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Tour of the wild in air-conditioned setting

Impossible to believe, yet true The place in question is the prestigious Arabian Wildlife Centre of the Sharjah Desert Park, 28 kilometres from the city of Sharjah, and it is considered "the only one of its kind in the world"

This is the only park in the world that contains a natural history museum, Arabian endangered animals breeding centre and Arabian wildlife centre, besides also a children's farm -- all four of them in one complex

Schoolchildren were being charged only Dhs2 - for a two-hour tour in air-conditioned comfort.

On entering the centre, the visitor is greeted by a trained guide who takes him on a journey through the wildlife kingdom of the Arabian Peninsula. An audio-visual on a screen about "Animals in the Centre" holds the attention of visitors who then pass on down the winding corridors to the reptile and insect house where 18 species of reptiles from the deadly Arabian cobra (Naja Haje Arabica) and poisonous vipers to the harmless and beautiful lizards like the spiny-tailed Agama and Dhab live, besides amphibians like frogs and toads, within glass enclosures

Large lizards
The Dhab is one of the largest and most spectacular of the lizards occurring in the Arabian Peninsula with the largest reaching about 80 centimetres in length and are frequently hunted as a delicacy by man

A plethora of sounds ranging from bird cries to frog croaks and humming of bees echo throughout the corridors, making visitors feel as if they have passed through a time warp

Wadi-racer snake
A wadi-racer snake glides elegantly over the sand and water of miniature wadis recreated with pools of water amidst layers of mountainside in the tiny enclosures This is the most commonly encountered snake in wadis in the Arabian Peninsula where it hunts fish, tadpoles and toads, small rodents, birds, lizards and even bats In another enclosure, a baby saw-scaled viper has climbed atop a tiny thorn-laden tree

Insect House
The insect house features common insects and arachnids including some spiders which make and use webs as nets to fling over their prey when within range, besides nets to entice and trap victims Other species of spider hunt their prey with stealth, lunging at the victim in the same manner as a leopard stalks its prey

The other insects too are an amazing lot with the water beetle being the most interesting A carnivorous insect, this beetle both swims and flies well while hunting on both land and water and also keeping its attackers at bay by secreting a fluid that stuns predatory fish and frogs

Creatures of night
The visitor then enters the nocturnal world as daylight gives way to the dark where creatures of the night are moving about in the Nocturnal House A pair of mongooses are streaking to and fro in their search for prey in their enclosure, while other enclosures display jackals, porcupines, foxes, a variety of hedgehogs and rodents like jirds, gerbils, spiny mouse and various rats species

Blind Fish
An interesting sight in the darkened corridors -- where various species of bats hang out -- are the blind fish which can be observed swimming about as easily as their sighted companions These blind fishes were recently discovered living in subterranean pools in caverns in the area of Jebel Akhdar which is part of the Hajar range of Northern Oman Since they share the caverns with bats, it is believed that some of their food may be derived from the droppings of these flying mammals

Another exciting discovery is the fish Hatta Goby which was found to be dwelling in both sea and freshwater though occurring in mud flats to coral reefs This fish seeks holes under stones in wadi beds and, when disturbed, buries itself in mud

Wadi habitats
An exit laced with strong ropes hanging by opens on to a near-daylight panorama of mountainous, wadi and other habitats which are home to the houbara bustard, flamingoes, sand partridge, grey francolin and a curious creature that looks like a cross between a beaver and rabbit -- the rock hyrax Perched high atop man-made mountains in the habitat, these small, stockily-built, tail-less mammals are very primitive ungulates and distantly related to the elephant, rhinoceros and the dugong

Palm-Studded Plain
Further on, the night suddenly changes into daylight where, dining in the comfort of a circular glass-enclosed cafeteria, visitors view a palm-studded plain which is the habitat of oryx, gazelle, ostrich and even spiny-tailed lizards, besides a recreated mountain habitat providing home to the long-horned ibex while colorful flamingoes strut around daintily on stilted legs in a small lagoon

Endangered animals
Another corridor filled with daylight all the way begins as visitors look through separated circular enclosures into the world of the Hamadryad baboons, hyenas, cheetahs and the flagship of the Arabian wildlife species -- the majestic Arabian leopard Endangered in its Arabian habitat, there is no accurate confirmation of the Arabian leopard population which has been estimated at approximately between 100 to 200, with Yemen holding the largest group

Another beautiful creature here is the cheetah which is considered almost certainly extinct in Southern Arabia with the last proven record sighting in this region being of one shot near Jobjat in Dhofar area of Oman in 1977 Cheetah were frequently captured and used for hunting gazelles by Middle Eastern and Asian royalty including Akbar the Great who was reputed to have a "stable" of 1,000 of these graceful cats With its natural prey being hunted out by man, the cheetah turned to killing sheep and goats in their hunger -- thus signing its death warrant and soon falling victim to the guns of the irritated villagers

Equally ferocious-looking are the Hamadryad baboons who can be seen constantly foraging or "attacking" each other playfully in their habitat These baboons have successfully proliferated with their number increasing to about 350,000 in Asir region of Saudi Arabia, though they continually expand their ranges, according to the information board in the viewing room

Hidden Moats
One visitor wondered how the carnivores and herbivores lived together in this wide open area till the guide confirmed the difference The creatures were all wild but the various species were separated from each other by deep and wide dry moats which were cleverly hidden by the landscaping

Educational panels and taped messages provide constant information about the creature in view before the visitors emerge out of the centre with their journey completed through a paradise of Arabian wildlife
Text courtesy Gulf Today

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