This majestic desert creature is a type of antelope and was on the verge of extinction until Sheikh Zayed ordered the establishment of a captive breeding programme for the endangered animals. It was hugely successful and there are now over a thousand wild oryx on the Arabian Peninsula. One of the best places to get up close to oryx is on Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi. Founded as a protected wildlife reserve, this is a chance to go on safari without leaving the country. Oryx are in abundance there as are gazelles, ostriches and giraffes.
Details: Family Island getaways from Dh1,450, Anantara.com
Most people have only ever seen these intelligent, playful creatures in captivity, but seeing a dolphin in its natural habitat is a rare treat and one that children of all ages will love. A three-hour Dolphin Bay Eco Boat Tour with Captain Tony’s picks up from Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina and takes you along several points of interest, while an onboard guide shares indepth knowledge of the local environment and marine life.
Details: Saturdays, Dh400 per person, Dh300 ages 6-12, 0-5yrs free. Captaintonys.ae
There are two species of hedgehog that live in the UAE: the Ethiopian and Brandt’s. Hedgehogs have a high tolerance for snake and insect venoms, which allow them to hunt venomous or stinging prey. They feed mostly on insects, small invertebrates and the eggs of birds, snakes, frogs and scorpions. Notoriously hard to spot in the wild, the best chance of seeing a desert hedgehog is in the night exhibit at the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
Details: Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, open daily 10am–12am, Dh120 for adults and children over three, thedubaiaquarium.com
These nocturnal birds are an intriguing sight, especially in the barren landscape surrounding the city. Most owls hunt small mammals, insects and even other birds. With their unique ability to turn their heads up to 270 degrees, a sighting of an owl in the wild is something not to be missed. While kids can interact with desert eagle owls in captivity at the Ritz-Carlton RAK Al Wadi’s bird reserve, you can spot pallid scops owls in the wild in Mushrif National Park, where they are well known to gather near the mosque, confidently feeding on the grass or cooing in the trees.
Details: Mushrif National Park, open 8am – 10:30pm every day, Dh10 entry per car, 04 288 3624
Camels are the animals most people associate with the Middle East. These ‘ships of the desert’ as they were once known, can go for long periods of time without drinking and can withstand extremely high temperatures, which makes them ideally suited to the climate in the UAE. Head out of the city towards the desert on any road and chances are you’ll come across some camels, so common are they in this part of the world. The E44 Hatta road is normally always a winner with plenty of sightings of these magnificent animals. However, if you want to guarantee your fix, check out The Camel Farm in Dubai, which offers camel rides, camel hugging therapy and even camel spa experiences.
Details: The Camel Farm, Dh30pp admission, free for under threes and over-65s, thecamelfarm.ae
Surprisingly, flamingos are actually indigenous to the UAE. There are six different types of these graceful birds (greater, lesser, Chilean, James’s, Andean and American), and greater flamingos are native to Dubai (although as a species they are nomadic). The bright pink colour normally associated with these distinctive birds is down to diet and many of the UAE flamingos are paler in colour, but they still make for an impressive sight. Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai is home to thousands of flamingos, which can be observed from any of the three bird watching platforms located in the park.
Details: Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, open Winter (Oct-March)Weekdays: 7.30am to 5.30pm; Fridays: 2pm to 5.30pm and in Summer (April- Sept) Weekdays: 6am to 6pm; Fridays: 2pm to 6pm, Rasalkhorwildlife.ae
The spiny tailed lizard, or Dhub as it’s known locally, is found only in the UAE and Oman. Its spiny tail is used for defence and it uses a unique system to survive in the desert heat. In the morning when it’s cooler, the lizard is a dark grey colour, which helps it to absorb the sun’s rays while it heats up. When it has reached optimum temperature, its skin turns a light beige colour, which helps it to reflect the sun’s rays to prevent overheating. Living mainly in open desert and the Hajar mountains in Ras Al Khaimah, the Dhub is not an easy find. Al Ain Zoo is home to several of these relatively shy creatures which, until hunting of them was banned, were renowned as a local delicacy!
Details: Al Ain Zoo, open 9am-8pm, Dh30/adult, Dh10/child, alainzoo.ae
There are two types of turtle commonly found in the UAE: the hawksbill and green turtle. Female turtles lay anything from 60-150 eggs, which take approximately two months to hatch, depending on temperatures. Turtles are creatures of habit and like to return to the same beach each year to lay their eggs. Sadly, only only in a thousand baby turtles will reach maturity due to natural predators and manmade threats. Saadiyat Beach sees several hawksbill turtles return to their nests every year. Boardwalks are elevated over the nests to prevent people disturbing the turtles while they are nesting but still allows guests to see the turtles in their natural habitat.
Details: Saadiyat Beach, free to visit, visitabudhabi.ae
This famously graceful and majestic breed of horse originated on the Arabian Peninsula. It is also one of the oldest horse breeds, with archaeological evidence of horses in the Middle East that resemble modern Arabians dating back 4,500 years. The Arabian developed in a desert climate and is said to have been prized by the nomadic Bedouin people, often being brought inside the family tent for shelter and protection from theft. You can see and ride Arabian horses at any of the many stables and equestrian centres across the UAE.
Details: The Emirates Equestrian Centre near Bab Al Shams is accredited by the British Horse Society and offers kids’ riding lessons, stable management courses so that they can feel like they own their own pony, as well as popular holiday camps. From Dh100 per lesson, emiratesequestriancentre.com. Or book in a two-hour stable tour at Hoofbeatz, Dh250 inc. breakfast, Hoofbeatz.com
The UAE is home to several species of butterfly and, although most only migrate here during the cooler winter months, the hardy lime butterfly and the white-edged rock brown are in residence all year round. The largest butterflies that are commonly seen are the swallowtails, which can be found in city gardens and in palm groves that have citrus trees among the undergrowth. Smaller butterflies that are often seen both in gardens and in the desert are the painted lady (Vanessa or Cynthia cardui) and the plain tiger (Danaus chrisyppus). Danaus chrysippus is one of the most common butterflies in the UAE. If you don’t manage to spot one of these wild butterflies in your garden or local park, head to Dubai Butterfly Garden, which is home to over 15,000 butterflies from 26 species.
Details: Dubai Butterfly Garden, open 9am–6pm, Dh55/adult, Dh50/child (2-12yrs). 04 422 8902
The wild honey bees that are native to the UAE (also known as the Arabian dwarf honey bee) are smaller than other honey bees at just 7–10mm, and build a characteristic single, exposed open-air comb on tree branches or shrubs, which makes it vulnerable to predators. Attempts to domesticate these wild bees were unsuccessful, but the UAE’s Beekeepers Association is keen to raise awareness of their fragility and importance as the primary pollinator of the country, warning people not to call pest control if you find them nesting on your balcony or garden – they will keep themselves to themselves and are likely to move on soon enough. Kids can learn more and see domesticated honey bees up close at the Hatta Honey Bee Garden, which offers packages for beeswax candle making, interaction with honey production equipment, kids’ play area and more.
Details: Hatta Honey Bee Garden, from Dh20 for a wristband for interactive bee-related activities
Bats are nocturnal creatures that rest during daylight hours and come out at dusk to hunt. Contrary to popular myth, most bats are not blood suckers (only two species do this, native to South America) and the majority eat insects or fruit. Incredibly hard to spot in the wild unless you get lucky, the best place to see these pretty cute creatures is Green Planet in Dubai. Home to a new bat cave experience that opened in summer 2018, guests can observe the bats in their classic ‘dracula’ hanging upside-down style as well as feeding on their nectar-rich diet.
Details: The Bat Cave at Green Planet, open Sunday to Wednesday, 10am–7pm and Thursday to Saturday, 10am–8pm, Dh89/adult or Dh64/child age 3-12 years if tickets bought online; on the door Dh99/adult and Dh74/child –12 years. thegreenplanetdubai.com
Falcons are the national bird of the UAE and are powerful birds of prey. In the past when the desert was populated mainly by Bedouins, falcons would be caught and trained to hunt and return with the prey to provide food for the travelling nomads on their journey through the desert. A great place to see falcons and learn more about them is the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. The facility is the largest of its kind in the world, as well as a leading centre for falcon medicine worldwide. Tours are available every day except Friday.
Details: Falcon Hospital, open every day except Friday, Dh30, falconhospital.com