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A decade in service of the planet
Shafaat Ahmed / 3 January 2012
DUBAI -The Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS) has been a pioneering environmental organisation in the UAE, instrumental in bringing about a quality shift in the approach towards green issues both at the governmental as well as individual level.
Under the expert guidance of its global partner, the World Wild Fund (WWF), and with admirable support from the authorities, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) has created an atmosphere conducive for environmental work.
Right from the initiatives like the Ecological Footprint Initiative (Al Bassama Al Bee’ah) to declaring Wadi Wuraiah as a protected zone, the EWS has in a decade of its service laid ground for the sustainable development of the UAE.
As the EWS-WWF celebrates 10 years of its groundbreaking work, Khaleej Times caught up with its Acting Director-General, Ida Tillisch, and discussed its achievements as well as its future programmes. Excerpts:
Q. Please summarise the EWS-WWF’s achievement in the 10 years of its existence?
A. Over the last 10 years, the EWS-WWF has become a recognised leader in environmental conservation in the UAE, helping to address key conservation and environmental issues by successfully implementing projects that seek to tackle climate change, conserve biodiversity and reduce the UAE’s ecological footprint. This has been achieved by a strong focus on raising awareness and empowering environmental action in the community through all EWS-WWF conservation, education and policy projects.
We believe environmental challenges must be tackled by establishing long-term solutions involving all relevant stakeholders, e.g. the government, private sector, other NGOs, schools, experts etc.
Our projects and campaigns include the Marine Turtle Conservation project, CITIES, Heroes of the UAE, Choose Wisely, Earth Hour, Ecological Footprint Initiative, Wadi Warayah, Beati Watani and Eco-Schools, amongst others.
Can you pick out a single initiative which you can rate as the most satisfying for you?
All EWS-WWF projects and campaigns are important and each is designed to help drive positive environmental change in the UAE and protect our natural heritage. It is satisfying to witness positive environmental action.
For example, an entire school coming together to save water, or the authorities implementing policies for environment projection such as declaring Wadi Wurayah the UAE’s first mountain protected area.
From community outreach programmes such as Heroes of the UAE, Choose Wisely and Earth Hour, through to the protection of species and habitat, and governmental policy programmes, we want to create a sustainable future for the country.
How far has the EWS-WWF’s work succeeded in influencing people’s approach to environment?
During the last decade, we have seen an increase in global consciousness on the need to protect our planet and create a sustainable future, and this attitude is mirrored in the region. Corporations understand that environmental change has a positive impact on their business; governments are committed to tackling the issue through policy change and are eager to obtain valuable insight from the EWS-WWF in the process; schools and education institutions place a greater emphasis teaching children environmental values from a young age; and the last, individuals are more aware of the problems and are willing to make personal changes that have big environmental impacts.
Earth Hour is a great example how our organisation has helped influence people’s approach to the environment. What started out as a single city event in Sydney in 2007 has grown to become a global environmental movement, and the world’s largest climate change awareness campaign.
In the UAE, it is very encouraging to see the communities’ support for Earth Hour grow year on year — from organisations and schools, through to individuals, the contributions big or small — each action making a difference.
We now celebrate Earth Hour across all seven emirates, with all iconic landmarks such as Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and Shaikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi going dark for the hour.
Do you see any marked difference in the ecological footprint of the UAE in the last ten years?
The WWF Living Planet Report states that since the mid-1980s, the world has been consuming more natural resources than the planet can naturally provide or regenerate. In other words, we as human beings are living off our ecological credit card. This rising ecological footprint is a worldwide phenomenon resulting in a cascade of environmental impacts — collapsing fisheries, climate change, deforestation and pollution, among others.
When the WWF Living Planet Report was issued in the UAE in 2006, few had heard about the ecological footprint. The EWS-WWF launched the Ecological Footprint Initiative (Al Basma Al Beeiyah Initiative) in October 2007 by a partnership comprising the Ministry of Environment and Water (MoEW), the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi’s AGEDI (Abu Dhabi Global Environmental Data Initiative) and the Global Footprint Network (GFN). The aim of the initiative was to work together to better understand the ecological footprint of the UAE, and monitor consumption patterns in the country.
Since 2007, the initiative has helped the UAE government institutions and civil society build capacity and foster in-country knowledge and expertise. It has done this through collaboration between the public and private sectors, the undertaking of cutting-edge research, the development of innovative policies, and action in support of reducing the country’s ecological footprint and helping to tackle related issues such as climate change. Today, there are many government- and private sector-led initiatives aiming to reduce the UAE’s ecological footprint.
Is the atmosphere more conducive for environmental work now?
Due to the rising global environmental consciousness, there is greater emphasis placed at all levels, both locally and internationally, to protect our planet. As a result, the environment is now higher on government, corporate and individual agenda, resulting in a positive working environment where we all share the same goal, a sustainable future for all.
In the UAE, the government is highly committed to tackling environmental issues and we have always had a positive working relationship with them.
What would be the focus of your work in the next decade?
The EWS-WWF will continue to work with people and institutions within the UAE and the region to conserve biodiversity, tackle climate change and reduce the ecological footprint through education, awareness, policy, and science-based conservation initiatives. We have gained a lot of experience in the past decade and are using this to effectively come up with the right solutions for environmental challenges. As a testimony to our work and approach, the demand for the EWS-WWF’s expertise has increased both within the UAE and the region. Starting this year, the EWS-WWF will be more visible in other GCC countries where we are already working with our marine turtle conservation project.
What is the feedback you have got so far for the sustainable fisheries initiative?
Overfishing is one of the biggest threats to the marine ecosystems across our planet. Today, over 80 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion. The situation in the UAE is also alarming.
Recent studies show that fish of many species are caught beyond sustainable levels in the UAE. In the case of the Hamour, for example, the current fishing rate is over seven times higher than the level required to maintain a healthy population. The EWS-WWF Sustainable Fisheries Project launched the Choose Wisely consumer awareness campaign in 2009 to better inform the UAE public on sustainable fish options. Easy to use consumer guides have been distributed through participating supermarkets, and schools. So far, the campaign has received a lot of participation from retailers, restaurants and even famous chefs, such as Suzanne Husseini.
How often do you come across illegal wildlife trafficking in the UAE? Has the EWS succeeded in curbing the menace?
Illegal wildlife trade is among the most lucrative illegal economies on the planet. Due to its central location, the Middle East is a prime target for trafficked wildlife to pass through. As a result, wildlife trade issues have been a heated topic in the UAE for some time. Several species of endangered animals have been found in Middle Eastern markets.
Trading in species like cheetahs, gazelles, bustards, monkeys, reptiles and exotic and rare bird species has attracted the attention of the international conservation community on the UAE and region.
The UAE has been a CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) signatory since 1990, and today there continues to be a national willingness for proper implementation of the convention.
However, the implementation, enforcement and monitoring of compliance to CITES need continuous attention and improvement to keep endangered species out of trade for good. Enforcement officers, and in particular customs officers, need specialised training to develop appropriate response mechanisms to regulate and control a trade that is detrimental both for the future of many species, and the reputation of the UAE. The EWS-WWF is committed to working closely with the UAE CITES authorities, enforcement agencies, and partners to improve upon the integrated response mechanism as well as to further improve capacity to address wildlife trade issues.
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