Watching Wild Antelope and Cheetahs on an Emirati Desert Island

Oct 4, 2019

Just off the coast of Abu Dhabi is an enchanting wildlife reserve with 8,000 years of human history. Jeninne Lee-St. John heads to a resort island where it’s hard to tell your sitting room from the savannah.

We pulled into a shady bosque, the mid-morning desert sun glinting through the branches. We turned down a lane and slowed to a crawl. “I think they should be just around here,” our guide, Mark Penfield, whispered from the front of the jeep. “They often like to hang out in this area at this time of day. But no promises.”

As if on cue, two cheetahs languidly rolled over each other on the other side of the tree just ahead, catching our attention. Everyone held their breath, eyes glued on the big cats. They nuzzled each other’s faces, spread their sinewy bodies back out on the ground in a sigh, and nestled their chins in their paws. After a couple of minutes, one got up, turned tail, and stalked calmly away through the trees in the other direction, tossing his head over his spotted shoulder as if to ask, “You coming with, bro?”

Once-extinct, now-thriving Arabian oryxes.

A remarkable scene for displaying the casual camaraderie of killer beasts in the wild, it was all the more so because we weren’t on an African safari. My dad and I were rolling through a wildlife reserve on an Emirati desert island, where a decade ago you wouldn’t have found any cheetahs and four decades prior, no trees either. Sir Bani Yas is an ingeniously fabricated recreation of a swath of arid climes, spanning Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East, that makes it hospitable terrain for all kinds of local and non-native animal species—plus adventure-seeking humans. Holding down the fort are three Anantara-run resorts oriented for, respectively, families, beach bums and safari enthusiasts, meaning the endless list of activities includes archery, wakeboarding and land sailing. For me, it meant that no matter where I rolled on the island, someone was ready to hand me a glass of crisp Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc as a peacock or three wandered into my peripheral vision.

What is this Xanadu straight out of Coleridge? It wasn’t built for the private indulgence of some vainglorious conqueror. Quite the opposite, rather: Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, established this once-empty salt-based island two-and-a-half hours west of Abu Dhabi city as a Royal Nature Reserve in 1971, with a mission of coaxing life back. Today, the 87 square kilometers are home to 16,000 animals of some 30 species— giraffes, ostriches, Barbary sheep, all manner of antelopes—some critically endangered or vulnerable to the wild. Thanks to the Sheikh’s vision, sand gazelles and the symbol of the UAE, the Arabian oryx, have come back from extinction.

Wildlife poolside at Al Sahel Villa Resort.

If that weren’t reason enough for a few days’ immersion, Sir Bani Yas sits at a historical crossroads, and over the millennia has been a launch point for explorers, a way station for pilgrims, and a bountiful base for fisherman. Evidence of human life as far back as 4000 B.C. has been found at nearly 40 archaeological sites. Perhaps the most fascinating is the Christian monastery from 600 A.D.—the only physical evidence of Christians in this part of Arabia before the advent of Islam. On my visit, they were building viewing platforms so guests can get a closer look at relics like the foundations of the nave, devotional crosses, oil lamps and cooking pots.

My dad and I stayed in Al Sahel Villa Resort, which he called “magical” and “really so cool” with alternating frequency. In the center of the wildlife park, it has only 30 standalone villas with thatched roofs and rammed-earth walls scattered about a savannah. Vegetation partly shields the villas from each other, but the priority here isn’t privacy so much as engagement—you can watch the peacocks and gazelles wandering around from your plunge pool. (Not to worry; anything remotely dangerous lives several discreet but electrified fences away.) Since we were there in the winter, though, we played naturalists from our deck chairs over morning coffee and cinnamon tea.

Raise the roof in a custom safari jeep.

One morning, my dad and I went horseback riding. As he kept telling the stable master, it was his first time on a horse since he was a kid in a petting zoo, and here he was like a kid again, grinning from ear to ear. “Well, this isn’t a place I ever thought we’d be together!” he proclaimed while trying to right his balance on his horse as it trotted down a sand dune. To be honest, neither had I. I had been nowhere close to prepared for how fantastical a place Sir Bani Yas would be—and how perfect a vacation it would be for him, lover of animals, student of history, devotee of the idea that the world is better as a melting pot. With Mark at the wheel, my dad and I saw the Muslim burial ground, got a primer in falconry, visited the date grove. We rattled down gullies where the hundreds of millions of years of mineral deposits created walls in swirling rainbows of reds and purples. At dinner, we immaturely dueled with teeny, spiced guinea fowl drumsticks in the pan-African Savannah Grill, then retreated to the spa to work the jeep- induced kinks out of our backs.

Once the conservationists had gotten the antelope populations up, Mark explained, they had to teach them to be antelopes again, if they were ever to successfully release them to the wild. They needed animal instinct; they needed fear. Hence, the cheetahs.

That cheetah who strolled off first was named Gibbs, and he was the alpha, but his brother Gabriel was a better hunter, so they made a good team. While female cheetahs are nomadic, males are territorial, but brothers tend to stick together (unless there’s a food shortage, in which case you’re likely to wind up in a nasty Cain-and-Abel situation). There was a third cheetah on the island, but he wasn’t exactly pals with Gibbs and Gabriel, so he kept to himself. The caretakers are looking for two or three lady cats to come in and breed with these boys. That’ll keep the prey on their toes, and force them to graze more evenly.

“It’s very easy to domesticate animals,” Mark said. “It’s very difficult to re-wild them.” Forty-five years ago, there were 30 trees on this island. There are now more than three million. In 1972, the Arabian oryx was hunted to extinction. In a couple of years, thanks in part to efforts on Sir Bani Yas, the species is likely to be upgraded from vulnerable status to near threatened. The re-wilding here seems well on track. Or, as my dad said, “really so cool.”

STAY

Al Sahel Villa Resort

Standalone villas, some with pools, on a plain in the wildlife reserve. doubles from US$306.

Al Yamm Villa Resort Beachfront

Private villas, some with pools, hugging a crescent of white shoreline. doubles from US$347.

Desert Island Resort & Spa

The most family-oriented of the options was once the guesthouse of Sheikh Zayed. doubles from US$153.

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