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Coastal wetlands in Ra's al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates: an update on their status, biodiversity, values and protection.

Introduction

An overview and description of 24 wetland systems in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is given in a Directory of Wetlands of the Middle East (Scott, 1995), and includes four coastal wetlands in the Emirate of Ra's al-Khaimah (RAK). Many of these sites have been recommended for protection, along with formal inclusion in a national network of protected areas (Aspinall, 1996). However, since these publications, the rapid economic development in the UAE, especially between 2003 to 2008, has changed the physical and biological nature of many of the wetlands described.

Four coastal wetlands exist in the Emirate of Ra's al-Khaimah: Khor Muzahmi (300 ha), Khor Ra's al-Khaimah (410 ha), Khor Julfar (227 ha) and Khor Hulaylah (also known locally as Khor al-Rams) (676 ha). These areas have high scenic value, are individual in character, and are important for their biodiversity. Khor Muzahmi includes an area designated for reserve status, while the other three wetlands are without formal protection. All sites face various pressures and challenges to their ecology, caused largely by rapid economic development. In combination, the total wetland area is 1,500 ha, representing a highly valuable natural resource for fisheries, biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and with high recreation, ecotourism, education and research potential. Further studies and protection measures are recommended.

This report seeks to update existing information on these four wetlands and highlight their importance, thereby offering renewed justification for the conservation and careful management of these critical areas. It also aims to provide a source of information to be used in any future State of the Environment reports for RAK's marine and coastal region. Such reports, piloted by Abu Dhabi Emirate (EAD, 2005), are proposed for replication in other Emirates as a resource to support habitat conservation and help in policy-making.

Wetlands are defined by the international Convention on Wetlands as " ... areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water, the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters" (RAMSAR, 2009). Wetlands deliver a wide range of ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being, such as fish and fibre, water supply, water purification, climate regulation, flood regulation, coastal protection, recreational opportunities and tourism (MEA, 2005).

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The Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME) has identified physical alteration of the Arabian Gulf coastline for real estate, industry, hotels and port facilities as a major threat to the marine environment, with wetland ecosystems particularly affected (ROPME, 2005). Worldwide, the degradation and loss of wetlands is more rapid than that of other ecosystems, attributed mainly to growing human populations coupled with economic activity (MEA, 2005).

Wetlands in the UAE occur along a coast that is generally shallow and gently shelving, with numerous natural islands dominating the coastline of Abu Dhabi.

Ra's al-Khaimah (RAK) is the northernmost of the seven Emirates comprising the UAE. Its coastline stretches along the Arabian Gulf coast for 63 km, in the south bordering Umm al-Qaiwain Emirate, and in the north bordering Oman's Musandam territory.

The total coastline of the UAE is about 700 km long (excluding islands). Although RAK's portion makes up only 9% of the total coastline, its four wetlands, named above, are highly interesting and significant (Fig. 1).

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Location and features

Locally known as Khor Muzahmi, this wetland is located north of the town of Jazirat al-Hamra (Fig. 1) and about 14 km south of Ra's al-Khaimah city. It is the remnant of a series of shallow lagoons, bar and spit complexes, and intertidal mudflats that once extended over a distance of about 14 km, separated roughly in the middle by Jazirat al-Hamra old town (Goudie et al. 2000). Coastal development, firstly by a new harbour in 1996, and secondly by extensive reclamation for the real estate and hotel industry starting in 2004, has reduced it in size to approximately 300 ha.

The remaining portion of Khor Muzahmi retains a number of key features. These include an outer sandbar (Fig.2,a); the main opening to the sea (Fig.2,b); large areas of intertidal mudflats and a mosaic of shallow channels (Fig.2,c); several sand islands fringed with mangroves (Fig.2,d), and dunes over 20 m in height (Fig.2,e) on the landward side overlooking the wetland. Adjacent to the wetland, to the north east, is a man-made island (Fig.2,g), surrounded by deeper dredged water. A causeway provides a connection to the mainland, although a bridge allows tidal flow between the wetland and the beach belonging to the Cove Rotana hotel development (Fig.2 h).

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The sandbar stretches for 2.8 km, sheltering the inner wetland from the open sea. It provides an excellent example of the process of longshore drift in action, with the aerial image showing a clear depositional sequence of curved headlands (Fig.2,f). A comparison of GPS coordinates taken in 2008 and 2009 with aerial and satellite images revealed that the sand bar had extended a surprising 670 m between 23 December 2004 and 26 May 2009 (Table 1), representing a rate of about 170 m per year.

This is a much higher rate than the 40 m per year estimated by Goudie et al. (2000) in a measurement of the Julfar spit migration, 16 km further north, and reconstructed using cartographic data from 1822 to 1958. This is likely due to the rapid physical change in the coastline immediately to the south, created by dredging of the Jazirat al-Hamra harbour (2000), creation of Marjan Island (2005), Dana Island (2008) and wetland reclamation for the Mina Al Arab development (2004). These works have affected currents and reduced the availability of sand for the process of longshore drift and sandbar formation.

Further extension of the sandbar at this rate will substantially reduce the opening to the sea, although two breaches occurring in early 2009 have made additional openings, facilitating tidal exchange. These breaches appear to be widening, reflecting the dynamic nature of coastal erosion and deposition, influenced by the developments mentioned earlier.

Marine life

The sandbar is used by nesting turtles. A nesting attempt recorded by the author on 21st May, 2009 showed a track width of 48cm with a faintly staggered pattern of flipper marks suggesting Hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata. The blue swimming crab Portunus pelagicus, the mud crab Macropthalmus depressus and fiddler crabs Uca sp. appear numerous. The swimming crab Thalamita crenata is present, and can be added to the list provided by Hornby (1997). However, this species was not observed by the author in RAK's other three wetlands. The main channels support sea grass, mainly Halodule uninervis, although small patches of Halophila ovalis were observed. The gastropod Cerithidea cingulata occurs in large numbers on the mudflats, and is a feature common to all of RAK's wetlands, and typical of the UAE's intertidal lagoon environments (Feulner & Hornby, 2006).

Birds

The sheltered landward side of the sandbar provides feeding and roosting areas for gulls, terns and plovers. This area and the shallow waters (< 2m) of the inner wetland support a population of Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus throughout the year.

Counts of flamingos by the author between June 2009 and May 2010 showed a steady increase in number from around 100 in mid-June to 250 by the beginning of August. This was followed by a rapid increase to over 500 (reaching 600) between 10th August and 16th September with many juvenile birds, followed by a steep drop back to around 200 at the start of October, rising again to around 350 in November and December before showing a gradual decline to 107 on the last count of 25 May, 2010.

The rapid increase in August and September may be due to the arrival of flamingos from colonies further north, possibly Iran, Turkey and Central Asian countries, reflecting the start of an autumn migration. The steep drop in late September may reflect a dispersal to local wetlands and others further along the Gulf coast. Breeding by Greater Flamingo has not been proved at any of RAK's wetlands, but a one-off, large breeding event in an intertidal area near Abu Dhabi in 2009 means that the possibility of future breeding in RAK cannot be ruled out. The population of Socotra Cormorant Phalacrocorax nigrogularis, monitored during this period, showed tens of thousands roosting on the sandbar between 15 June and 19 August 2009, followed by a decline to small groups of under 20 or absent altogether. By mid-April, numbers were again in the tens of thousands. One recent estimate (June 2011) of Socotra Cormorant working their way down the outer sand bar numbered about 75,000 (pers. comm. R. Hornby). Crab plovers Dromas ardeola are a regular autumn, winter and spring visitor. Regular sightings are made of Osprey Pandion haliaetus, as well as at Khor Julfar and Khor Hulaylah.

Prior to 2004, the wetland was extensive and covered approximately 700 ha. In this condition, the wetland was listed as an Important Bird Area by the international conservation organisation Birdlife International (Evans, 1994). A detailed list of birds is provided in 'A Directory of Wetlands of the Middle East' (Scott, 1995), which states that over 90 species were recorded here. The site was considered internationally important as it regularly supported 1% of the regional wintering population of Terek Sandpipers Xenus cinereus, and nationally important as 5% of the estimated national population of the following species was present at the site: Grey Heron Ardea cinerea, Western Reef Heron Egretta gularis, Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa, Curlew Numenius arquata, Greenshank Tringa nebularia, Slender-billed Gull Larus genei (Hellyer & Aspinall, 2005).

Considering the size reduction of this wetland from 700 ha to 300 ha in 2004, further assessments are now required to ascertain international and national importance for the species mentioned previously.

Vegetation

Mangrove cover is limited to approximately 1.2 ha, mainly on two islands within the wetland and along the mainland shoreline, although cover has increased since 2003, with aerial photos then showing an approximate coverage area of 0.14 ha. Camels had been feeding on the mangroves but were prohibited in early 2009. Mangrove bushes are now showing clear signs of regeneration. Other vegetation includes salt tolerant halophytes namely Arthrocnemum macrostachyum and Zygophyllum qatarense, the grass Halopyrum mucronatum, and the desert hyacinth Cistanche tubulosa. The invasive mesquite tree Prosopis juliflora, is present on the mangrove islands (Fig. 2, d) and high sand dunes.

The high sand dunes support scrub vegetation and numerous mature ghaf trees Prosopis cineraria, which provide suitable habitat for a range of migrant and resident birds as described by Richardson & Aspinall (1998). The high sand dunes provide excellent views over the wetland and out to sea (Fig.3).

Ownership and habitat management issues

About 70% of Khor Muzahmi is now protected by the real estate company developing the adjoining former wetland to the south, and known as the Mina Al Arab Environmental Reserve. The company fenced the landward side along the base of the dunes in early 2009. The remaining 30% at the northern end is under the control of local Government and private ownership.

Existing pressures include fishing with nets, littering, and damage to dune vegetation through off-road driving. Future challenges will lie in ensuring that the private dune developments do not encroach on the wetland, as it is a relatively small site. Any further habitat loss will reduce the ecological integrity of the wetland. Furthermore, these private developments should be encouraged to keep the scrub vegetation, and ghaf woodland with its deep rooting systems, to help anchor the steep dune slopes and maintain habitat for associated fauna. This dune habitat should be conserved and considered integral to the wetland ecosystem.

The neighbouring hotel and real estate developments will need to ensure their activities adjacent to the wetland are compatible with its sensitive ecology. Khor Muzahmi's values and potential benefits to society are summarised in Tables 2 and 3.

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Location and features

Khor Ra's al-Khaimah lies in the heart of the city. It was once part of the Julfar lagoon complex (wetland (iii) in this paper) as shown by early maps of the coastline and later air photography. Goudie et al. (2000) suggest that the Khor was fed by a major ephemeral river discharging through the Wadi al-Bih whose catchment lies in the Musandam mountains. Recent satellite images show a modern feeder channel that runs south east past the golf club, and sandwiched between sand dunes and the alluvial fan deposits of Wadi Naqab.

Separation from the Julfar complex occurred with storm breaches of the outer barrier beach in the late 1950s, followed in the 1980s by construction and dredging of a fishing harbour and port, along with further land reclamation (Fig. 4,a & b) (Goudie et al. 2000). Subsequent further modification included a west-east road through the mangroves (Fig. 4,c); a golf course at its southern end established in 2004 (Fig. 4,d); corniche widening in 2007 (Fig. 4,f); and infill for commercial and residential towers in 2008 (Fig. 4,e).

Despite these changes, the wetland is of high scenic importance, with its wide expanse of green mangroves. It covers an area of 390 ha (area south of the bridge Fig.4, h), with a further 23 ha of mangroves and water channels that are part of the adjoining golf course south of the west-east road.

It contains substantially more mangrove cover than Khor Muzahmi, with an area of 230 ha, which includes both dense mature stands, with new seedlings and young stands also present. These mangroves have developed in the last 30 years, as a black and white aerial photo taken in the mid-1970s, held by RAK Department of Antiquities and Museums, show the wetland to be made up of open mudflats and devoid of any mangrove cover.

The prominent sand island, Nad Abu Tabl (Fig. 4,g), provides a contrasting sand dune habitat within the mangrove wetland, and is home to Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters Merops superciliosus, and Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes. Thick layers of shell fragments in the dune profile provide evidence of ancient exploitation of the shell fish resources.

Marine life

Khor Ra's al-Khaimah provided a sighting, in 1996 of the large mangrove crab, Scylla serrata. It was large, at about 2 kg in weight, having just been caught by an expatriate Filipino (pers comm. R. Hornby). Further confirmation of this species in the khor is provided in an article by Hogarth & Beech (2001). Visits during 2008 and 2009 by the author failed to reveal new sightings of S. serrata or its burrows, although the dense mangrove cover may ensure its continued presence. Continued collection by Asian crab hunters is likely to have affected population numbers, an activity dating back some years in this khor (Feulner, 2002). Other crab species identified include the violet crab Eurycarcinus orientalis, mud crab Metopograpsus messor and fiddler crabs Uca sp.

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The mangrove-lined channels contain patches of sea grass H. uninervis, and are important as fish nurseries, with many fish fry species and larger fish present. Common species identified include Red spot Emperor Lethrinus lentjan, Banded Terapon Terapon jarbua, Killifish Aphanius dispar, and Sea bream Rhabdosargus sp.

Birds

Many fish-eating birds take advantage of the abundant fish resources, including the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis and different species of heron including Western Reef Heron E. gularis, Striated Heron Butorides striatus, Grey Heron A. cinerea, Great Egret Egretta alba and Little Egret Egretta garzetta. Curlew Numenius arquata and Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus appear especially numerous. Marsh Harriers Circus aeruginosus are seen during the winter and spring months hunting over the mangroves. Mallard Anas platyrhynchos are common in the winter months. Greater Flamingo P. roseus are sometimes present although usually as individuals or small groups of less than 15.

Ownership and habitat management issues

Khor Ra's al-Khaimah is owned by the Government of Ra's al-Khaimah. To protect this habitat, formal designation and management of the wetland as a nature reserve is recommended. This would allow for the necessary enforcement of protection measures, monitoring, water sample testing and clean-ups, along with the planning and oversight of recreation and education activities. Any further reclamation and reduction in size will reduce the ecological value and functioning of the wetland which is already vulnerable to pollution sources, being surrounded by the city.

The wetland is ideally suited to recreation and education activities, with potential for a wetland educational centre, along with nature trails, using boardwalks and carefully sited bird hides. The secluded channels offer scope for exploration by kayak. In combination with rowing and water skiing near the corniche, the wetland is an immensely valuable recreational resource in an increasingly busy and expanding city.

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Location and features

Khor Julfar extends north of Ra's al-Khaimah city for 6 km to the town of Rams, where it connects with the fourth wetland, Khor Hulaylah, and outlet to the sea at Rams harbour (Fig. 6,a). At its southern end, it opens to the sea through a man-made opening in the outer sandbar (Fig 6,b). Its name is taken from the site of the ancient trading city of Julfar (Fig. 6,c), where archaeological investigations have provided evidence of extensive maritime trade with Asia, including China, between the 8th/9th and 17th centuries (Hansman, 1985, King, 1990, 1991, 1992).

The lagoon does not exceed 4 m depth, except at the northern end where dredging in the past is suspected. It is protected from the sea by a prominent sandbar, approximately 200 m wide. The total area of sand bar and inner lagoon is approximately 410 ha, while the inner lagoon is approximately 227 ha.

Marine life

As in Khor Ra's al-Khaimah, the common fish found here include Lethrinus lentjan, Terapon jarbua and Aphanius dispar. The lagoon's sheltered location, connection with the Hulaylah wetland and regular presence of fish-eating herons are indicators of its importance as a nursery and refuge habitat for various juvenile fish species. This habitat also supports an abundance of filter-feeder and invertebrate faunal species (a variety of small gastropods and crustaceans, bivalves and sponges). Sea grass (Halodule uninervis and Halophila ovalis) is relatively widespread, particularly in the southern stretch. Turtle tracks and nesting attempts have been observed on the outer sandbar. Khor Julfar is the type locality for Bulla arabica, a newly-recognised species of bubble shell, distinguished from Bulla ampulla found in the Indian Ocean to the south. (Feulner, 2007; Malaquias & Reid, 2008).

Birds

Birdlife includes typical shorebirds found at the other wetland sites, with one survey recording 52 species although no one species was found to be present in internationally important numbers. Greater Flamingo, P. roseus, are often present but usually in small groups and low numbers (<15) and favour a shallow bay at Fig.6,d. Regular sightings of Osprey have been made and terns, plovers and herons are all common.

Vegetation

The sandbar is occupied by common coastal vegetation species, with Zygophyllum qatarense as the dominant plant followed by Suaeda vermiculata, dune grass Halopyrum mucronatum, and Arthrocnemum macrostachyum along the sheltered lagoon shoreline. Mangrove is present in isolated small patches, mostly at the southern end, with a total approximate area of 0.7 ha. Vegetation is similar on the mainland side of the lagoon, although notable additions are the Egyptian fig marigold Mesembryanthemum nodiflorum, whose distribution is rare on mainland UAE, and in a bay on the eastern side of the lagoon (Fig.6,d) a species of sea lavender Limonium carnosum (also considered rare in the UAE), and a grass Panicum antidotale, which has a localised distribution along the Arabian Gulf Coast.

Ownership and habitat management issues

Ownership of Khor Julfar is with the Government of Ra's al-Khaimah. The outer sandbar suffers from rubbish left by visitors and brought in by the tide, along with fishing debris from fishermen who land their catch on the outer sandbar. This no doubt attracts the Red Fox, V. vulpes, which has been sighted on occasion. The mainland side is subject to grazing and progressive infilling for new housing, with associated dumps of building waste and garbage.

Protection is recommended for the whole lagoon, and as it connects with the Hulaylah wetland to the north, it should be regarded as one ecological system. The already protected and fenced Julfar historical site fits naturally into this wetland complex, and provides protection for a 1.6 km stretch of beach containing mudflats and some mangroves. This area offers high potential for boat-based recreation (e.g. bird watching, kayaking) and heritage tourism if plans by the RAK Department of Antiquities and Museums to develop the Julfar historical site come to fruition.

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Location and features

The fourth wetland is a creek and marshland with extensive intertidal mudflats and mangroves (Fig.9), known locally as Khor Hulaylah, or Khor al-Rams. It joins with Khor Julfar at the town of Rams, close to the harbour and exit to the sea (Fig.8) and winds its way northwards, originally joining the sea again at Khor Khwayr. The building of an industrial complex and harbour since 2000, has now blocked this northern exit to the sea, with a sizeable portion of northern wetland area reclaimed for industrial use.

Nonetheless, the area of remaining wetland is 676 ha (as at August 2009), of which 167 ha is comprised of mangroves and 17 ha of intertidal mudflats.

The island of Hulaylah (Fig.8,b) forms a protective barrier on the seaward side of the creek. It is an ancient feature, as evidenced by an extensive distribution of archaeological sites over its surface, some dating back to the eighth century AD (Kennet, 1994). It is relatively wide and high, reaching an altitude of 14 m at its highest point and composed largely of fine calcareous quartz sand (Goudie et al. 2000). A smaller shallow water body, locally called Khor Ghantra (Fig. 8, a) occupies low ground along the foreshore.

A unique feature of this wetland is the occurrence of a series of brackish pools, influenced by the seepage of fresh water, just west of the main road at Dhayah (Llewellyn Smith, 2011). The geology maps for the area (Ellison et al. 2006) show that the pools are situated along the interface between the alluvial fan deposits (brought down by the wadis emerging from the Dhayah and Rahaba mountain front) and the marine deposits of Khor Hulaylah. The most prominent of the brackish pools is Ain Dhayah (Fig.8) where fresh water input has supported the growth of particularly dense and high mangroves (up to 6 m).

Biodiversity

Preliminary studies to assess biodiversity in 2006 and 2007 revealed 26 species of plants and 122 species of animals (excluding birds). A study of UAE bird records combined with local observations reveal 197 different species for the Hulaylah area, around 43% of the total number of bird species recorded for the UAE. Further investigation into insects and marine life (especially sponges and fish) which have been little studied will increase the number of species.

Marine life

Green turtles C. mydas are regularly sighted inside the khor, where extensive sea grass beds provide potential feeding areas. Turtle nesting and egg laying have been recorded on Jazirat Hulaylah beach. The winding channel contains a variety of sponges, false corals (Zoanthus sp.) and the pearl oyster Pinctada radiata. Adding further diversity are corals Siderastraea savignyana, Platygyra daedalea, Favites flexuosa, Favia favus and Porites sp. growing on the limestone boulders making up the outer harbour breakwater (Fig. 8,g), along with various species of reef fish. Dead shells of the Potamidid gastropod Terebralia palustris are common in this khor. They provide testimony to a once thriving live population and a major food source for prehistoric inhabitants as evidenced by their presence at archaeological sites on Hulaylah Island and just inland at Dhayah. Feulner (2000) suggests their early abundance may be linked to a period of more normal salinity in the Arabian Gulf, under a less arid climate, with the nearby mountains inducing precipitation and channeling it to the coast. The mangrove crab Scylla serrata is present. The uppermost intertidal gastropods Potamides conicus and the air-breathing Melampus castanaeus are also present.

Birds

This wetland is strategically important as it provides the first stopover feeding and resting area along the Gulf coast for migrating birds crossing southwards from Asia over the Straits of Hormuz and has the most extensive mudflats of any of the RAK wetlands. It supports a population of up to 600 Greater Flamingo P. roseus throughout the year. Other common birds include Western Reef Heron E. gularis, Grey Heron A. cinerea, Striated Heron B. striatus, Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula, Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii, Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus, Greenshank Tringa nebularia, Socotra Cormorant P. nigrogularis, Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus and Common Kingfisher A. atthis. Marsh Harriers C. aeruginosus can often be seen hunting low over the mangroves. Occasional winter sightings are also made of Great Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga. Crab Plovers Dromas ardeola are common in autumn and winter months. Spoonbills Platalea alba have been observed at the smaller Khor Gantra (Fig.8,a), a species not usually evident at the other three wetlands. Clamorous Reed Warbler Acrocephalus stentoreus and Moorhen Gallinula chloropus favour the mangroves and brackish pools on the east side of the khor.

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Vegetation

The reed grass Phragmites australis and sedge Cyperus laevigatus indicate the presence of brackish water pools on the eastern side of the khor. Extensive areas of sea rush Juncus rigidus, are present on the salt marsh, while on the drier saline ground, Cressa cretica, Alhagi graecorum and tamarisk species are common. This saltmarsh vegetation community is unique to this wetland and is not seen at Khor Julfar, Khor Ra's al-Khaimah or Khor Muzahmi, or indeed in the rest of the country.

Ownership and habitat management issues

Khor Hulaylah is owned by the Government of Ra's al-Khaimah. Of the four wetlands, it is considered the most species diverse on account of its greater variety of habitat types. Unfortunately, the wetland lies in a narrow land corridor between the sea and mountains (approx. 6 km wide) that limits the land available for new housing and other developments. Consequently, expansion of Rams town has led to the reclamation of areas (Fig.8,c,d) in the late 1990s, along with the loss of mangroves and mudflats between 2007-2009 (Fig. 8,e & f).

In 2009, Khor Hulaylah was marked for no development on land use plans by the RAK Municipality's Town Planning and Survey Administration. To consolidate this situation, protective legislation, governance, active conservation management and coordination between local institutions and other stakeholders is urgently recommended.

The mangroves and sea rushes, J. rigidus, on the eastern side of Khor Hulaylah have been extensively grazed by camels and have suffered obvious damage. A count over two days in 2007 revealed 92 and 88 camels respectively entering the area to feed. Studies coordinated by the author in 2006 showed the damage to mangroves caused by camels is through leaf defoliation, chewing of stems, trampling of seedlings and compaction of mud. Of 67 plants surveyed along a trial 100 m transect, 53% were either dead or severely grazed. Encouragingly, 16 % of plants were new healthy seedlings, suggesting that recovery would happen if camels were excluded. Hogarth (1999) records similar damage caused by camels and other livestock on mangroves in the Indus Delta, Pakistan. Camel grazing on this eastern side is reported to have stopped after 2010, although goats continue to feed on J. rigidus.

Other pressures include overgrazing on Hulaylah Island by camels and goats, and damage to wildlife through discarded fishing nets and rubbish. Crabs and the clam bivalve Marcia flammea are much collected for food. Future challenges will involve preventing any further loss of habitat through reclamation for development.

Of the four wetlands, Khor Hulaylah has the strongest cultural connection with local residents. Each bend and headland in the winding khor has a local name, and several interviewed residents revealed much local knowledge on fish and bird species. The fishing community generally keeps fishing outside the khor, in recognition of the importance of the wetland as a fish nursery and spawning area.

Values

The ecosystem services provided to Ra's al-Khaimah by these wetland sites along with other values are significant and varied (Table 2 & 3). Their conservation and 'wise use' as advocated by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) could play a key part in sustainable development programmes for the Emirate and contribute to human well-being.

Recommendations for protection and further study

Three of the wetlands, Khor Ra's al-Khaimah, Khor Julfar and Khor Hulaylah, have no official protection status and their continued survival is at risk without this in place. Information on all sites is sufficient to call for their immediate protection and according designation on land use plans, followed by careful habitat management to maintain their ecological effectiveness and to ensure the sustainable release of benefits to society (Table 2). An accepted method, adopted worldwide and increasingly in the UAE, is to create formal protected areas (nature reserves), managed using site-specific management plans and integrated into wider coastal zone management plans. As a starting point, preparation of a wetlands 'Master Plan' for Ra's al-Khaimah would provide a planning and management overview of all four sites in combination, helping to maximise benefits and minimise site degradation. For example, kayaking greatly disturbs feeding and roosting birds at Khor Muzahmi due to its open nature, and is better suited to the more enclosed mangrove channels at Khor Ra's al-Khaimah.

All four sites would probably qualify as Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar sites), and their designation through the Wetlands Convention, which the UAE joined in 2008, would help boost their profile and importance.

Protection will re-emphasise the UAE's commitment to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the regional Convention on Conservation of Wildlife and its Natural Habitats in the Gulf Cooperation Countries, and the Convention on Migratory Species. In addition, given the increasing concerns of global climate change and growing evidence of the contribution of wetlands to regulating climate (MEA, 2005; Dudley et al. 2010), conserving these wetland ecosystems can provide a contribution to a UAE climate change mitigation strategy.

Future more systematic studies will help refine protection measures. Areas requiring further study are bird surveys at different seasons (especially during autumn and spring migrations), fisheries studies to determine species diversity and seasonal variation, water and sediment quality, insect studies, and subtidal marine ecology. A turtle study, particularly during the nesting season, is needed to assess the importance of Khor Muzahmi, Khor Julfar and Khor Hulaylah to these endangered animals. Work is needed to restore degraded areas, particularly the mangroves at Khor Hulaylah that have been overgrazed by camels.

A national level assessment of the status of UAE's wetlands is recommended to help focus attention back on these critical areas and provide decision makers with the latest information on status, biodiversity and pressures. The assessment would be made more powerful if combined with an effort to demonstrate the economic value of their direct and indirect services.

Approximately 1,500 ha of productive wetlands still remain in Ra's al-Khaimah, representing a sizeable and immensely valuable natural resource. These rich and diverse habitats should be maintained for present and future generations.

Acknowledgements

The Government of Ra's al-Khaimah is acknowledged for supporting this work. The author is thankful to Mustafa Khalifa for his assistance in the field and to the following for their habitat observations and help with species identification at Khor Hulaylah during 2006 and 2007: Simon Aspinall, Richard Hornby, Gary Feulner, Ron Loughland, Ayoob Hassan al Ghafari and Hannah and Jens Eriksen. Christian Velde, Imke Moellering and Hilal Ahmed of the RAK Department of Antiquities and Museums are gratefully acknowledged for archaeological information related to Hulaylah island, Khor Julfar, and Nad Abu Tabl at Khor Ra's al-Khaimah. The author is grateful to Dr Basheer Ali, Gary Feulner and Richard Hornby for their valuable comments on early drafts of this paper.

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Robert Llewellyn-Smith,

32, Pinewoods,

Church Aston, Newport Shropshire

TF10 9 LN, UK

email: Rllewellynsmith@yahoo.co.uk
Table 1. Khor Muzahmi sand bar elongation.

                        Coordinates of north east end of sand bar

Date                       Latitude                  Longitude

23rd December 2004   25[degrees] 44'06.73"N    55[degrees] 52'01.55"E
                     (Google Earth)            (Google Earth)

12th October 2008    25[degrees] 44'.15.56"N   55[degrees] 52'18.70"E
                     (GPS)                     (GPS)

26th May 2009        25[degrees] 44'16.85"N    55[degrees] 52'22.91"E
                     (GPS)                     (GPS)

                     Increase in meters from position on
                     23rd December 2004
Date

23rd December 2004

12th October 2008    550 m

26th May 2009        670 m (a gain of 120 m since position on
                     12th October 2008)

Table 2. Ecosystem services provided by Ra's al-Khaimah's wetlands.

Service         Specific            Examples          Khor Muzahmi
categories      services                                (300 ha)

Provisioning   Food           Contribution to            [check]
                              local fisheries by
                              providing fish
                              nursery & spawning
                              grounds

Regulating     Climate        Production of oxygen       [check]
               regulation     and carbon             Mangrove area
                              sequestration in           1.2 ha.
                              mangroves, as well
                              as carbon
                              incorporated into
                              mollusc and tubeworm
                              (polychaete) shells
                              and also directly as
                              calcium carbonate in
                              formation of oolitic
                              sand and beach
                              rock--all

               Water          Mangroves role in          [check]
               purification   retention & removal
                              of excess nutrients
                              & pollutants

               Erosion        Retention of soils         [check]
               regulation     & sediments

Cultural       Recreation &   Potential for              [check]
               tourism        recreational
                              activities -
                              birdwatching,
                              kayaking etc.

               Aesthetic,     People find beauty,       [check]
               landscape &    inspiration and          Scenic view
               heritage       relaxation             from high dunes
               value                                   overlooking
                                                         wetland

               Education      Opportunities for          [check]
                              raising awareness,       High dunes
                              education, training,     overlooking
                              research                wetland would
                                                     suit education
                                                       viewpoint.

Supporting     Nutrient       Storage, recycling,        [check]
               recycling      processing of
                              nutrients e.g. role
                              of crabs in
                              processing detritus

               Pollination    Habitat for                [check]
                              pollinators

Service         Specific       Khor Ra's al-       Khor Julfar
categories      services      Khaimah (410 ha)       (227 ha)

Provisioning   Food               [check]            [check]

Regulating     Climate            [check]            [check]
               regulation      Mangrove area      Mangrove area
                                   230 ha             0.7 ha

               Water              [check]            [check]
               purification

               Erosion            [check]            [check]
               regulation

Cultural       Recreation &       [check]            [check]
               tourism

               Aesthetic,         [check]            [check]
               landscape &    Scenic view from     Scenic view
               heritage         corniche, &       from shoreline
               value          surrounding high
                                    rise
                                developments

               Education          [check]            [check]
                                 Education       Combination with
                              potential in the   heritage tourism
                                heart of the       potential at
                                city, easily          Julfar
                               accessible to     historical site
                              local schools &
                                  visitors

Supporting     Nutrient           [check]            [check]
               recycling

               Pollination        [check]            [check]

Service         Specific       Khor Hulaylah
categories       services         (676 ha)

Provisioning   Food               [check]

Regulating     Climate            [check]
               regulation      Mangrove area
                                   167 ha

               Water              [check]
               purification

               Erosion            [check]
               regulation

Cultural       Recreation &       [check]
               tourism

               Aesthetic,         [check]
               landscape &      Dramatic mountain
               heritage       backdrop; traditional
               value             fishing harbour
                               & strong cultural
                                  connection

               Education          [check]
                              Related to coastal
                              wetlands, salt marsh,
                              traditional fishing
                               history and local
                                 pearl project

Supporting     Nutrient           [check]
               recycling

               Pollination        [check]

(adapted from MEA, 2005)

Table 3. Wetlands of Ra's al-Khaimah: other properties & values.

Value                     Khor Muzahmi          Khor Ra's al-Khaimah
                            (300 ha)                  (410 ha)

Stopover feeding             [check]                  [check]
& resting site for
migrating birds

Notable                      [check]                  [check]
biodiversity         * Greater Flamingo;       * Greater Flamingo;
                     * Crab Plover;            Confirmed presence of
                     ** Turtle nesting site    Mangrove crab Scylla
                     on outer sand bar;        serrata;
                     Tens of thousands of      Sea snail (darkly
                     Socotra Cormorant         speckled through
                     roosting on outer         transparent shell) and
                     sand bar between          tiny orange version,
                     April- August.            both Haminoea sp.

Archaeology value               --                    [check]
                                               Shell middens &
                                               pottery sherds on the
                                               sand island of Nad Abu
                                               Tabl provide evidence
                                               of past occupation

Geodiversity /               [check]                  [check]
geomorphology/       Dynamic outer sand bar;   Prominent sand dune of
hydrological         high sand dunes an        Nad Abu Tabl forming
diversity            ancient geological        the most northerly
                     feature with prominent    extension of RAK's
                     depositional layers       sand desert.
                     evident; sandstone
                     pavement on two islands

Value                     Khor Julfar              Khor Hulaylah
                            (227 ha)                  (676 ha)

Stopover feeding             [check]                  [check]
& resting site for
migrating birds

Notable                      [check]                  [check]
biodiversity         * Greater Flamingo;       * Greater Flamingo;
                     ** Turtle nesting;        * Crab Plover; diverse
                     Bulla arabica (type       marine sponges; large
                     locaility); Rare plants   areas of sea grass;
                     Mesembryanthemum          corals & reef fish on
                     nodiflorum and Limonium   outer breakwater;
                     carnosum; Sea grass       ** turtle nesting on
                     beds; Sea snail (darkly   Hulaylah Island;
                     speckled through          Mangrove crab Scylla
                     transparent shell) of     serrata; pearl oyster
                     Haminoea sp.              Pinctada radiata

Archaeology value            [check]                  [check]
                     Ancient port of Julfar    Settlement structures,
                     is an integral part of    shell middens, pottery
                     the lagoon on the south   sherds and ceramic
                     east bank.                fragments are evidence
                                               of 1,400 years of
                                               settlement history

Geodiversity /              [check]                   [check]
geomorphology/       Sand bar and lagoon       Protective barrier
hydrological         system                    island; sandstone
diversity                                      pavement & cliffs;
                                               salt marsh habitat;
                                               brackish springs/
                                               see pages

* these are 'flagship species' which have great symbolic and
awareness raising value

** Green turtle is listed as Endangered, and Hawksbill Turtle as
Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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Date:Jan 1, 2012
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