Finding lost sharks, saving turtles: This resident helps lead UAE's biggest environmental charity

Arabella was recently recognised with a gold medal at the first edition of the Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Environmental Awards

By Harriet Shephard

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Photos: Supplied
Photos: Supplied

Published: Sat 27 Apr 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Mon 29 Apr 2024, 1:14 PM

While many Dubai residents spend their weekends at brunch or on the beach, Arabella Willing dedicates every moment of her time to caring for the UAE’s natural environment.

For her, an average weekend can include showing volunteers how to plant native trees, build traditional irrigation channels, identify signs of turtle nests, or even monitor wild cats.


As Head of Conservation Outreach and Citizen Science at Emirates Nature – WWF, the UAE’s biggest environmental charity, she and her team are responsible for running dozens of different volunteering events and initiatives across the country every month.

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This includes Leaders of Change, a paid membership that gives members the chance to take part in masterclasses, field work and one-on-one experiences with scientists, and Connect with Nature, a free youth activity scheme hosted in partnership with the Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi.

Willing also leads various other targeted campaigns across the country. She helped launch the Notice Nature initiative for customers of Mashreq, and most recently one with the Fujairah Environmental Authority that uses the power of the community to monitor the emirate’s unique biodiversity, including looking for signs of the increasingly rare Arabian Caracal lynx.

Volunteering activities for all

“I design ways for the public to take part in the work of Emirates Nature - WWF. After all, you don't need a PhD or to be a scientist to be involved with conservation,” she said.

“With our litter picks, we don’t just clean up. We show volunteers how to analyse the debris that’s collected and the data is sent straight to the government to help inform their decision making and push behaviour where needed. After all, we don’t want to be cleaning up forever. A few weeks ago, I found a bottle on Saadiyat Beach that had an expiration date of 1993. That was quite alarming.”

A UAE resident for 11 years, the 37-year-old marine biologist was recently recognised with a gold medal in the Environmental Initiator Category at the first edition of the Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Environmental Awards.

The former Chairperson for the Emirates Natural History Group and Head of Conservation at Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi, Willing was also the original founder of the now volunteer-run Saadiyat Island turtle patrol, and she still delivers workshops and training for the group.

She explained: “A decade ago, most of the UAE’s environmental citizen science activities were centred around the Emirates Natural History Group. So, we’ve tried to offer more ways for the public to be involved. There's a greater appreciation for nature in the UAE now and the government is really pushing this too. We want to create change and have a profound impact.”

Flood prevention and recovery

In the wake of the storm that hit the UAE last week, the immediate focus of Emirates Wildlife –WWF's volunteering events is removing any debris that has found its way into natural areas, and rebuilding damaged research and conservation sites.

“In the long term, we are trying to harness the powers of nature to make communities more resilient to natural disasters such as storms. Planting native species and increasing vegetation and plant cover helps to stabilise soils and prevent landslides, tree felling and other damaging events that we witnessed with the recent floods.”

With most volunteering events taking place in the early mornings or at weekends, Willing’s job is far from an average 9-to-5. However, she would have it no other way.

“I would go crazy in an office job. Even if I didn’t have this role, I would spend my weekends and free time looking after nature anyway. So, it’s incredible to be able to do it as a career,” she said.

“Seeing dolphins, dugongs, turtles and snakes is always amazing. But I get excited about all kinds of wildlife like insects and birds. Once you get in the habit of noticing different species, you can get so much enjoyment out of nature.”

One of the most exciting events she has organised involved moving the skeleton of a stranded whale that was found by a paddle boarder in the mangroves of Jubail Island, Abu Dhabi.

“The Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi wanted the bones so we gathered a big group of volunteers at 5am to help us collect them by hand. It was a Bryde’s whale, which is similar to a humpback whale, and even the skull alone took 30 people to lift. It was super heavy — something like 200 kilogrammes. That was back in November and it was such an exciting day," she noted.

“I’ve also helped coordinate the UAE’s community of marine biologists to help some whale sharks that got lost near Yas Marina and Al Zeina in Abu Dhabi. Another great thing we do involves taking kids out to the desert at night to look for things like geckos, spiders and snakes with UV torches. Many people think the dessert is just barren sand, but it's really not.”

Appreciating nature

A third-generation expat, Willing’s international upbringing sparked her love for the outdoors.

“I was very privileged to have an exciting childhood that involved travelling and exploring different habitats. I’m originally from Scotland but I’ve lived in Cyprus, the Netherlands, Oman, the Maldives and Italy. My uncle is a botanist, and he has always been a big inspiration to me. When I chose my university degree, I was living in Oman and spending my weekends diving and looking for nesting turtles. So that influenced my decision to study marine biology back in Scotland.”

Moving forward, she wants to encourage everyone in the UAE to appreciate, understand and respect nature.

“Like it or not, nature plays a huge role in all our lives, and spending more time outside is great for mental and physical health. For instance, one study from a hospital showed that patients in rooms with views of nature needed less pain medication and were discharged faster than those with rooms looking over a car park,” she said.

“Volunteering is also a fulfilling way of giving back and meeting nice, like-minded people. I love working with the community. Our volunteers are so enthusiastic, and they really fire me up and motivate me to work even harder.”

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