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Zayed laid the foundations for a green future

Vesela Todorova

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In the first of an occasional series, The National looks at the people, organisations and companies at the vanguard of creating a sustainable and environmentally friendly United Arab Emirates. Beginning with the late Sheikh Zayed, Earth Matters: Environmental Pioneers will turn the spotlight on famous names and unsung heroes.

Environmental movements usually start at the grassroots, but in Abu Dhabi green issues had a champion at the top.

Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, was famous for his love of nature and he inspired many of the environmental projects under way in the capital.

"Sheikh Zayed's decisions are reflected in the reality we have today," said Majid Al Mansouri, a board member of the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (Ead).

Agriculture, water use and desertification were major issues for the late President, Mr Al Mansouri said. Preserving species such as the Arabian oryx and maintaining productive fisheries were also important.

"He was looking at the totality of the ecosystem," Mr Al Mansouri said.

Sheikh Zayed's involvement with environmental issues grew out of a respect for nature that is embedded in Bedouin culture. He loved wildlife and was an avid falconer.

"Falcons were in his blood," said Dr Margit Mueller, the director of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. "He truly understood the need to take care of this bird. He understood the importance of preserving falcons in the wild but also preserving the tradition of falconry."

Sheikh Zayed was also concerned that falcons would not be affected by hunting practices, and he encouraged hunters to free them at the end of a hunting season.

He also cared for one of falconers' most prized targets, the Houbara bustard, noticing that hunting was reducing Houbara populations.

As early as 1977, Sheikh Zayed had ordered the breeding of the endangered bird at Al Ain Zoo. This work produced results five years later when, for the first time, local scientists bred the bustard in captivity.

In 1989, the National Avian Research Centre (Narc) was founded in Sweihan, a small town near Al Ain, with the goal of breeding the rare birds in large numbers and releasing them into the wild.

The project has grown throughout the years and now thousands of Houbara bustards are released into the wild in the UAE. They are also released from breeding facilities funded by Abu Dhabi in Morocco, Kazakhstan and soon in China.

The effort to help restore the Houbara bustard eventually grew and diversified, with Narc becoming the basis for the Environment Research and Wildlife Development Agency, which was founded in 1996. Nine years later, the organisation was restructured into Ead.

Today, Ead employs about 1,000 people. Because of its efforts, protected areas cover a total of 13 per cent of Abu Dhabi emirate's territory.

Its scope of work has broadened well beyond wildlife conservation.

"Of course now we have different challenges to maintain the environmental quality that Sheikh Zayed loved and made sure people had access to," said Razan Al Mubarak, the secretary general of Ead.

Ms Al Mubarak said developing the agency's ability to control pollution was becoming a major priority. Another area of concern is environmental planning and permitting.

Sheikh Zayed's legacy spreads well beyond his role in protecting the environment. He is also remembered for his interactions with people.

Emiratis who have met him, including Mr Al Mansouri, describe the experience as an honour. They often speak of the need to work hard to make their founding father proud.

Even for an expatriate such as Dr Mueller, the experience of meeting Sheikh Zayed, at an exhibition in 2003, was a special one.

"He had a charisma that is beyond belief," said the German national, an Abu Dhabi resident since 2001. "It really deeply touched me to speak with him because he was so interested. He made you feel you are really a very appreciated person and in this moment you are very important to him. From the moment I met him, I knew he was really one of a kind."

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