Volunteering in the UAE - Ways of the desert: Conserving Arabian oryx, Gordon’s wildcat, sand fox & other species in the iconic sandy desert landscape of Arabia
|in partnership with|
This Arabian oryx and other desert species conservation project will take you to the fascinating and iconic sandy desert landscape of the Arabian Peninsula. Working alongside scientists from the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, you will be part of a small international team, monitoring Arabian oryx, Gordon's wildcat, sand fox, mountain and sand gazelles, as well as other flagship species of the desert. From a comfortable oasis field camp, you will venture out in the expedition 4WDs and on foot to study antelope behaviour and social structures, camera- and live-trap Gordon's wildcat and sand fox, and monitor them by radio and GPS telemetry. All this to ensure the survival of important flagship desert species in their beleaguered world.
“This was my first expedition and I was not sure what to expect. I was wanting the adventure of a lifetime and I certainly got that and more. A real feel for ancient times, met real people, climbed dunes. The desert and indeed the country is spectacular, the sand driving is great fun, the camp is great. To see the light and mist appear with the sun shining on the mountains – it’s out of this world. I got to be Indiana Jones for a week. Thanks to all.” >
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Expedition contribution: £1440 (ca. €1790 | US$2070 | AU$2690) excluding flights per dates as shown. A £300 deposit is required and the balance is due four weeks before the expeditions starts. Base currency British pound sterling, see XE currency converter for other currencies. More about this contribution and where the money goes.
Dates & meeting point: 21 - 28 Jan 2017 (8 days). Other dates. Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is in the centre of Dubai and participants have to organise their own travel there. More details on this and how to get to the assembly point are in the .
A word on safety in the Middle East and Dubai
Much of the Middle East and certainly countries such as the UAE and Oman run on foreign labour. So much so that up to 70% of people living and working in the country are foreigners, including many from Europe, North America and Australasia. They go about their daily lives just as you would at home, with crime rates extremely low. Terrorism is no more of a threat than at home and primarily targeted at local people. You are more likely to be hit by a bus or die from DIY than a terrorist attack. There has certainly never been any problem on the expedition or with anyone taking part in the expedition.
Iconic Arabian sandy desert.
Weather expected during expedition
Warm and dry with temperatures in the 20s ºC and an average of ten hours sunshine per day.
Our base is a field camp of one to two person dome, a Bedu mess and a kitchen tent set in a quiet desert oasis. There are standard toilets and showers; each person will have their own comfortable dome tent to sleep in, and there are bigger tents for couples.
Up to 12 team members + 1 local biologist + 1 expedition leader.
Skills & prerequisites required
None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.
Fitness level required
Ability to walk up to 9 km per day in sandy desert terrain and the ability to tolerate heat and sometimes wind.
Team assembly point
Aims & objectives
(1) To study the behaviour and social structures of the DDCR’s different Arabian oryx herds. This will include monitoring the condition of the animals within the herd and their diet preferences. Individuals within each herd may be darted and have GPS collars fitted to ascertain home range, as well as seasonal changes in behaviour.
(2) To assess the status of the DDCR’s Gordon’s wildcat and sand fox populations. This will be done through both camera trapping and live trapping. If possible, GPS collars will be fitted to captured individuals for a more intensive study of range and habitat use. To collect biological and diagnostic samples from all captured animals for DNA analysis.
(3) To assess the numbers and ecology of sand and mountain gazelle in the DDCR.
(4) To monitor three flagship bird species: Macqueen’s bustard, pharaoh’s eagle owl and lappet-faced vulture.
In gaining a better understanding of the target species, through observations on their movements, habitat and food preferences and through their interaction with other species, this project will be able to ascertain what the major threats are to their continued survival. Based on this, project scientists can then develop appropriate management plans that will provide a safe environment for the target species to thrive in.
The United Arab Emirates, and Dubai in particular, is well known for its rapid development over the past 40 years as well as for the mega-construction projects such as the Palm Islands and the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building). Less well known is the diversity and beauty of the natural environment, from the dugongs and corals in the Arabian Sea, the flamingos in the khors (inlets) of the coastline, the rugged Hajar mountain range, to the serene splendour of the sandy dune inland desert. Also little known is that the largest piece of land given to any single project in Dubai was for the establishment of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve; at 225 km², 4.7% of Dubai’s total land area, and the expedition’s study site.
The Arabian oryx is the largest of the antelopes in the region and it is very well adapted to the extremely arid environment. Oryx once roamed all across Arabia, but the advent of firearms saw their rapid decline. Since 1986 the Arabian oryx is classified as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List, but was already "very rare and believed to be rapidly decreasing in numbers" in 1965. Re-introduced into the DDCR in 1999, the population has steadily grown from the original 100 individuals to over 400 today. For the next phase of the oryx project, local scientists need a greater understanding of how oryx fit into the DDCR’s natural environment, which habitats and plants they prefer, what the social structure of the herd is and how this is affected by the environment. This can only be achieved through monitoring for which Biosphere Expeditions will provide the manpower.
The Gordon’s wildcat looks very similar to and is the same size as a domestic cat. Indeed, the biggest threat to the survival of the Gordon’s wildcat as a species is the interbreeding with feral or domestic cats, which could lead to its extinction as a distinct species. Very little is known about the Gordon’s wildcat population within the DDCR; the last population estimate was done in 2004. This expedition will enable DDCR scientists to update information on population size and distribution as well as conduct a DNA study of the species; information that is important for informed management decisions to be made and threats to be averted.
The sand fox, also known as Rüpell’s fox, is a desert-adapted carnivore. Although it is in the IUCN category “Least Concern”, little is known about its habitat and ecology. Threats include direct and indirect persecution by hunting and indiscriminate use of poisons.
The sand and mountain gazelle are in IUCN categories Endangered and Vulnerable respectively. The population of mountain gazelle is believed to be a few hundred worldwide only. Major threats include illegal hunting for meat and live capture for pets and private collections. Habitat loss through agricultural development, fencing pasture for cattle, construction of roads and settlement is also a major threat. The DDCR is critical refuge for these gazelles and their numbers and ecology need to be monitored regularly.
Finally, the three flagship birds that will be monitored by the expedition as well are classed by IUCN as Vulnerable (Macqueen’s bustard and lappet-faced vulture) or Least Concern (pharaoh eagle owl). All three species serve as important indicators of ecosystem health and integrity.
Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), Gordon’s wildcat (Felis silvestris gordoni), sand fox (Vulpes rueppellii), sand gazelle (Gazella leptoceros), mountain gazelle (Gazella gazella), Macqueen's bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii), pharaoh eagle owl (Bubo bubo), lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos).
Other species present, all in true sandy and rocky desert habitat: Arabian red fox, Arabian hare, Ethiopian hedgehog and the lesser jerboa. There are also a number of reptiles, such as the monitor and spiny-tailed lizards, and both residential and migrating bird species, such as the long-legged buzzard. All in all, 70 plant, 17 mammal, 26 reptile, 126 bird and 89 insect species have been identified in the DDCR.
Specific activities are usually decided the night before. The whole set-up of the expedition is quite flexible so that you can participate according to the weather (usually sunshine and warm temperatures), your skills, general fitness and how you feel on the day. Your typical day may consist of taking your survey group’s 4WD into the desert to (1) check, service or set live or camera traps, or (2) find and follow a herd of oryx or gazelles, or (3) assist with collaring an oryx, wildcat or sand fox and (4) recording flagship bird species as you come across them during your other activities. Research groups will return to the field base for the night for dinner. Please note that every member of the expedition will be rotated through all activities.
The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) is an area of 225 km² that comprises 4.7% of Dubai’s land area. Conservation in this area started in 1999 when the Al Maha Desert Resort was opened within a protected area of 27 km² (Al Maha Reserve). One of the first conservation actions of the reserve was a wildlife reintroduction programme for Arabian oryx and the two indigenous gazelle species (sand as well as Arabian gazelle), as well as programmes for the protection of other key components of the ecosystem, in particular the vegetation (close to 6000 indigenous trees were planted in 1999 to create a natural seed bank, which has now led to germination of indigenous plants). In 2001 the resort management began a major environmental audit of the surrounding area. Following this audit a proposal was submitted to the Dubai government on the formation of a formal national park. The proposal was accepted and sanctioned almost immediately and work began on protecting the area to be known as the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
Today the DDCR is a representative of the Dubai inland desert ecosystem and is characterised by a sandy desert environment consisting of sand dunes interspersed with gravel plains. There is one rocky outcrop in the north of the reserve, which provides nesting sites for the desert eagle owl and two groves of rare ghaf trees (Prosopis cineraria).
Our main partners on this UAE volunteer expedition are the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and the Dubai Conservation Board, a government-appointed organisation concerned with the conservation and protection of the Dubai inland desert. Other partners include the National Avian Research Centre, whose rangers will assist with training for tracking the bustards. Corporate support comes from a grant from the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants. Al Maha Resort & Spa and Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours & Safaris kindly provide logistical support. Al Maha Resort & Spa and Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours & Safaris kindly provide logistical support.
And finally (almost)
Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.
And finally (briefing)
For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.
Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone.
Sign up to this expedition now
Results & achievements
Since starting its partnership with the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) in 2012, Biosphere Expeditions has made several important contributions to the management of the reserve and its rare species. Initially expedition work prompted the DDCR to change oryx feeding patterns, resulting in a much healthier population. Rare Gordon’s wildcats and a very rare and elusive sand fox were captured by the expeditions over the years, prompting the reserve to increase research and conservation efforts for these threatened species. Finally, data gathered by the expeditions showed that the introduction of the Arabian wolf would be beneficial. The UAE government accepted these arguments and the DDCR is now investigating processes and options to make what will be a major showcase conservation success story for Arabia become reality.
Scientific reports and publications for this expedition are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.
Awards & accolades
This project was named on The Independent's "Best Desert Adventure Holidays" list.
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" category of the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards.
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple National Geographic awards and accolades such as "Best New Trip" and "Tours of a Lifetime".
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple Travel+Leisure awards and accolades such as the "Conservation Award" category of Travel+Leisure's "Global Vision Awards" or "Best Adventure Outfitter" and "Best Save-the-Earth Trip" accolades.
> more awards & accolades
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"Our exciting collaboration with Biosphere Expeditions will expand our primary goal of desert conservation, through active research and conservation work by expedition participants volunteering in the UAE. Observations and data collected by the participants will enhance our understanding of the desert environment and help us achieve our ultimate goal of ensuring rare desert species survival in the wild."
Stephen Bell, Conservation Officer, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve & local scientist.
"For a person like me loving the winter time, cold and snow, the desert is probably not the right place to go. BUT, when you work with great people that all share the same values, such as contributing to conservation of wildlife and biodiversity, it doesn't matter whether it is hot or cold or whether you are in snow covered tundra or a sandy desert. It's a great feeling to have become part of the Biosphere family and I promise to stay part of it."
Jörg Töpfer, 40, Germany.
“I found this Arabian oryx conservation expedition very informative and interesting. Loved it that I have learned so many new things about the desert and its animals, as well a being taught sand driving and the use of various pieces of equipment. I would like to thank all the people involved in making this expedition happen very much. Well done!!! Had a great time!”
Evelyn Brey, 48, UAE.
“All I can say is – ripper trip! What a great expedition and one of the most interesting times I have ever had.”
Peter Gosnell, 49, travel journalist from Australia.
Feedback from team members about their experiences and reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).
“One of the most amazing trips of my life – wonderful people, wonderful experience.”
Rosie Bowker, 63, UK
“Deep satisfaction with one of the most impressive, touching landscapes I have seen so far on this big small planet. Happy very open-minded, dedicated, respectful crew & team. Silence when silence was appropriate. Laughter when laughter was appropriate. Thank you very much for letting me share this experience.”
Andreas Hub, 43, Germany.
“What an incredible experience. Being part of an exciting research project with a wonderful team. I am so proud to be part of something like that and so impressed.”
Andrea Baumgärtner, 41, Austria.
“This was my first expedition and I was not sure what to expect. I was wanting the adventure of a lifetime and I certainly got that and more. A real feel for ancient times, met real people, climbed dunes. The desert and indeed the country is spectacular, the sand driving is great fun, the camp is great. To see the light and mist appear with the sun shining on the mountains – it’s out of this world. I got to be Indiana Jones for a week. Thanks to all.”
Brian Murphy, 32, UK.
“I’ve just spent half an hour reflecting on everything that’s happened over the last two weeks – it’s been such a lot! What a fantastic experience. The sun and warmth, the stunning scenery, some truly dramatic surveys and, above all, a wonderful team with which to share everything. I envy everyone who is yet to come here.”
Brian Green, 46, UK.
“What a wonderful experience. One that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Wendy Harrell, 44, USA.
“What an incredible experience. Being part of an exciting research project with a wonderful team. I am so proud to be part of something like that and so impressed.”
Andrea Baumgärtner, 41, Switzerland.
"It was a great and new experience to focus yourself on small details on the ground, which are so important for the big aim. After a while you feel a peace inside yourself, being in a great environment together with a great team."
Susanne Moelter, 38, Germany.
Expedition diary / blog
See what's gone on during past expeditions via the expedition diary and blog.
Frequently asked questions
What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the . All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the . > more
Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more
Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more
How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.
Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more
Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.
How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.
What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.
Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more
> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page