, making it well worth the trip to Al Ain.
  • Al Ain Safari – separate from the main zoo, guests can undertake a safari experience that includes sighting critically endangered or locally extinct animals in the wild, such as the Scimitar Oryx and the Addax. You will also find many African species, including lions, white rhinos, Springbok gazelle and zebras, in an environment that closely resembles a wild safari area in Africa.
  • Dubai Desert Safari Park – Home to over 3000 animals, there are four different themed zones to explore, including the African Village, Asian Village, Explorer Village and Arabian Desert Safari. There is a daily schedule of animal encounters, including Birds of Prey displays and animal feeding times.
inside the aviary at Dubai Safari Park
  • Sharjah Safari Park – touted as the largest safari park outside of Africa, the expansive park covering 8 square kilometres includes 12 themed environments; each represents a region in Africa. You will find over 120 species of animals, with an emphasis on African animals.
  • Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Group – This is a state-of-the-art Turtle Rehabilitation Sanctuary at Jumeirah Al Naseem in Dubai. Turtles are brought in by members of the public alerting Dubai’s Wildlife Protection office. The Gulf-fed lagoon at the resort provides a natural habitat for turtles to recover in, allowing the team to monitor all stages of rehabilitation before being released back into the Persian Gulf. Check if they are still doing daily feeding sessions here.

Further Reading on the UAE

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a collage of images from the UAE including Aravain oryx and mangroves; text overlay Wildlife spotting in the UAE

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Family Travel Middle East
Family Travel Middle East

The Family Travel in the Middle East team of travel writers are all parents based in the Middle East, sharing first hand experiences and reviews from across the region to help you plan your next family adventure.

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