The Mangrove Keepers

Gaar Adams

As Abu Dhabi continues its rapid expansion, an astonishing natural water-forest sways just meters offshore. Each day, a group of self-appointed guardians leads an unorthodox grassroots campaign to save this floating jungle.

Published September 17 at 4:17 am

I’m watching a lanky Filipino man stand on the edge of Abu Dhabi’s eastern highway, his clothes wet and matted against his gaunt frame. With a bag of clams dragging behind him — leaving a spotty trail of Gulf water in his wake — he squints against the harsh light of the roadside lampposts and darts across eight lanes of traffic. I look back toward the tangle of roots and leaves and seagrass along the shoreline from which he emerged just moments earlier. When I try to relocate his shadow on the other side of the highway amidst the inky darkness of the night, I can only hear the jangle of clams rattling together in his rucksack.

This is Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park. Running along the eastern shores of the United Arab Emirates’ capital city of one million people, this vast network of greenery forms an integral part of the city’s history, ecosystem, and survival. The roughly 70 square miles of mangroves – essentially, interlocking shrubs and short, saline-tolerant trees – that wave along the coast of the emirate provide a slew of critical services: habitat for juvenile tropical commercial fish, filtration for an astounding amount of carbon, protection against tsunamis, and security against devastating soil erosion. Unfortunately, mangroves increasingly struggle to jockey for position along the city’s booming coastline. And illegal clam digging is just the beginning.

That’s where Noukhada steps in. Half ecotourism group, half experienced paddlers with a keen amateur eye for nature, Noukhada has led kayak tours around Abu Dhabi’s mangroves for over four years – a lifetime in a city where dozens of high-rises are demolished each year to make way for even newer developments. And though the local coast guard patrols them and government entities study them, Noukhada ventures into these mangroves several times a day, witnessing the reality of their dire situation. Besieged by massive infrastructural and commercial development, marine dredging, and thrill seekers on destructive boats, Abu Dhabi’s mangroves are fighting for…

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Perhaps most surprisingly, Noukhada is aggressively and openly vocal — welcomed and celebrated in a country often maligned for its lack of openness. And with Noukhada, no one is immune – not even the coast guard meant to patrol the area. But the group’s founder didn’t originally intend for Noukhada to veer so far in this environmental direction.