MAYS IBRAHIM (ABU DHABI)
On the outskirts of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, beyond the glitz and glamour of its bustling city, lies Al Wathba Wetland Reserve; a natural world formed by a fortunate environmental accident. Riveted by the myriad habitat types forming the mosaic wetland, Claudia Steuber, a geologist and nature-enthusiast, couldn’t help but pick up a camera to help people get a closer look at the array of plant and animal species this microcosm hosts.
The German-born geologist is currently Chair of the Emirates Natural History Group - Abu Dhabi. She became a wildlife photographer in an attempt to document the natural beauty of Al Wathba Wetland Reserve and make it “more visible” for other people.
After nine years and 270,000 photographs, Steuber says that the story of the mosaic wetland, replete with beauty and wonder, is yet to fully unfold.
A Fortunate Accident
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is located 40km away from the capital Abu Dhabi, separated by a simple fence from Al Ain Truck Road in Mussafah, a busy industrial area.
In an interview with Aletihad, Steuber explained that the wetland was originally an intermittently flooded sabkha depression that was formed by deflation. When construction of Al Ain truck road resulted in damming the ponding water of the heavy winter rains over three decades ago, the northern part of the sabkha was filled with water, attracting the first waders: Kentish plovers and black winged stilts, which took the area as a breading spot.
When the first greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) migrated to the area, the wish to establish a permanent wetland emerged. This was achieved through regulating discharged water levels, along with the creation of small sandy islands and the fencing of an area of 10km, to prevent the intrusions of humans as well as feral dogs and cats.
These efforts culminated in the first successful breeding of the greater flamingo in the winter of 1998/1999, resulting in the hatching of 10 flamingo chicks out of more than 100 nests with about 40 eggs. This was the first documented breeding of the greater flamingo in the Arabian Gulf since 1922.
With the start of a successful flamingo breeding colony in 1998, the area became formally designated a protected reserve by the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and it’s currently managed by the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi.
“The formation story of this wetland highlights the beautiful possibilities that can unfold if we give nature a way and let it flourish,” Steuber said.
A Story Yet to Fully Unfold
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve was recognised internationally and announced as a Ramsar site in 2013. It remains the most important breeding colony of the greater flamingo in the Gulf region. Meanwhile hundreds of flamingo chicks are hatching in it every year with a record number of more than 900 chicks in 2022.
Steuber uses her camera like a microscope to observe, record and document Abu Dhabi’s nature in an attempt to understand “how life is possible” under extreme environmental conditions.
In Al Wathba Wetland, she tries to document not only the different species it hosts, but also their way of life, including their adaptations to different habitats and seasonal changes. With her detailed photo documentation, Steuber hopes to raise people’s awareness of the “complexity” and “uniqueness” of the natural reserve.
She added that around 39 plant species, 260 bird species (seasonal migrants and breeding species), 16 reptile species, 10 mammal species and more than 400 Arthropoda species (5 new to science) have been recorded in the reserve.
“I think that what makes the wetland quite unique to me is that even after regularly visiting it so many times over the past nine years, I am still exploring new species. This year I saw a black-winged kite for the first time, and recorded a new damselfly for Abu Dhabi – the Pixie dartlet Ischnura nursei – in the wetland.”
Approach Nature with Reverence
The nature and wildlife enthusiast advises visitors who wish to be let in on the treasures of the wetland to don clothing that blend with its natural hues and approach its landscape with reverence; quietly and patiently.
“You have to adjust your behaviour to nature; walk slowly, use binoculars, observe, and be patient, then you will be able to see the common, observe the occasional, and experience the exceptional,” she said.
Animals camouflage in their natural environment, so “we as visitors” must do the same through adjusting our behaviour and appearance to be able to connect with them and experience nature’s miracles, added Steuber.
“There were times when I waited three hours for a butterfly to open its wings so I can take its photo, and I’m not patient elsewhere. But when I am in nature, I am patient.”
Recognising Nature’s Miniature Marvels
“When I began doing natural photography in Al Wathba Wetland, I never thought that I would end up with 270,000 pictures in a desert environment, where life is really extreme and where we can record rare birds even when it’s 50°C degrees outside,” Steuber noted.
She added that the extreme environmental conditions in Al Wathba Wetland Reserve make it necessary that we look a bit closer and learn to appreciate its miniature miracles.
“Seeing the tamarisk salt-secreting plant, a small insect feeding off a flower, or observing one Sidr tree in the reserve drop its leaves in August or July then flower again in September and October is magic for me.”
The geologist pointed out that no living organism in an ecosystem is less important than another, no matter how small.
She said: “Every little bit that we have in a natural ecosystem has its own job in life and we have to learn to live with it; we cannot say there is good and there is bad. There is no butterfly without a caterpillar and there is no caterpillar without its feeding plant.”
She further noted that a native shrub in the desert of Abu Dhabi is in itself a “whole ecosystem”; onlookers can observe near it a “concentration of life”, including insects, lizards, birds, and maybe a fox passing by, feeding on the lizard or the bird.
“When someone tells me this is just a shrub, I tell them come with me here in August, take off your shoes, walk barefoot in the sand at 12pm, and look at your feet after, you will never say it’s just a plant.
“You will have burning blisters on every single toe, while the shrub survives; it survives and thrives,” added Steuber.