Farewell Al Wabra

There’s forlornness in the air at Al Wabra.

It’s in the empty enclosures, the peeling paint, the concrete shells of abandoned, half-finished structures and it’s in Doctor Cromwell Purchase’s voice.

“An opportunity of a lifetime was lost here,” he says. “As far as I know, we were the only large endangered species breeding centre that bred every species we had males and females of, because the top specialists came here.”

Cromwell, Al Wabra’s South African director, has perhaps been out of his comfort zone for the past few months – knee-deep in paperwork, trying to secure new homes for hundreds of animals – many of them rare and endangered – after being told the centre was closing and before that news went public.

Al Wabra made world headlines by saving the Spix’s Macaw from extinction. The beautiful blue parrot was last seen in the wild in 2000 in the northern jungles of Brazil.

144 now exist in captivity, thanks to Al Wabra’s enormously successful breeding programme. 150 are needed to successfully release them back into the wild.

A dream Al Wabra will no longer be able to realise.

The centre had rather ignominious beginnings as a private collection of exotic animals belonging to the late Sheikh Saoud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani.

After Qatar signed Cites in 2001 restricting the trade of endangered animals, Sheikh Saoud turned his hobby farm into a breeding centre and conservation drive.

It housed around 2,000 animals from 90 rare and endangered species including all sorts of birds, gazelles, Arabian sand cats and monkeys. Some 200 people worked there.

Sheikh Saoud was very much loved. Donovan Boer worked at Al Wabra for two years and remembers the Sheikh jumping off a buggy to help capture an animal. “He was one of those sorts of guys, a very very cool man.”

But when Saoud died four years ago, the money dried up. His son did not share the dream of seeing the Spix’s Macaw back in the wild.

“It costs 1.5 million riyals a month to keep this place running,” says Cromwell. “It’s a black hole.”

“It costs in the ballpark of 10,000 riyals every two weeks to feed the parrots alone,” says Donovan who lead the Spix’s Macaw breeding programme. “Staff have had to beg and plead for money to pay salaries and buy food for animals.”

Donovan wanted this year, to break his record of hatching 16 spix’s chicks. He didn’t quite manage it.

“Al Wabra was left to children who don’t share the same passion for animals and the conservation behind it,” says Donovan. “I don’t want to speak out of turn, but it doesn’t bring in any wealth.”

But all is not lost for the Spix’s Macaw. The birds are being flown to Germany, to another breeding centre called ATCP in Berlin. Donovan and Cromwell are going too.

The birds each get a special harness in a wooden box so they’re neither standing nor sitting during the 6-hour flight. Donovan already had word that the first birds arrived safely.

A breeding pair of prehistoric-looking shoebill storks from Zambia will also go to ACTP, as will an immensely pleased-with-himself bird of paradise, which will be a teacher bird and have plenty of chances to show off his yellow bottom plumage.

The fate of the other animals is less certain.

The area is filled with the sound of rocks being smashed. Donovan says mining just beyond the animals’ enclosures has already begun. “It would never have happened back in the day,” he says, “due to the noise upsetting the animals. But now, it’s quick money.”

We walk past a skittish herd of gazelles. “You can see they are already in poor condition due to lack of food,” says Donovan.

It had been hoped the gazelles and other animals would go to a wildlife centre in Sharja, but with the blockade, it became impossible.

Sand cats, a species threatened with extinction, were eventually sent to a new breeding programme in Europe.

But the Somali Wild Asses face a bleaker future. Eaten almost to extinction in Somalia, the biggest genetic pool existed here and now they risk simply dying out. “I’ve got my feelers out,” says Cromwell who’s still hoping to rehome them, “we’ll see how things go.”

Sheikh Saoud’s son has agreed to keep on a few animals including a handful of cheetahs and a solitary kookaburra. He’s also keeping a giant tropical aviary with sprinklers to imitate rain. It’s home to two inquisitive gold-handed tamarind monkeys, a flock of glorious scarlet ibises and some spoonbills.

No-one is sure what’s happening to another enormous enclosure housing weird and wonderful plants including cycat palms more than 200 years old, each worth $50,000.

But Saoud’s dream is not entirely over. His family still own a piece of land in Brazil called Sheikh Saoud’s Preservation and although it’s estimated to be three years later than planned, the Spix’s Macaw will eventually be released back into the wild here.

Donovan was the last to leave Al Wabra. He carried with him six Spix’s chicks, which were too young to travel alone.

And with that, the species survives, but Qatar loses an extraordinary conservation project.

Laura Brennan

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