Following the Flamingos in Dubai…

... Right into the heart of the city's urban jungle.  
Greater flamingos take flight at Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai. Photo by: KARIM SAHIB/Contributor/Getty Images

A winter trip to Sewri—a suburb in eastern Mumbai—to spot lesser flamingos, was an eagerly awaited family event, until we had to move to Dubai last September. At the Sewri mudflats, arriving early is the key to snagging a vantage point, or else you have to stand on tiptoes and crane your neck to get a glimpse of the magnificent birds over a multitude of heads.  As I left my city behind, I rued not having watched my daughter squeal in delight as she peered at these pink beauties through binoculars. Little did I know that Dubai, a glistening metropolis, had a secret within its folds. If Mumbai’s flamingos are flanked by the smoke-spewing chimneys of factories in the distance, the birds in Dubai can be seen against the contrasting backdrop of the city’s jagged skyline. But therein ends the similarity.

While Mumbai’s flamingos grapple with a bleak future, their counterparts in Dubai’s Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary await a brighter one, owing to successful conservation efforts. In 2007, the sanctuary was internationally acknowledged under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty for the conservation of wetlands. Spread over an area of 620 hectares, the sanctuary consists of low-lying saline flats, intertidal and sand mudflats, lagoons and mangroves. Three bird reserves located at the fringe of the sanctuary draw thousands of visitors every year. Home to 450 species of fauna and 47 species of flora, Ras Al Khor’s key attraction during the cooler months are the groups of greater flamingos that descend here. The sanctuary is an important staging ground or feeding and resting area for migratory waterbirds along the East African-West Asian Flyway.

A viewing room, part of the sanctuary’s two accessible stations equipped with binoculars, allows visitors to get close to the majestic birds without disturbing them. The sound of cars in the distance and the site of construction cranes in the background make the view jarring, but that much more special. Oblivious to the world around, the long-necked beauties gracefully dip their beaks into the shallow waters to feed on polychete worms and other invertebrates. Closer to sunset, rows of pink legs march towards the mangroves in the distance. Some, lazy to walk amidst the crowd, take flight, flapping their large wings. Yet others stay on for one last nibble, turning their heads with tiny pink eyes to survey the scene, before calling it a day.

  • Chaitali Patel is the former Associate Editor, Special Projects at National Geographic Traveller India. She's partial to nature, history and the arts. She believes that every trip is as much a journey within as it is one outside.

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