Protecting the houbara bustard
DUBAI | Jennifer Bell
An internationally protected bird species, the houbara bustard is both an integral link in the falconry chain that is emblematic to Arabic culture, and a prized prey that the UAE is keen to not only protect and preserve, but also see flourish.
For more than four decades – after the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, noted the decline of houbara numbers in the wild and set out to reverse the trend – breeding programmes have been staged across the Emirates. Through his dedicated programmes, the first chick was born in 1982 and by 2016 more than 50,000 chicks were born each year. To date, about 350,000 chicks have been bred.
It was in 2006 that the UAE doubled down on its mission to boost numbers of the prey – deemed a “vulnerable species” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
Enter the International Fund for Houbara Conservation (IFHC).
Established in Abu Dhabi, the IFHC pledges to boost the houbara population – its breeding programmes have seen tens of thousands of the treasured prey released into the wild.
Now the IFHC has a new mission: to educate the country’s young to ensure a new generation understands the historical importance of the bustard – and that the species is protected in generations to come.
SHAPING CONSERVATION LEADERS OF TOMORROW
His Excellency Majid His Excellency Majid Al Mansour, managing director of the IFHC said education has been a key strategic pillar of the organisation since 2017, spurred on by “our goal to shape the conservation leaders of tomorrow”.
He continues: “The journey of our multidisciplinary education programme began with the launch of a seven-school pilot scheme in Abu Dhabi. The pilot provided us with core insights into how conservation education could be incorporated into the UAE national school curriculum.”
The pilot was a “tremendous success”, which helped strengthen both the IFHC's relationship with the UAE Ministry of Education and the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge (ADEK). It resulted in the inauguration of ‘Conservation Education: the Houbara Model’ into the curriculum in October 2018.
“The programme follows a blended learning model, incorporating tools such as gamification alongside traditional educational methods to provide interactive learning experiences across core subjects,” explains Al Mansour.
And the programme has already celebrated many milestones.
“The first was its integration into the UAE national curriculum, and the programme has gone from strength-to-strength. In less than two years we have engaged more than 36,000 students with 46 schools across the Emirates now enrolled in the programme.
“Additionally, we have trained more than 150 teachers in how they can incorporate the programme into their subjects and have assigned 358 houbara coordinators across the education ecosystem.”
THE “WANT” TO LEARN
Al Mansour explains that student enthusiasm and participation has been a “key highlight”, leading to IFHC to initiate its Ambassador Programme, which sees students taking the lead and engaging their peers in conservation.
“We have also collaborated with the Mohamed Bin Zayed Falconry and Desert Physiognomy School in Al Ain (MBZFDP). Prior to the closure of schools, hundreds of students were given the opportunity to witness the houbara in their natural habitat during interactive workshops. Thanks to the support of MBZFDP, and the desire from students and teachers, those workshops have been able to continue virtually.”
Another major educational milestone for IFHC, says Al Mansour, has been its ability to seamlessly transition its programme to distance learning.
“Our gamification tool, ‘Journey of a Bird’ has been a particular success,” he says. “The technology allows students to learn through compelling storytelling and gamification features to connect with core subjects and the real world. Students step into the life of an ecologist and embrace the meaning of conservation work.
“Each level is mapped to the national curriculum and presented with a multidisciplinary approach, covering topics in conservation education across core subjects such as mathematics, Arabic, English, social studies, and science.”
So, what is next for the IFHC?
“Our goal in shaping conservation leaders of tomorrow is to engage with all schoolchildren across the Emirates and to continue training more teachers and coordinators” says Al Mansour. “We are working with our partners in education to develop more interactive learning experiences as the UAE operates a blended learning model, and we are working on developing a second gamification tool.”
IFHC also has international ambitions, hoping to have the same acclaim with its educational model for the young.
“We are eager to share our successful approach and education model with as wide an audience as possible… The houbara is an intrinsic part of UAE and Arabian culture, supporting the heritage sport of falconry.
“It is vitally important that future generations have access to the nature we enjoy today.”