UAE’s first desert reserve offers unique wildlife escape

Thrill-seekers can go sand boarding or drive with four-wheelers on the undulating sand dunes or practice archery.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Visitors ride a vehicle on a tour of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. (DDCR)
Visitors ride a vehicle on a tour of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. (DDCR)

DUBAI - As the first national park in the United Arab Emirates, the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is a unique escape offering visitors an opportunity for viewing native wildlife and experiencing the adventure possibilities of the inland desert.

The reserve is teeming with wildlife, including the Arabian oryx and Arabian gazelles, endangered native species that have been reintroduced into the area.

Only a 45-minute drive from Dubai, the reserve, once a huge camel farm, is one of the largest formally protected conservation areas in the Gulf. It is an attractive destination for adventure travellers and outdoor enthusiasts, with its rolling sand dunes and golden landscape.

The land that the reserve occupies was bought by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in 1993 after being inspired by national parks in South Africa and deciding that Dubai needed its own reserve.

Some 70 endangered Arabian oryxes, which were reintroduced to the protected area, have grown into a herd of more than 400, the largest free-roaming herd of its kind in the Emirates. There are also approximately 300 Arabian gazelles and 100 sand gazelles.

Other wildlife species that call the dunes home include the sand cat, Gordon’s wildcat, Arabian red fox, sand fox, gazelle, hedgehog and the pygmy shrew. Plants are colourful and diverse, with several species of trees, flowering shrubs, herbs and grasses.

In 2003, the list of birds in the reserve consisted of 60 species. The improvement of the environment through protected area management has resulted in the recording of 126 species.

While the reserve mainly acts as a research unit, travellers may explore the area on condition that they be accompanied by certified guides. Both half-day and full-day tours are available from approved operators.

The park offers many types of activities that cater to travellers with varying interests.

Thrill-seekers can go sand boarding or drive with four-wheelers on the undulating sand dunes or practice archery. Hot-air balloon rides offer a panoramic view of the reserve with an endless ocean of sand dunes and emerald green oases. Traditional camel tracks are available for those preferring to wander in the desert on camels or horses. Falconry displays and lessons are also on offer.

Those looking for a more relaxed experience can soak up the spirit of the desert on low cushions in Bedouin tents for a traditional dune dinner. Visitors can stay overnight in one of the nine camps that are primarily used for Bedouin-style dining and limited camping or seek more luxurious hotel accommodation on the reserve.

The interesting flora and fauna, as well as activities, including barbecues and camel rides, make the experience unforgettable for most travellers.

“Unique in many ways. I would go back in a heartbeat. A very unique reserve, but with eyes open, there is much to see and enjoy,” wrote Amanda, a visitor from the United States.

“The place to go to experience the desert, its wildlife and vegetation and ride through the desert on camel backs,” wrote Doug from Canada.

2017 was declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations, an objective that the Dubai Reserve has been tuned to since its establishment more than 15 years ago.

The use of solar power, waste recycling, limited access to designated areas of the reserve, specific routes and activities and limits on daily visitor numbers and vehicles entering the reserve are among measures followed to ensure the reserve’s sustainability.

The best time to visit the Dubai Desert Reserve is between November and March when temperatures are around 27 degrees C. Those who opt for a summer visit should expect highs of more than 38 degrees C.

Prices for tours and activities vary depending on the provider and the length of the experience.

Reservations should be made and can be done through the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve’s website on

A Bedouin man walks with a camel at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. (DDCR)
Visitors pepare to ride horses at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.(DDCR)
A visitor holds a falcon at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. (DDCR)